Ritualizing memory

  •   L'Osservatore Romano - Friday, April 13, 2012

    On history, memory and ritualization
    Two presentations (by Amb Mordechay Lewy  &  Prof. Anna Foa) presented at the Forli seminar on The Ritualization of Memory and the Representation of Denial organized by the University of Bologna.
    Memory in our time 
    by HE Mordechay Lewy - Ambassador of Israel to the Holy See

    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 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 developed an ability to remember, some more other less. Remembering is a rational process which requires
    special mental effort in human brain. In daily life, all age groups are memorizing things by way of repetition or by association with different degree of success.  A child is asked to learn by heart his home address or his telephone number. But with the coming of digital age in which knowledge is stored at random, memorizing becomes old fashioned. You keep essential things to remember in your cellular or desktop. A weak battery or an electric breakdown is likely to wipe out memories essential for to store. We live under constant threat to be subjected to electromagnetic amnesia. We live in a chaos of post modernity in which a fact is not considered anymore a fact. In the lack of reverence to any positivistic approach to accumulate facts we are encouraged to deconstruct everything to total fragmentation and refrain from any commitments to essentialism or determinism. In a world dominated by the dictatorship of an ill-defined political correctness not only facts were superseded by opinions, but all opinions became equal.
    Do you think that such an intellectual environment is conducive to develop a culture of memory? Keeping a culture of memory seems to become a luxury, if not a mission impossible. 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.
    Before dwelling on ritualization of memory, I would like to define the relationship between history and memory and their respective reference to ritualization. History in its strictest sense is what contemporaneous sources can say, write or create about an event they themselves witnessed. The task of a historian is to reconstruct the likelihood of how it happened by weighing the different sources which seldom do agree between themselves (Rashomon affect). Anything which is accounted by the following generations until the third or generation belongs to the realm of memory. The general proof that memory of events may completely fade away lies in the simple fact that no offspring can remember back their ancestors beyond the fourth generation. Given that the lifespan of one generation is 30 years we may construct a sequence of 120 years of memory. Much of it is already legendary or mythical already. Therefore the memory of an event is not equivalent to the history of the event itself.  The more time elapses, the more difficult is it to reconstruct events as witnesses disappear. But also memory fades away within generations and may transform itself to ritual of memories due to the chronological distance from the events. Meticulous historical research may sometimes bridge this distance, but its results will remain insider knowledge due to the growing public indifference to past events.
    As time is passing we have to assess the significance of generations as a vehicle to transport the memory.  Traumatic memories of the Shoah, are characterized by different reactions among following generations. The first generation of the survivors was marked by a traumatic silence. The second generation got active because it was anxious of the biological disappearance of their parents' generation which did not yet tell its stories. This second generation after Shoah, was the one who established the culture of memory we know today. It is mainly a secular one, which reflects the a-religious mood of the public space since some decades.  The third generation which is taking over now is characterized by a certain polarization between hyper activity and increasing indifference. This present polarization is triggering a question how the memory should be kept for future generations.
    What options do we have, can we chose them at all? Are increased historical research and new methods of instruction the remedy against forgetting? What would be the better one in terms of viability in order to keep Shoah in memory? What does it entail to ritualize memory in religious or secular categories? Are they contradictory, and how can they be reconciled?  
    Religious memory and its ritualization
    Under religious memory we understand a remnant of a historical event that is relevant to the belief in god. This memory was canonized or frozen in a text which is repeated at a fixed unchangeable calendar. Such a text we call prayer. The repetition of it we call liturgy. Any change in its calendar is transforming its identity and may cause, as shown in church history, conflicts, splits and schism. This process of transforming the historical memory to a religious memory I would like to call ritualization of memory.
    I suggest employing a sociological pattern of behaviour known as routinisation in another context which is the religious behaviour by using the term ritualization. I have no intention to entering the classical debate around the relationship between ritual (Frazer) and myth (Eliade) and their functional impact on religious behaviour (Durkheim). Routinization refers to automaticity in behaviour. Features of automaticity include among others unintentionality and lack of awareness but stand also for efficiency. Ritualization develops through repeated execution of a behaviour or in our case by religious-liturgical practice. Moreover, single behaviour steps are not consciously chosen but form a pattern that is stored in memory. This passivity prescribed in behaviouristic approach runs counter to the proactive religious believe some of us may share. It might however be a way in which historical events could be remembered for the foreseeable future through religious ritual as long it is performed.
    Memory in monotheist religions
    To illustrate this option we may deduce the experience from the monotheist religions which are all historicizing 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 on the year 0 AD according to Gregorian calendar) and Muhammad (his immigration to Medina – the Heg'ra on 12 rabi al awwal which equals to 24.9. 622 AD), were considered so important that they triggered the initiation of a new calendared era dividing time before or after. In Judaism the beginning of the calendared era is somewhat mythical as it counts today 5772 years since the world's creation. There was nothing but chaos, not even time, before creation.  Jews like other people are very sensitive when it comes to keep the memory of key events, they consider essential for one's own religious and national 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 re-enact 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 Christian Easter, having the celebration of the Jewish Passover as its backstage, is designed to commemorate also historical events. Catholics re-enact Jesus' passion and ritualize even daily 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 also for its consequences, is   commemorated as a full night and day fasting (Ta'anit) which is dedicated to lament about the destruction 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 put by Titus who destroyed the second temple. This event is much after the Old Testament has been signed (canonized).
    There is reason to believe that due to the vicinity of this date to an older fast day, set on 7th of Av (mentioned by the post Babylonian exile prophet Zacharias, 7:19), which commemorated the burning the first Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (Kings II, 25:8-9), there was no difficulty to fix a joint commemoration, even if 500 years separated both events. Ritualized memory by religion may however not always be a safe bet to commemorate events for ever. Local massacres, blood libels and pogroms which befell local Jewish communities, were commemorated often on local level only. The pogroms initiated by 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 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 event as the SHOA was able to overshadow such a remote memory.
    The ritual of observing the fast became part and parcel with the historical commemoration. As time has 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 to all future generations of observing Jews.
    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 Babylonians to rule the remnant Jewish population in Judea. Only two months has passed and Gedalia was assassinated by fellow Jews. As a consequence the Babylonians decided to exile all the Jews who still remained the Land of Israel. This politically motivated murder revealed the danger of fraternal war. This event dated to 583 BC is considered the beginning of 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 open how the Israeli citizens will shape within time the commemoration of Rabin's assassination. Will it be turned to religious ritualization with prayers and fasting or will it keep the commemoration in its secular parameters.  
    Gedalia's assassination was moulded into religious ritualization because that was the known expression of public mourning during its time. But if we look at Jewish holidays they can be divided in two categories of motivations, one commemorating historical events, the other celebrating a part of agrarian cycle of the year, (sowing, harvest, etc). The original cycle of agrarian celebrations is usually underlying the commemoration of a historical event. 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 toil the land and to found kibbutzim from the 1920s on under the parameter of an agrarian feast of celebrating the harvest. This is a modern example of how religious commemoration got back 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 which make them less sustainable compared with religious one?   
    Secular memory and its ritualization
    Under secular memory we understand that a remnant of a historical event is considered relevant to the collective identity of a given group, such as a nation. This remnant deserved to be kept in memory. It is becoming mythical by shaping meaningful space in a monumental structure, by fixing a calendar and a reoccurring ritual called in secular term state ceremony. Historical veracity is less required for keeping it mythical.  
    Ritualization of religious memory is easy to recognize by an annual reoccurring liturgy and 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. Keeping memory in such a way becomes very formalized and impersonal, but may not fade away.  
    How would a secular ritualization of memory look like? In order not to fade away it tries to adopt a religious body language. We should look at prevailing secular commemorations among different nations since they are essential ingredients in forming a nation. In the USA the commemoration of Thanksgiving has been always understood as a national commemoration and not a religious one. It remains to be seen if the traumatic commemoration of the events in Ground Zero will get religious expression or will be deliberately held as a place of secular commemoration. The two versions can live next to another if they do not demand exclusivity. In France the secular ritualization of the national day on 14th of July, with a military parade through the Champs Elisees 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 laicity. 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 as 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 Altar of the Nation. Many gestures of secular ceremonies were nevertheless taken from the arsenal of religious body language.  Sometimes it looked 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 like 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 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 which lost its reputation and popular support. It seems that religious memory resists time constrains within longer periods.
    Would it not be a matter of belief or ideology, which you may share or not, the vehicle of religious ritualization could be a viable instrument for keeping a culture of memory longer alive. These are open questions when it comes to consider the culture of memory of the Shoah.  Learning from historical experience how the process of ritualization took place in the past may give us an indication of what we may expect in the future regarding the culture of Shoah memory. What becomes clear is that we are afraid that without ritualization in whatever form memory will at the end fade away.

        Celebrazione della Shavuot in un kibbutz durante gli anni Cinquanta


    Ma il lavoro degli storici offre più garanzie
    di ANNA FOA

    È possibile intrecciare storia e ritualizzazione? Qui non si tratta di conciliare storia e memoria, ma di conciliare la storia con la forma estrema della memoria, cioè con il suo irrigidimento ritualistico. Devo dire che, come Yerushalmi nel suo Zakhor, tendo a vedere le funzioni del rituale, in tutte le sue modalità, come diametralmente opposte a quelle della storia.
    Introducendo nella continuità del passato le rotture temporali, o forse è meglio dire il tempo tout court, la storia compie una rivoluzione, assume insomma una funzione eversiva. Essa estrae dal contesto un evento, un fatto, lo analizza, lo mette in rapporto con altri fatti ed eventi, lo interpreta, lo ricontestualizza. La storia ha quindi una funzione individualizzante, illumina di un faro di luce un momento, un particolare, lo colloca nel tempo, lo sottrae a un continuum in cui le sue specificità non emergevano, lo chiama insomma. Il rituale rifiuta la dimensione temporale: il fatto o l’evento funzionano solo in quanto ricalcano la tradizione di altri fatti ed eventi precedenti, vi si rimodellano sopra. Il nome non conta, conta solo l’esempio, il senso simbolico che il fatto assume.
    Il rituale generalizza, appiattisce, soffonde una luce diffusa sul passato. La storia tende ad attribuire responsabilità ben distinte e basate su fatti accertati e provati. Il rituale deresponsabilizza l’individuo e lo accomuna sotto delle etichette morali: il giusto, il malvagio. Per lo storico (o almeno per il buono storico), il criterio dell’antisemitismo non spiega nulla, è una tautologia, a meno di non specificarlo nei suoi componenti, nella sua diffusione, nella sua provenienza, nella sua funzione. Altrimenti, si finisce per dire, come nelle analisi di alcuni cattivi storici, che gli antisemiti odiano gli ebrei perché sono antisemiti, cioè odiano gli ebrei perché odiano gli ebrei.
    Si può, potremmo chiederci, svolgere contemporaneamente queste due diverse azioni, studiare la Shoah e al tempo stesso ritualizzarla? Credo che ogni processo di ritualizzazione vada nella direzione opposta della crescita degli studi e delle conoscenze. Un processo di ritualizzazione, tanto più se religiosa e non civile, non può essere posto sotto l’ombrello protettivo della storia.
    La domanda diventa allora un’altra: se, in questo momento di confusione, di svolta generazionale, di possibile futura caduta delle sue priorità, la Shoah debba fare ancora parte della ricerca e della costruzione storiografica, o se tutto sia stato detto, tutto sia stato scoperto, tutto sia stato interpretato e si possa or mai, rinunciando alla memoria deliberata e consapevole, irrigidire queste conoscenze, pur facendo attenzione a non deformarle e a non falsificarle, in una struttura rituale e pietrificarle per preservarle nel futuro, se preferiamo renderle eterne. La storia avrebbe quindi qui una funzione non di crescita delle altra conoscenze o di loro più approfondita interpretazione, ma di mero guardiano dei fatti.
    Ma il rituale preserva davvero la memoria? È vero, nella ritualizzazione religiosa la memoria di alcuni fatti o eventi particolarmente significativi si preserva a lungo, anche per millenni, ma a patto di cancellare quella di molti altri fatti e di molti altri eventi, tutti quelli che non hanno trovato spazio nel rituale o che non è sembrato importante ricordare nel rituale perché offuscati da altri fatti considerati più significativi o a più alto valore simbolico.
    Certo, anche nella storia non tutto è riconosciuto, preservato, ricordato. Qualunque narrazione storica è sempre il frutto di una selezione, di una interpretazione. Ma nel rito, la selezione è fondamentale, la memoria di una piccola parte dei fatti diventa eterna solo a patto di comprendere tutto il resto senza menzionarlo, di schiacciarlo sul fatto ritualizzato. Ricorderemo così Auschwitz e non Treblinka, i deportati ungheresi e non quelli italiani, Terezin e non Dachau? Chi sceglierà i fatti, gli eventi più ritualizzabili, più simbolici?
    E la simbolizzazione, come è solitamente in questi casi, non renderà ancora più distante e irreale la realtà? Ci sarà un seder del 27 ricollegherà a quello delle feste già stabilite, Hannuka se si vuole sottolineare la resistenza, Pesah la liberazione? E si tratterà di un rituale solo ebraico, o si dovranno inventare forme ritualistiche anche per il cattolicesimo e il protestantesimo (per l’islam, la vedo più difficile, anche se non impossibile), visto che c’è una consapevolezza diffusa che la Shoah riguarda tutti, non solo gli ebrei? E se demoliamo questa consapevolezza, non rischiamo, ghettizzando la Shoah, di diminuirla, di cancellarne la memoria tranne che per gli ebrei?
    E se è vero che, come dice Lewy, la ritualizzazione religiosa resiste molto più di quella civile agli assalti del tempo, di che tipo di rituali avremmo bisogno, civili o religiosi?
    Un altro problema ancora è quello della riconciliazione, cioè della ricomposizione del trauma, della definizione del lutto, del perdono potremmo dire, usando un termine che non appartiene troppo alla tradizione ebraica. Come ben sappiamo, questo della riconciliazione è un problema che negli ultimi decenni ha assunto molta importanza nell’Europa post-coloniale e post-dittatoriale. Ma siamo sicuri che la ritualità potrebbe essere una strada che porta alla riconciliazione? Essa generalizza, non rende individuali le responsabilità, proprio il cammino opposto a quello della verità come garanzia della riconciliazione. Inoltre, finisce necessariamente per rinchiudere la memoria in un rito interno, dal momento che non vedo proprio come si potrebbe inventare dal nulla una ritualità interreligiosa: la ritualità è ancorata a una tradizione, parla il linguaggio della tradizione, ha tempi ancorati alla tradizione. Ogni tentativo in questo senso finirebbe inevitabilmente per chiuderla dentro la ritualità ebraica, e questo proprio nel momento in cui si è finalmente raggiunta la percezione che la Shoah riguarda tutti, e non solo gli ebrei.
    Solo analizzando con gli strumenti della storia i genocidi, gli eccidi, le violazioni dei diritti umani possiamo metterli a confronto in maniera utile, sottraendo questa riflessione a un uso politico inadeguato e sospetto. Il rituale mi sembra, su questo terreno, assolutamente deficitario, finendo o per rinchiudere la memoria della Shoah in un ghetto, o per aprirla indiscriminatamente banalizzandola.