Engaging Memory – Tisha Be’av and the Western Wall

It’s all about memory. At least that’s how I see things right now, as I prepare for an interreligious summer school program on the role of memory in the religious life in a few weeks (spaces still available). Suddenly, it’s making sense; or more sense. Here’s what I learn, as I consider the upcoming day and the visit to the upcoming site of the Western Wall through the prism of memory:

Memory is multi-layered. We so often consider Tish’a Beav a time commemorating the destruction of the Temple. Yet, we commemorate multiple, interrelated and cyclically repeating events. The rabbis (Bavli Ta’anit 29a) see Tish’a Beav as the date when the spies rejected the land of Israel, leading to 40 years of wandering in the desert. Unnecessary and unjustified whining (בכיה של חנם) led to justified crying at the destruction. Of the first temple. And the second Temple. And then the expulsion from Spain. And later the attachment of the holocaust to the aggregate of memory of loss and suffering. We do not remember an event. We enter a space, a dimension, associated with memory. And this space has a drawing power that attaches more layers of meaning to it. Is there someone who is free of this dimension of pain and trauma in their conscious or subconscious mind? Memory, in this view is an opening up to a space we all share. The events we commemorate are gateways to a dimension of reality we all partake of.

Memory is multi-dimensional. We often think of memory as pointing to the past. But memory also points to the future. Tish’a Beav is as much a time of remembering prophecies of consolation, with each cycle of mourning and litany concluding with a recollection of a future promise. We could not remember the past were it not for our ability to recall the future. Our present moment receives its meaning by the simultaneous reaching out to past and future. A life lived in the present without roots in the memory of the past and the hope of the future is an empty life. Memory is a source of meaning.

Memory becomes presence. We tend to think of memory simply as recalling past events. True memory is engaging them, making them real, making them now. One expression of this is related to the site of the Temple and the Western Wall. The Wall is, on the one hand, the site of the destroyed Temple. But its special significance derives from the memory of the Divine presence that still resides there. One remembers the past, the building, the destruction. But one remembers God himself, or his Shekihnah, still present there. And this memory complements and balances memory of past with the Presence made present. I think were it not for the memory of God himself, the source and goal of all memory, we would not be able to tolerate all the dimensions of pain associated with memory. It is, by the same logic, divine presence that turns the memory of the Haggadah into a realization of the promise of a present redemption and that makes the memory of all festivals moments of meaning and realized experience in the present.

Memory changes meaning. We often fail to notice how the memorial content of a place or an event has shifted, as different layers have been added over time. Consider the Western Wall. Once the site of mourning due to absence – absence of Temple, absence of Israel from land, has become a site of celebration of presence – Israel’s presence back at the site that has since been transformed to a national center, symbol and holiest place. With the shift of meaning of the Wall we have witnessed, gradually and increasingly, a return to the Temple Mount itself as site of visit, longing and memory. If the Western Wall is a site of celebration, mourning returns to the Mountain.

Memory Leads to Contestation. Memory can be disputed. Because memory defines identify, the argument over identity, legitimacy, land and more, all lead to reconfiguring of memory. Muslim memory of the holy site has been altered to accommodate current political needs, thus leading to a conflict of memories over the Temple site. The way in which the Western Wall’s meaning has been transformed fuels ongoing contestation between different groups within Judaism seeking to affirm their legitimacy or exclusive legitimacy. The site of memory no longer serves its original purpose of yearning for God and His Temple. The battle of memory and its sites becomes a battle for present legitimacy.

Memory Seeks Healing. Much of the memory of the past is painful. Painful memory requires healing. It seeks healing. Or it seeks what John Paul II called “the purification of memory”. All that takes place on Tisha Be’av by way of repentance and mourning is a form of purification of memory, seeking to transform it from memory of pain and loss to source of hope. Healing finds expression in some of the basic lessons that have become common in relation to the day. If the Temple was destroyed due to unnecessary love, we must rebuild the future Temple, or our present society, through love and broad acceptance. This is a strategy for healing – of memory and of society. The ultimate strategy of healing is the proclamation that Messiah was born on Tisha Be’av. Hence, we remember not only the pain; we remember the hope, the promise and the ultimate healing of all the pain and suffering we have endured.

Memory is a deep structure of consciousness. The multiple dimensions play out in relation to Tisha Be’av. But they play out in relation to all of memory’s contents and the need to negotiate them wisely and in ways that contribute to individual and collective growth. No person can live without memory and no person can live without meaning. Deep engagement of the workings of memory, as they find one particular expression in relation to Tisha Be’av, is a reminder of the depth, complexity and hope that we all carry and aspire to as human beings.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.