“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” — Elie Wiesel
We’re in the time now between Thanksgiving and Chanukah, a time when American Jews sense two histories behind us, an American and a Jewish one. As the New York Times editorial page wrote on Thanksgiving, there’s no holiday in America that invites more people to the table, figuratively and literally, than Thanksgiving. The paper says “[a] child of Orthodox Jewish immigrants could feel his apartness on other festivals celebrated by the larger society. Christmas, Easter, Halloween . . . are inevitable reminders for some Americans that they are different.” Not so Thanksgiving, which Lincoln carved out in 1863.
If Thanksgiving induces a sense of belonging in the same measure as it doles out post-turkey-and-stuffing food-coma satiety, we also know for some it does just the opposite: many Native Americans don’t celebrate the holiday, and that too is part of the American story, what we must contemplate as we cut into the apple pie. Confronting painful truths doesn’t mean we love our country less, but that we understand that living here and now is a complex thing.
Complexity too accompanies the Festival of Lights. We are taught as children about the mighty Maccabees and their dauntless fight for right — for the right to practice their religion freely and in their homeland, in the Temple they built and then rededicate to God. The story has all the hallmarks of a compelling David-and-Goliath story: courageous, under-resourced warriors going up against the Man.
But then we grow up and confront the Talmud, Avoda Zara 8a, which describes the winter celebration of Adam, the first man, who, noticing the days growing shorter, becomes panicked, thinking that perhaps his sin has thrown the world into disorder, and the shortening days mean that the planet will plunge back into darkness and chaos.
Avoda Zara continues:
“Once [Adam] saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities. . . . “
What to make of this Festival of Lights?
In his book “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” Yehuda Kurtzer quotes a mishna in Hagiga:
“One may not expound the [laws of] forbidden nakedness in [a group of] three, nor the account of the Creation in two, nor the Chariot alone; unless he was wise and understanding of his own.
Anyone who looks at four things — is deserving to not have come into the world —what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who does not take compassion on the honor of the maker — is deserving not to have come into the world.”
Kurtzer explains that the mishna “is regulating the study of texts that the rabbis consider to be problematic and suggestive,” first doing so by limiting the number of people who discuss them, so that the small groups in which they learn the texts give them a community in which to process them without feeling alienated and divorced from tradition once they’ve done so.
The second part of the mishna seems to suggest that one should not foray too deeply into the realm of — of what, exactly, Kurtzer asks. “[A]re we talking about where we come from and where we are going, root causes and destinies, heaven and hell, what preceded God chronologically or spatially, what the heavenly realms look like . . . ?“ These deep theological questions might toss us into the despair that Adam, our first partaker of stolen knowledge, felt. These are questions from which it is not easy to emerge unscathed, and the rabbis know this.
It’s Kurtzer’s analysis of the last part of the mishna I find particularly illuminating, and comforting: We are told what to do when we confront truth and the divine. Kurtzer writes, “We are not told to grovel, to be fearful, to shield our eyes, to avoid the encounter . . . but rather to be compassionate and respectful. . . . In other words, our explorations and our knowledge lead us to stand face to face with truth and the divine. And we are judged not on the basis of that accomplishment but on how we act as a result of that encounter.”
Kurtzer points out that the rabbis lauded Rabbi Akiva, the one rabbi who remained unharmed from his encounter with truth and the divine, not for his journey to the heart of knowledge, but for his decision to behave with “compassionate awe” when he did so. “Awe is a stance, a voluntary decision to act with compassion upon seeing exposed that which we cherish and value. This is why awe of the heavenly realms — yir’at shamayim — is the one behavior that heaven cannot command. . . .”
Becoming an adult necessitates encountering truth. We all at some point eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and what we see cannot be unseen. As post-Enlightenment people, we’re especially conditioned to search for answers in a rational, logical, and unflinching manner. And yet there is a kind of loss, a loss that can toss us into a sea of existential angst, when we confront truth too forcibly. It can unmoor us, leaving us confused about who we are, what we stand for, and what the future means.
As Americans, we’re all probably feeling a bit unmoored these days, as we rethink the past and wonder what to make of historical figures we learned about as children. Is it possible we were taught wrongly, that we heard, told, and experienced a different tale than did someone else in the same country? What happens if we discover that a national myth has been mythic not in the sense of grand and great, but in the sense of wrong, false, cruel, and ugly?
Kurtzer’s exhortation to be compassionate with the truth is useful here, and another story illustrates that point as well. After the flood, in Genesis 9:18-27, Noah and his sons emerge from the ark, at which point Noah, “a tiller of the soil,” immediately plants a vineyard, makes wine, and gets drunk. In his drunken state, he becomes naked, and his son Canaan enters his father’s tent and goes outside to tell his brothers what he’s seen. Shem and Japheth grab a cloak, turn around so they do not see their father, and cover him up.
For my son’s bar mitzvah, Parashat Noach 2008, my husband traced the connections among knowledge, grapes/wine, and drunkenness. Like wine, knowledge can lead to an enlightened state and also make you drunk on the power of what you think you know. Noah’s “enlightened state” leads to a lack of consciousness, so that he doesn’t see what his children see, his own nakedness — a truth he has exposed? Sin? Both? And it is the children who turn their backs so they do not see their father. They’ve adopted what Kurtzer might say is the compassion we should have for our fathers, for our past, and for what came before.
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t acknowledge or see the sins of our past, but rather that we need to be careful with what we do with our knowledge.
In America today, we sorely need our myths, and Thanksgiving is one of the more salient ones; the notion that this is a country where all men and women are created equal is still crucial to the future of our democracy, even if we know and work to undo the ugliness that lies behind our national epic. As Lin-Manuel Miranda raps in Hamilton, “America” is a “great, unfinished symphony.”
The story of Adam and the first Festival of Lights also plays with the idea of the world’s being in an unfinished state. The story shows us we gain knowledge at a price, sometimes as a result of our own sins, but we don’t shy away from what we’ve done. We light candles, mirroring God in His creation of light and showing Him that despite our imperfections, we approach the world wanting to light it up, not plunge it into further darkness.
History doesn’t necessarily ask anything of us — Kurtzer points out that it’s more of an academic subject — but memory, which Judaism values greatly, does. The film Woman in Gold, which my family and I watched over Thanksgiving weekend, is about the return of Gustav Klimt’s painting of the Jewess Adele Bloch-Bauer to her niece Maria Altmann, who fled Nazi-occupied Austria. A fellow Jew of Austrian descent — Randy Schoenberg, the grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg — is the lawyer she hires to fight for the painting of her aunt, and he argues to the Austrians: The past is asking something of the present. Justice.
At the Idea School open house, the sessions we prepared for students and parents who attended were centered around a question — what is memory? Jews are supposed to remember six things on a daily basis — the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, Amalek, the Golden Calf, Miriam and her words against Moses, and the Sabbath. (We can analyze why these six events another time, and since this is Judaism, don’t be shocked to discover that there’s another opinion that says we should remember ten incidents.) As the education committee prepared for the session on these Six Remembrances, we discussed what it was that Judaism was asking us to do. None of us thought that we were simply being asked to remember, but, as Schoenberg asserts, that the past is reaching out and asking something of us. Kurtzer writes: “History liberates. Memory obligates.”
As Americans, we love to celebrate our liberty, and I think we sense that history demands something of us, asks that we honor and continue to build on the ideals on which this country was founded.
As Jews, we know we’re obligated to do more than celebrate events. The act of lighting candles is more than just a cute commemoration of a feel-good holiday. It’s the fulfillment of a deep commandment: Where there is darkness, we are Adam looking out from it, saying hineini, we are here. With compassion, with our fear of God, we are here.