From “Jewish Memory” to Jewish History

Two Perspectives

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
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In his influential Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi analyzed brilliantly the transition in Jewish conceptions of Jewish history from premodern to modern times. The present paper discusses a number of alternative perspectives on this transition. Yerushalmi argued convincingly the importance of the traditional conception of Jewish history, which he labeled “Jewish memory,” for Jewish survival. This paper challenges the terminology, agrees with the role played by the traditional Jewish thinking in Jewish survival, and emphasizes the premodern circumstances that made the traditional thinking so vital and effective. With respect to modern conceptions of Jewish history, which Yerushalmi associates with Jewish history writing, this paper argues that an examination of the circumstances of modernity reveals the creativity of this altered view of the Jewish past and the ways in which it in turn has fostered Jewish survival in the face of radically new challenges.



Note especially Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); David N. Myers, Reinventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Elisheva Carlebach, John M. Efron, and David N. Myers, eds., Jewish History and Jewish Memory: Essays in Honor of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (Hanover, nh: Brandeis University Press, 1998); David N. Myers and David Ruderman, eds., The Jewish Past Revisited: Reflections on Modern Jewish Historians (New Haven, ct: Yale University Press, 1998); Shmuel Feiner, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness, trans. Chaya Naor and Sondra Silverston (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004); Andreas Gotzmann and Christian Wiese, eds., Modern Judaism and Historical Consciousness: Identities, Encounters, Perspectives (Leiden: Brill, 2007); and Michael Brenner, Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History, trans. Steven Rendall (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 2010).


Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982). There were two subsequent editions of this important study, but they introduced no significant changes in the text itself.


Ibid., 6.


Ibid., 8. Note the elegance of this Yerushalmi formulation. This elegance characterizes the book in its entirety.


Ibid., 5.


Ibid., 81.


Ibid., 85.


Ibid., 86.


Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 93.


Ibid., 94.


Ibid., 95.


Ibid., 96.


Ibid., 108.


Ibid., 110.


Ibid., 111. The third passage speaks of three instances when the Torah was lost and then restored. Once again, the focus is the Law.


Ibid., 116.


Robert Chazan, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000–1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).


Robert Chazan, Reassessing Jewish Life in Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).


Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 85.


Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 84–85.


Ibid., 96.


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