The Importance of Memory: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I read in shul.

Though my father wouldn’t have approved, it minimizes my talking during services and helps me keep up with once-inaccessible material that now is available with a simple click or two.

My weekly shul reading includes articles only on Jewish topics from sources ranging from the Times of Israel, the Forward, and the New York Jewish Week to the Lehrhaus website (highly recommended to those interested in what Modern Orthodox intellectuals — especially young ones — are thinking), to academic journals that embrace footnotes, to the Seforim blog (and especially Marc Shapiro’s almost stream-of-consciousness but always fascinating musings), and even to the Wall Street Journal (so I’ll know what the other side is thinking).

But there always are four regulars: The Israel Report (thanks to Murray Sragow for understanding, unlike Fox News, what “fair and balanced” really means); the original typescript of a Rabbi Norman Lamm sermon with his handwritten editorial revisions (the only homiletics course any rabbinical student will ever need); a weekly Torah portion commentary from the Hadar Institute (originally written by Rabbi Shai Held and recently compiled into book form entitled “Heart of Torah” — buy it!; now written by Dena Weiss); and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s weekly Covenant and Conversation (C&C) essay on the parsha.

I first started reading C&C the week after Rabbi Sacks served as scholar-in-residence at our synagogue a number of years ago, packed the house to overflowing, and simply blew us all away with his powerful oratory, wit, and substance. And if I were to rate his weekly C&C essays, I find that out of every four one is spectacular, two range from very, very good to excellent, and one is good to very good (usually very good).

There’s no C&C on Yom Tov or the Yomin Nora’im, but this year Rabbi Sacks posted a transcript of a talk he gave titled “Why the World Needs Rosh Hashanah.” Like his C&C essays, it was eloquent, erudite, and enlightening, and, indeed, much of it resonated with me. But not all of it.

Rabbi Sacks spoke about a “thesis” he recently tested in a series of BBC discussions; namely, “that for the past 50 years the West has been engaged in a fateful experiment: that we can do without a shared moral code. Words that once guided us — like ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘ought,’ ‘should,’ ‘duty,’ ‘obligation,’ ‘loyalty,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘honour’ — now have an antiquated air about them, as if they come from an age long dead.

“Instead, we’ve outsourced morality to the market and the state. The market gives us choices; the state deals with the consequences; but neither passes any kind of judgment on those choices. So long as we don’t directly harm anyone else, we are free to do whatever we like.

“This was experienced at the time as a huge liberation. We were freer to be whatever we choose to be than humans have ever been before. But we can now count the costs in broken families, loss of community, a rise in depression, teenage suicides and loneliness, a loss of trust in big corporations and governments, the new tribalism of identity politics, and the vitriol that passes for communication on the internet…. The result, in contemporary terms, is irresponsible banks, greedy corporations, exploitative politics, sexual predators, and neglected children. There’s nothing in our nature to make the rich care for the poor, or the powerful for the powerless.”

Rabbi Sacks strongly implies that the problems he refers to were not present when the West purportedly was governed by the lofty words and values he puts in quotes. I don’t disagree, of course, that we have many serious problems today, including those listed by Rabbi Sacks. In many ways, therefore, Rabbi Sacks’s analysis is on point.

But to someone like me, who has vivid recollections of society 50 and 60 years ago (and am quite knowledgeable about the previous decades as well), Rabbi Sacks’s version strikes me as a glorification of a history that is belied by reality.

Is it only now that we have greedy corporations we’ve lost trust in? What about those corporations of years past that spewed toxins into our rivers and carcinogens into our air, and knowingly lied to us hundreds — make that thousands — of times every day on every medium that cigarettes are good for us, resulting in untold illness and death? Or electric companies that violated criminal laws by  secretly setting prices, and when they finally were caught, were amazed that criminal penalties had been imposed?

Sexual predators? “Mad Men” quite accurately depicted how women were treated (read harassed) in the 1950s and 60s and earlier, a time when marital rape also was condoned. And “casting couch auditions” go back to the beginning of cinema.

Neglected children? I remember the ways in which many special needs children were treated when I was young: receiving no schooling or useful therapy and hidden at home behind closed doors in communities that found it easier to pretend they didn’t exist, or warehoused in prison-like state institutions.

As for caring for the poor or powerless, ever hear of Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, depriving African Americans of even a modicum of justice in an inaptly named justice system, or of those poor and powerless who gave their lives fighting against these injustices?

Right, wrong, ought, should, duty, obligation, loyalty, virtue, and honour apparently didn’t work that well in many important areas before the new morality experiment began. Rather, the old “moral code” gave us much to be ashamed of.

Moreover, there have been serious improvements in the last 50 years under the new morality, and I’m not talking only about cleaner air and water. (I can’t remember the last smog warning I heard on the radio.) To take a few examples, disabled people have all sorts of access, opportunities, protections, and guaranteed rights they never had before; special education teachers and therapists help their clients maximize their individual potentials; those whose sexual orientation is different aren’t jailed and, indeed, have been granted legal rights and protections; fewer Americans are deprived of their constitutional rights, including their precious right to vote (though that’s being put into danger but not by any new morality); casual racism is on the wane (though, unfortunately, it hasn’t been eliminated in our Jewish community).

Similarly, I have an uncomfortable feeling when I hear the phrase “greatest generation” applied to the WWII generation. I have no doubt that many of that generation showed immense courage in fighting bravely for freedom in Europe and the Pacific — including my Uncle Moshe, who lost his life off Normandy in the D-Day invasion, and my Uncle Chaim, who received a Bronze Star for heroic achievement in the Battle of the Bulge. And for that they deserve great praise and our deepest appreciation.

But let’s be honest about our history.

Unfortunately, too many of those heroes came home and fought on our shores — not bravely at all — against freedom for some of their fellow citizens. So were they really the greatest generation? Were they greater than the generation of the Freedom Riders? Or those who tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were beaten within an inch of their lives? Or of those who sat in at the Woolworth counters, where they were debased and degraded?

Were they greater than the generation of the children — yes, children — who were jailed for marching and protesting, who were spit upon and threatened for, of all things, trying to go to school, and who were bombed while praying in church? Were they greater than the generation of those who risked their lives (and sometimes tragically lost their lives — remember Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman) in attempting to register African Americans to vote?

And finally, let me turn to our own community. Immigration is an incredibly complex issue in our country, a problem that continues to engender great emotion and debate. But one comment I’ve seen many times on social media by members of the Jewish community is problematic. It goes something like this: I know we’re a nation of immigrants and I’m all for legal immigration. But as for the illegal immigrants, why can’t they do it legally, like our grandparents did?

That seems to be a fair question except for one disturbing historical fact: From 1924, when the first racial quota immigration law was enacted, until 1965, Jewish illegal immigrants to the United States numbered in the tens of thousands, possibly higher. (“After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965” by Libby Garland.) And in the context of the current debate, we sometimes tend to forget the tragic fates of those who were denied legal immigration and did not resort to illegality (e.g., the Frank family or the passengers on the St. Louis).

One of the perhaps most overused aphorisms regarding the past is philosopher George Santayana’s statement that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it’s overused because it teaches an important lesson; one that is valid, however, only if we are remembering what actually happened and not what we wished had happened.

In the Zichronot prayer of Rosh Hashanah, we ask God to recall only the good that we did and do. But selective memory is part of our prayer to God as God judges us, not a maxim for humans to live by.

We mortals must remember it all, and we must remember it accurately, if we wish to live up to that part of our mission set forth in the Malchiyot prayer: letaken olam be-malchut Shaddai. To perfect the world under the reign of the Almighty.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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