memory and ritual

On memory and ritualization

  •   The Ritualization of Memory and the Representation of Denial, by H.E. Mordechay Lewy, Ambassador of Israel to the Holy See



    Memory in our time

    Religious memory and its ritualization

    Memory in monotheist religions

    Secular memory

    Will a concentration camp become a sacred religious space?



    Memory in our time

    The leading question before us is how to shape a culture of memory for any foreseeable future, in order not to forget a traumatic event of gigantic dimension, and which is called – for the sake of keeping its uniqueness – SHOA.

    We know that forgetting is human. Animals do not have anything to forget as they do not have memory, unless they inherit it genetically without knowing it. Pavlovian dogs, dolphins or anthropoid primates have developed an ability to remember – some more, others less. Remembering is a rational process that requires special mental effort in the human brain. In daily life, all age groups memorize things by way of repetition or by association, with different degrees of success. A child is asked to learn by heart his home address or his telephone number. But, with the coming of the digital age, in which knowledge is stored at random, memorizing becomes old fashioned. You keep things that are essential to remember in your cellular phone or personal computer. A weak battery or an electric breakdown is likely to wipe out memories essential for storage. We live under a constant threat of being subjected to electromagnetic amnesia. We live in a chaos of post modernity, in which a fact is no longer considered a fact.

    In the absence of reverence for any positivistic approach to accumulating facts, we are encouraged to deconstruct everything to the point of total fragmentation and to refrain from any commitment to essentialism or determinism. In a world dominated by the dictatorship of an ill-defined political correctness, not only are facts superseded by opinions, but all opinions became equal. The absolute truth has vanished and may someday return from exile, meanwhile awaiting better times.

    Is such an intellectual environment conducive to developing a culture of memory? Maintaining a culture of memory seems to have become a luxury, if not an impossible mission. But even in a more conducive climate, the impact of elapsing time on faded memories is decisive. Time was and still is the main enemy of memory.

    Being, however, under such constrains may lead us to reviewing options for shaping a new culture of memory, or else reinvent parameters thereof. It seems that a distinction between religious and secular memory could be helpful to illuminate some options ahead of us.

    Religious memory and its ritualization

    The term religious memory refers to the remnant of an historical event that is relevant to the belief in god. This memory has been canonized or frozen in a text that is repeated along a fixed and unchangeable calendar. We refer to such a text as prayer. The repetition of this is referred to as worship. Any change in its calendar transforms its identity and may cause, as shown in church history, conflicts, splits and schism. This process of transforming historical memory to a religious memory – I would like to call the ritualization of memory.

    I would suggest employing a sociological pattern of behavior known as routinization in another context, which is a religious behavior, by using the term ritualization. I have no intention of entering the classical debate surrounding the relationship between ritual (Frazer) and myth (Eliade), and their functional impact on religious behavior (Durkheim). Routinization refers to automaticity in behavior. Features of automaticity include, among others unintentionality and lack of awareness, but stand also for efficiency. Ritualization develops through the repeated execution of a behavior or, in our case, by religious practice. Moreover, single behavioral steps are not consciously chosen; rather, they form a pattern that is stored in memory. This passivity, prescribed in a behaviorist approach, runs counter to the proactive religious belief some of us may share. It might, however, be a way in which historical events can be remembered in the foreseeable future through religious ritual, as long as it is performed.

    Memory in monotheist religions

    To illustrate this option, we may deduce the experience from the monotheist religions, which all historicize religions. What is at stake here is not the veracity of their history but how they structure historical events into their religious memory. In Christianity and Islam, biographical events of the founding fathers – Jesus (his birth in Nativity on 24.12 in the year 0 AD, according to the Gregorian calendar) and Muhammad (his immigration to Medina – the Heg'ra on 12 rabi al awwal, which is equivalent to 24.9.622 AD) – were considered so important that they triggered the initiation of new calendared eras that divide time into the periods before or after the determined date. In Judaism, the beginning of the calendared era is somewhat mythical, as it today counts 5772 years since the world's creation. According to this, there was nothing but chaos, not even time, before creation.

    Jews are very sensitive when it comes to keeping the memory of key events that they consider essential for one's own religious identity. The Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt is the historical set up for Passover. It is, in fact, a didactic family feast whose rituals and gestures are designed to reenact the memory of the divine benevolence in a particular historical period. The Hebrew people were liberated from Pharaonic slavery and were brought to the Promised Land. It is a religious duty to tell this story or history (in order to use Herodot's term) from one generation to another. It is worth noting that the Christian Easter, having the celebration the Jewish Passover as it's backstage, is also designed to commemorate historical events.

    Christians reenact Jesus' passion and ritualize the last supper through the Eucharist rite. In performing the Imitatio Christi, the believer castigates himself in an act of corporeal identification and spiritual liberation with the crucified Jesus. I bring this example to show that Christianity was not only rooted in Judaism, but that Christian rituals inherited some traits of the Jewish pattern of keeping historical key events in memory.

    The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, so traumatic for Jews primarily due to its consequences, is commemorated as a full night and day of fasting (Ta'anit), dedicated to lamenting over the destruction of the Holy Temple itself – the 9th of Av. This day of mourning is prescribed first in the Mishna, Tractate Ta'anit, since tradition attributes it to the fire set by Titus, which destroyed the Temple. This event occurred long after the Old Testament had been sealed (canonized). There is reason to believe that, due to the proximity of this date to an older fast day – set on the 7th of Av (mentioned by the post Babylonian exile prophet Zacharias, 7:19), which commemorated the burning of the first Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (Kings II, 25:8-9) – there was no difficulty to affix a joint commemoration, even if 500 years separated both events.

    Ritualized memory by religion may, however, not always be a safe bet in commemorating events interminably. Local massacres, blood libels and pogroms, which befell local Jewish communities, were commemorated often on the local level only. The pogroms initiated by the Bogdan Chlemnitzky in 1648-49, which decimated the number of Jews in Great Poland (mainly in today's Ukraine) were commemorated by the Jews in Poland on the 20th of Sivan with a special fast and prayers. This day of commemoration is almost forgotten, as during the 20th century those communities were annihilated by the Nazis. Other traumatic events, such as the SHOA, were able to overshadow such a remote memory.

    The ritual of observing the fast became an essential part of the historical commemoration. As time elapsed, the command to observe the fast became more important. Usually, one observes because tradition commands it; what for becomes secondary. Memory was formalized, canonized, and by that fixed for all future generations of observant Jews.

    One regional pogrom threat became, however, a commemoration fast that is shared by all Jews. It is the fast day of Esther (Ta'anit Esther), who, with her uncle Mordechay, rescued the Jews of Persia from Hamman's intention to annihilate them. Although this local fast is mentioned in the Book of Esther (4:16 and 9:31), it was introduced as a general fast day in the Middle Ages and fixed on the 13th of Adar – three days before Purim. It is not considered a severe fast and is restricted only to day light. I assume that contemporaneous relevance has invoked other communities to share the memory of Queen Esther.

    On the 3rd of Tishrei, a fast day is held until today to commemorate the assassination of Governor Gedalia ben Ahikam. After the destruction of the first Temple, Gedalia was installed by the Babylonian king to rule the remaining Jewish population in Judea. Only two months later, Gedalia was assassinated by fellow Jews. As a consequence, the Babylonians decided to exile all the Jews who still remained in the Land of Israel. This politically motivated murder revealed the danger of fraternal war. The event, dated to 583 BC, is considered the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. A day of fast was installed accordingly and is kept until today. The motives of fraternal war related to Gedalia's murder regained relevance after the political assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995. It is still an open question as to how Israeli citizens will shape within time the commemoration of Rabin's assassination. Will it be turned into a religious ritualization with prayers and fasting or will it maintain its secular parameters.

    Gedalia's assassination was molded into religious ritualization because that was the known expression of public mourning during that time. But if we look at Jewish holidays, these may be divided into two categories of motivation – one commemorating historical events, the other celebrating an element of the agrarian year cycle (sowing, harvest, etc).

    The original cycle of agrarian celebrations usually underlies the commemoration of an historical event. The best example is Shavuot, which was originally the feast of the harvest but at the same time has been devoted to the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. This feast was adopted by the Zionist pioneers, who devoted themselves to toiling the land and founding kibbutzim from the 1920s on. It soon became an agrarian feast celebrating the harvest. This is a modern example of how religious commemoration reverts to its original agrarian meaning with its own rituals. This tradition is likely to fade away with the decline of the agrarian dimension of the kibbutzim, as the rituals were never canonized but remained open to the creativity of the organizers, artists or choreographs.

    What are, then, the ingredients of secularized commemorations that make them less sustainable compared with religious one?

    Secular memory

    The term secular memory indicates that a remnant of an historical event is considered relevant to the collective identity of a given group, such as a nation. This remnant deserves to be kept in memory. It becomes mythical by shaping a meaningful space in a monumental structure, by fixing a calendar and a reoccurring ritual referred to by the secular term, ceremony. Historical veracity is less of a requirement for making it mythical.

    Ritualization of religious memory is easy to recognize by an annual reoccurring festivity, cult or worship. It has its own body language, through corporeal gestures, standing, sitting, prostrating, special dress, special head cover, and verbal repetitions of canonized texts of prayers. Maintaining a memory in such a way becomes very formalized and impersonal, but may not fade away.

    What would a secular ritualization of memory look like? In order not to fade away, it tries to adopt a religious body language. We should observe prevailing secular commemorations among different nations, since secular commemoration and ceremonies are essential ingredients in forming a nation. In the USA, the commemoration of Thanksgiving has always been understood as a national commemoration and not a religious one. It remains to be seen whether the traumatic commemoration of the events at Ground Zero will attain a religious expression or will be deliberately held as a place of secular commemoration. The two versions can live next to one another if they do not demand exclusivity.

    In France, the secular ritualization of the national day on the 14th of July, with a military parade through the Champs Élysées avenue, or the veneration of the French national heroes in the Pantheon in Paris are exclusively secular. This stands in conformity with the French post revolutionary state ideology of laïcité. It serves as a model of national ceremonies for many countries throughout the world, especially if they were under French colonial rule.

    The cult of the fallen heroes for the nation is considered a main expression of secular ritualization. The glorification of someone who lost his life as a martyr is occupied by the state and not by the church. In Rome, the main national monument next to Capitolian Hill is called the Altar of the Nation.

    Many gestures of secular ceremonies have nevertheless been taken from the arsenal of religious body language. Sometimes it seems banal, if we remember the ritualized weeping of the North Korean mass-mourning. But secular rituals are subject to the changing fate of nations. Many of Germany's national commemoration sites became sidelined after the Second World War for obvious reasons. Monumental sites, such as the memorial to the Battle of the Nations during the Napoleonic wars in 1813 next to Leipzig, a memorial which was in the year of its completion 1913 the biggest site in Europe, is hardly frequented. The same can be said about the Wallhalla temple overlooking the Danube next to Regensburg, which was inaugurated in 1842 as a national Pantheon. They lost relevance and their significance is fading away. It seems that the ritualization process in its secular version was identified with an ideology that lost its reputation and popular support.

    It seems that religious memory resists time constrains within longer periods. Were it not a matter of belief, which you may or not share, the vehicle of religious ritualization could be a viable instrument for keeping a culture of memory alive longer.

    Will a concentration camp become a sacred religious space?

    We all know that time is the enemy of memory. As time passes, we have to assess the significance of generations as a vehicle to transport memory. Traumatic memories, such as the Shoah, are characterized by different reactions among following generations accordingly.

    The first generation of the survivers themselves was marked by a traumatic silence. The second generation of the off-spring was the one that became active because it was afraid of the biological disappearance of the first generation, which had not yet told its stories. This second generation after the Shoah, was the one that established the culture of memory we know today. It is mainly a secular one, which reflects the a-religious mood of the public space these past decades. The third generation, which is now taking over, is characterized by a certain polarization between hyper activity or increasing indifference. This present polarization is triggering a question as to how the memory should be kept for future generations.

    What options do we have, can we choose them at all?

    What would be the better one in terms of viability in order to maintain the Shoah in memory?

    What does it entail, to ritualize memory in religious or secular categories?

    Are they contradictory, and how can they be reconciled?

    These are open questions, which I hope will be discussed during our meeting. What becomes clear is that we are afraid that, without ritualization in whatever form, memory will fade away.