I am a Zachor Jew – How about you?

“שמור וזכור בדיבור אחד” (Observe and Remember in one Commandment).

From the ‘Lecha Dodi’ sung at Friday night services in many communities.)

A significant (for me) encounter with Israeli headteachers – Shortly before Pesach 2019, I was invited to speak to a group of Israeli headteachers on a working visit to London run by the Jerusalem based Gesher Leadership Institute.

I was speaking to them in Hebrew about the different denominations within British Jewry when one of them asked me “Tagid, Ata Shomer Shabbat?”(Tell me, are you Shabbat observant?). I tend to stumble over that question. It seems ridiculous to answer accurately “We celebrate Shabbat in the traditional with candles, Kiddush and Challah and a Kosher meal, and I go to Synagogue every Shabbat, but we are not strictly observant with regards to electricity, however we do not go shopping or out to restaurants…”

What is it to be Shomer/et Shabbat?

‘Shomer Shabbat’ or ‘Shomeret’ in feminine, is shorthand for a specific type of Jewish self-definition. It can mean in English ‘keep’, “observe”, or ‘guard’. Having been Orthodox for about 10 years, it was a term I used comfortably in those days (In some communities, the preference is to use the Ashkenazi/Yiddish sounding ‘Shomer Shabbas’). But when I ceased to be halachically observant over 30 years ago, I could no longer ‘own’ that definition.  I certainly appreciate and respect that there are many people who feel comfortable identifying themselves as Shomrei (plural) Shabbat within their religious framework without feeling the need to explain how they interpret it. However, due to my religious past and current self-understanding, the term is loaded in such a way that it would be misleading to reclaim it.

To declare oneself as “Shomer/et Shabbat” is usually to associate with a wide range of behaviours and attitudes that place you either side of a divide that sees Halacha(Jewish law- usually Orthodox style) as the defining paradigm of how one should be a Jew in the world. It is not only about being ‘Observant’. To be Shomer/et Shabbat is to identify with a Hashkafa(a world view) that has its own values, hierarchies and norms which deeply affect how adherents look at the world, the Jewish people and Israel. It is a shorthand that reflects deeply held beliefs and attitudes.

However, its explicit reference to the Fourth Commandment (Deuteronomy 5:12) – “Observethe Sabbath Day” – tells only half the story. This article suggests the need to elevate the first version of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8) which commands us to RememberShabbat.[i]It is not widely known outside of more Torah literate circles that this commandment appears differently in the two Torah texts and it is to this alternative version that I now wish to draw attention and embrace.

Haym Soloveitchik’s important paperRupture and Reconstruction explicitly details how following the Shoah, Ashkenazi Orthodox Judaism[ii], devoid of a sufficient living tradition was forced back to the “Text” to help rebuild displaced communities in new settings outside of the European milieu where they had been nurtured. This goes some way to explaining how the Shamor model (or its rejection) came to dominate the agenda. It also explains how the Sephardi tradition was less influenced by this turn to a ‘Shamor’ model until it too became influenced by trends, mostly in Israel.

I am a Zocher Shabbat Jew

Back to the Gesher Group of Head Teachers. I said to them that I am Zocher Shabbat(In English, either ‘I remember Shabbat’ or ‘I am a rememberer of Shabbat’). For this group of native Hebrew speakers and educators, particularly the more secular ones, this response carried a punch that was greater than I expected. I heard brains ticking in the room thinking about the implications of my response and then many (not all) heads started to nod in understanding.

I wish to promote the use of Zocher(et), for people who want to explain to themselves and others, a way of being a Jew that does not automatically trigger a connection to Halacha – (or its rejection) as its defining feature. The Hebrew root ז-כ-ר  (Z-Ch-R)[iii]builds words such as Memory/Remember/Memorial. This paradigm is deeply embedded in Jewish culture and tradition, and may suit many of us who are deeply engaged in Jewish life both in Israel and Jewish communities around the world but are not Halachically observant (in an Orthodox sense, and even perhaps, some who are).

While the question about Shabbat observance, served as the trigger for this article, I apply a similar logic to Kashrut, Festivals and other aspects of Jewish life, including the relationship with Israel. Shamor (Observe), emphasises the legalistic aspects of being a Jew as the critical way to serve God and to maintain a religious tradition. Zachor (Remember) places the emphasis on sustaining ourselves as a people in all our different expressions of identity and compels us to do what we must to ensure we live significant (Jewish) lives and transmit that commitment to future generations. It shifts the focus away from the observance of Halacha and on to a paradigm of Jewish living that embraces multiple aspects of identity and commitment.

Some important sources

Much of my thinking about the Hebrew word for ‘Memory’ has been inspired by three sources that continue to resonate years after I first encountered them. The first is Yosef Yerushalmi’s masterpiece ‘Zakhor’, which explores the ambiguous relationship that ancient and medieval Jews had to history as a discipline. He contrasts historical study with memory and examines how traditionally, Jews have long cultivated memory as a way of exploring their relationship with God through our festivals, prayers and rituals.

The second source is Berl Katznelson’s essay, Tradition and Revolution (1935):

‘Man (sic) is endowed with two faculties: memory and forgetting. We cannot live without both. Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed beneath its burden and would become slaves to our memories, to our ancestry. Our physiognomy would then be a mere copy of preceding generations. And were we ruled entirely by forgetting, what place would there be for culture, science, self-consciousness, and spiritual life? Arch-conservatism tries to deprive us of our faculty for forgetting, and pseudo-revolutionism regards each remembrance of the past as the enemy.’

Katznelson urges the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine not to reject all Jewish tradition in their development of the new (secular) ‘Hebrew’ man and woman, but rather to review critically the ‘baggage’ they have inherited and adapt it to their new reality.

And thirdly, I acknowledge the influence of my mentor Avraham Infeld, the founder of Melitzwhose informal Jewish education vision has inspired many thousands of Jews and others in Israel and around the world. You can read his recently published book (written together with Clare Goldwater) Passion for a People, published in both Hebrew and English editions.

Infeld arguesthat Jews do not have history, which he too sees as a detached, academic discipline. Instead, we have memory which is live, active and implicates us in all we do. He teases his students by recalling the story of the Knesset Member Shulamit Aloni, telling the Rabbis in the Knesset how she ‘remembers’ them as they stood together at Sinai to receive Torah, even if it never took place.

It is noteworthy that there is no original Hebrew word for ‘history’ and so modern Hebrew uses the Greek root ‘Historia’ instead. Hebrew does have ‘Toldot’ which is often translated as ‘Generations’ and also ‘Divrei Hayamim’, which usually translate as ‘Chronicles’. However, the word ‘Memory’ exists throughout our scriptures and liturgy; and it can allow us to (re)construct a Judaism that is faithful to tradition, without being obligated by Halacha as so many of us neither wish nor feel capable of doing.

Balancing out Shamor with Zachor

My concern with the ‘Shamor’ paradigm is that it sees Halacha as the central framework through which to live a Jewish life. It has been a tremendous success on some levels, and a great failure on others. Its success is both ideological and demographic. A great many Jews identify as Shomrei Mitzvot and have built the institutions that develop this way of living. But a large majority of Jews are not compelled by the ‘Shamor’ model and are not likely to change their minds.

Many modern thinkers and activists have highlighted the centrality of Memory to Jewish life. My contention is that we now need to actively promote being Zachor Jews to bolster the very large number of us who are neither ‘Halachic’ nor on a path to assimilation. We need to articulate an alternative paradigm of Judaism that will speak to Jews who do not feel obligated by Halacha, but nor do they find a comfortable place, (only) in alternative Jewish religious frameworks. We are fundamentally committed to being Jewish and may find the Zachor narrative as a far more useful framework to express our Judaism in a myriad of ways.

Many Jews who are Shomrei Mitzvot will argue that by being “Shomer/et” they are accounting for Zachor as well and indeed they express this daily in the liturgy and in their study and practice. But it is the reality of our contemporary Jewish world that the word Shamor is used to define themselves, and not Zachor. It is also noteworthy that in both Israel and the Diaspora, many young people are leaving Orthodoxy or pushing its boundaries to breaking point.

My own version of being a Zachor Jew is to place Memory at the core of my Judaism and Zionism, as well as being committed to a wide range of practices, fields of study and ideological commitments that are both substantive, and transmittable from Dor L’Dor(Generation to Generation). The term Zachor liberates me from living my Jewish life in relation to the Shamor paradigm and simultaneously requires me to construct my Jewish life with as much integrity as possible.

Zachor and non-Orthodox denominations

I am an active member of a Masorti (Conservative) community in London and have been equally active in similar communities in the States and Israel. I am proud to self-identify as a Masorti Jew, but it is an organisational and cultural affiliation rather than a theological one.  I remember people in the United States telling me they are “very Reform”, by which they actually meant that they were not at all engaged with Judaism. I took umbrage on behalf of the many serious Reform Jews I know.

Being a “Zachor Jew” seeks to promote a way of being in the Jewish world that is not dependant on denominational belonging, but does not dismiss it either. This is not a theological statement as the God question is one on which I take no position. There are multiple ways to both believe and not believe in God and I am grateful to the Jerusalem based educator, Dr Debbie Weissman who once told me “To be a Jew is to believe in one God or less”.

There is great merit in a ritual-based tradition and I am sceptical of versions of Judaism that entirely dismiss the importance of Halacha and tradition in favour of a Social Justice vision that comes across as universalism enveloped with Jewish symbols.

 I am not suggesting that being a Zachor Jew is alternative denomination. I hope there are many Jews of all denominations (and none) who will identify with the paradigm.  It is instead an approach which does not seek to define Jewish life specifically in terms of an organised religious set of categories.

Gender issues are often magnified by the focus on Shamor and here too, thinking about Zachor may open up new avenues for Jews to consider how women and LGBT communities can find a proper place at the table.

Jewish Peoplehood

Over the last 20 years the Jewish Peoplehood concept has been proposed as a way of influencing how liberal Jewish educators and policy makers (largely in Israel and North America) think about their work in education and community building away from either a Halachic or an old-school Zionist approach. I am in broad agreement with its approach and it has elements in common with the Zachor approach. It has suffered from not having a natural parallel word in Hebrew. עמיות(Amiyut) from the Hebrew for People (Am) is an artificial construct that has not caught the imagination. Perhaps the word itself has been unsuccessful even if much of the thinking and policy suggestions that have emerged, are very significant.

Zachor and Zionism/Israel

The Zachor paradigm may also enable a constructive way for both Israelis and Diaspora Jews to think about Zionism and Israel in an era where here too, the moderate centre is in retreat.

The new research on Israeli Judaism by Rosner and Fuchs and Slepkov points to the declining strength of a staunchly secular Israeli identity and the strengthening of the traditional/nationalist one. One can only speculate whether a focus on Zachor would create both a better focus for identity than ‘secular’ and also a bridge to more traditional Jewish Israelis who are nevertheless not living Halachic/Shamor lives.

I indeed take issue with the outdated, (but still articulated) secular Israeli argument that living in Israel replaces the need to engage with Jewish tradition and culture. To be sure, being a worthy Jewish-Israeli citizen does not require any such engagement. Modern Israeli culture is vibrant and thriving, and includes the appropriation of many Jewish traditions in a national framework. Nevertheless, to argue that just being a Jew in Israel is somehow sufficient to continue and develop the heritage that we have all inherited, has outlived its usefulness in an era where being a mature society requires more complex definitions.

Additionally, among some elements of Israeli society, the “othering” of Arabs and non-Orthodox Jews, is a worrying phenomenon. There are significant Orthodox people and institutions in Israel also deeply worried by these trends. See for example Rabbi Seth Farber at Itimon Religious matters and Leah Shakdiel and Rabbi Michael Melchior on both political and religious ones.

Applying the Zachor paradigm to Zionism and Israel, may offer an alternative approach to Zionism as well as to Judaism for those Israelis looking for a language to help them reclaim a Judaism with which they can identify. It similarly provides a framework for Diaspora Jews to engage intelligently with Israel, without being forced into the extremes of ultra-nationalism or anti-Zionism. In fact, I think most Israelis and Diaspora Jews sit in this middle position, but are lacking the drive to express this position with authority.

Being a Zachor Jew demands that I identify strongly with the people of Israel and seek to partner there with allies with whom I share values. In the many years that I lived in Israel, I engaged substantively with Jews in the Diaspora. Similarly, I am responsible for Jews all over the world. Being a Zocher Jew means being willing to work with any other Jew who will work with me. It also means engaging seriously with the non-Jewish world and with Arab citizens of Israel as much as Jewish ones, wherever one may live. Being a Zocher Jew, means helping to build a Jewish-Democratic state that is socially cohesive, and not only a Jewish Homeland.

Life as a Zachor Jew

The Zachor paradigm offers a (re)newed model of engagement with Judaism, the Jewish People and Israel that may help reconnect people with an approach that can invigorate people and communities. To be a Zocher/et Jew is to engage with Judaism on intellectual, cultural, traditional, ethnic, communal and national ways, without being required to either adhere to, or reject, a religious/halachic paradigm. To be a Zachor Jew is not to belong to a distinct denomination. It is to celebrate a multifaceted identity that explains who we are and why being a Jew is so central to our lives.

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand asks me how will we know if Zachor Judaism can be successfully transmitted to the next generation?  I think this challenge is applicable to all branches of the Jewish people who do not live in rigid Halachic communities, and even to increasing numbers of those who do. All significant communities require serious work to sustain themselves[iv] within whichever denomination or geographic region they function. I see remarkable pockets of dynamic Jewish communities all over the world who live as Zachor Jews even if the term is not used. The reflection on my identity using the Zachor paradigm both defines me and motivates me. It is a world-view (Hashkafa) that implicates me in assuming my share of responsibility for the Jewish future.

My way of being a Zachor Jew relies quite heavily on tradition without being Halachic. It requires me to be constantly reading Jewish books – history, literature, sociology, philosophy etc. It requires me to volunteer for Jewish organisations (and also in my case to work for them). I also choose to go to synagogue, particularly to hear the Torah service and to mingle with other Jews who attend. The rhythms of the Jewish calendar frame my year, month and week allowing multiple opportunities to celebrate and commemorate.

I hope these ideas speak to those of us in Israel and all over the Jewish world, who are deeply committed to the Jewish People, Judaism and Israel, but require old/new language to articulate what drives us. Being a Zachor Jew links us to the tradition by requiring us to remember what Judaism and Jews stood for in earlier times. It then requires us to use this heritage to maximise our impact on Jewish civilisation and the wider world today. Finally, it compels us to ensure that the next generation will have the tools and resources to inherit and transform Jewish life in their own time and place.


There is a great deal more to be written about these ideas and I invite feedback to help sharpen the arguments and take the conversation further.


[i]. On Friday nights, it is traditional in many synagogues  to sing Lecha Dodi, a Piyut (liturgical poem) composed by the Kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetzin 16th century Tsfat. One line of the poem is inspired by a famous Midrash from the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmaelwhich states in its commentary of the Ten Commandments that

שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד

(Remember” and Observe the Sabbath day to sanctify it were) both stated in one pronouncement.)

The line we actually sing in the Lecha Dodi poem is “שמור וזכור בדיבור אחד” (observe and remember in one commandment). This is because in the Exodus version (20:8) of the Commandments we are told to:זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ (Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy) but in Deuteronomy (5:12) the instruction isשָׁמ֣֛וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם֩ הַשַׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ  (Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy).

[ii]Several Sephardi and other non-Ashkenazi communities were severely affected by the Shoah, such as in Greece, Italy parts of North Africa, but Sepahrdi Jewry was spared wholesale destruction.

[iii]I was reminded by Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris, the Principal of Leo Baeck College in London that the root Z-Ch-R is identical to the root meaning ‘Male’ and I need to be conscious not to allow the notion of Zachorto be defined only in masculine language. The English word ‘HIS-tory” suffers from this same problem and HER-itage is often suggested as a counterweight. I am open to suggestions for a Hebrew equivalent, maybe Morasha? But I am drawn to the Z-Ch-R root as it is so strongly linked to Sh-M-R in the 4thCommandment.

[iv]Rabbi Boyd-Gelfand drew my attention to Dennis Prager’s 1988 article entitled Beyond Orthodox Reform and Conservative: Aspiring to Be a Serious Jew. Volume 4 Number 3 which makes this point effectively.

About the Author
Michael grew up in London and has lived and worked in Israel, the USA and the UK. His served as Chief Executive of the UJIA (UK) until 2019. Previous roles include Executive Director of Melitz in Jerusalem and Director of Jewish Education at the Baltimore JCCs. Michael is a graduate of the Mandel Jerusalem Fellows programme, where his research focused on public policy. He holds a Masters degree in Contemporary Jewry from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Michael is now a Consultant specialising in Fundraising, Strategic Planning and Education.
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