Monday, March 12, 2018

Remembering, Forgetting, and Transcending Slavery



Are nightmares worth remembering? Should we block out traumatic events? This question was a constant debate among Holocaust survivors. In my own family, my aunt talked extensively about her experiences during the Holocaust, while my mother rarely spoke about those events. When I got older I asked my mother why, and she explained that she wanted to protect us from the horrors that had ravaged her young life.

This debate is a very old one. The Rabbis of the Talmud already wondered if we should try to supress anguished thoughts, or speak about them with others[1]. Some philosophers have felt that suppressing negative memories is the path to happiness. Nietzsche, in Genealogy of Morals, writes that: “... we can immediately see how there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness. The person in whom this apparatus of suppression is damaged, so that it stops working, can be compared (and not just compared –) to a dyspeptic; he cannot ‘cope’ with anything…”[2] In Psychology, a very different view of trauma took hold. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud treated their patients by making them recall repressed memories of traumatic events. As they put it: “The repressed idea takes its revenge, however, by becoming pathogenic[3].” We might intuitively think that forgetting trauma is helpful; but Freud takes the view that repressed memories can cause more pain while forgotten than when remembered.

Remembering and forgetting is not just an issue for philosophers and psychologists; it is a political issue. Revolutionaries would rather forget the past. One example is the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960’s. In 1966, a concerted campaign was made against “The Four Olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Objects of veneration, traditional literature, and ancient cultural artifacts were all eliminated. In Mao Zedong’s view, you need to forget the past in order to embrace the future.

The same revolutionary spirit can be found among many early Zionists. They wanted to “negate the exile”, and begin a new society with a new identity, because the past was a weight holding Jews back from sovereignty. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in his Eulogy for Herzl that “our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent…..The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: "I am a Hebrew!"”. Revolution occurs by turning your back on the past.

The Zionist ideal of “negating exile” made it imperative for many to forget the Holocaust. In general, there was a feeling in the air that people wanted to move on. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes the experience of being a young American attending an early Holocaust memorial service as similar to “crashing a funeral”, because these events were then only attended by survivors. Native North americans often times made survivors uncomfortable. A friend of mine who is a survivor told me that when she emigrated to Canada after the war, she found that if she tried to talk about her experiences, people would say to her “well in Canada, we also had butter rationing”. She quickly learned to keep her mouth shut. In Israel, there was an even harsher attitude. There are multiple anecdotes about young Israelis demonizing the survivors themselves, as if they were responsible for being victims. Aharon Appelfeld, in his autobiography, tells of survivors visiting Israeli schools and being questioned accusingly about why they didn’t resist and were led like sheep to the slaughter.

But this attitude changed in the 1960’s. The Eichmann trial in 1961 reopened conversations that had pushed aside; and the Six Day War in 1967, when so many were worried about Israel’s annihilation, enabled many in the “new generation” to recognize that they had more in common with the old generation than they had previously realized. By the late 1960’s, the Jewish community understood that it could no longer cut it self off from the traumas of the Holocaust.

This change in attitude is welcome. Yes, focusing on past tragedies can reinforce a negative self image as a victim and increase pessimism; but it also can teach critical lessons on the road to freedom.

The Talmud tells us that the format of the Haggadah is that one “begins with (the Jewish people’s) disgrace (slavery) and concludes with their glory (freedom)”[4]. One might think that the importance of mentioning the disgrace of slavery is merely a narrative device, the background to the triumph of redemption. But actually, the Talmud elsewhere remarks that the narrative of disgrace needs to spoken in a loud voice[5], to ensure that slavery is remembered as well.

What is the point to revisiting the trauma of slavery? Because it can strengthen our sense of freedom. Nicolas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, notes that the opposite of being fragile is not being durable; it is being able to adapt to every threat, and overcome them. He uses the example of Hormesis, which is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. In humans, exposure to small doses of a poison increases the body’s ability to cope with larger doses of poison in the future; similarly, vaccines expose people to a weakened or dead form of a virus that triggers the immune system, and readies it to fight off future threats.

On a psychological level, the same thing occurs when retelling one’s family history. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University and his colleague Robyn Fivush, director of Emory’s Family Narratives Lab, have  found that the most resilient children are deeply familiar with own their family's history, and are taught an “oscillating narrative”: that the family has had challenges, but then overcome challenges. Knowing how their own family overcame adversity in the past made children psychologically stronger. This is psychological hormesis, where children learn how transcend their own challenges by remembering past challenges.

Psychological hormesis is why we recite the full Exodus story from the beginnings of slavery at the Seder. We recall the traumas of exile to teach an important lesson to our children: if we have transcended slavery in the past, we can do so again in the future. As Michael Walzer puts it: “Wherever people know the Bible and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and inspired their resistance[6].” We retell the story of slavery because it strengthens us, and helps us transcend future challenges.

Each year, I feel like I need to explain anew the importance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which follows Pesach by just a few days. People wonder why we would want to remember such horror, and there is a yearly flurry of op-eds about why we emphasize too much on the greatest tragedy in Jewish history[7]. But in actuality, the question isn’t much of a question. The Holocaust is part of  a oscillating story of exile and redemption; retelling it, along with the heroic stories of survival, actually build resilience.

In 2002 I read an article that encapsulated the importance of always telling our moments of slavery in a loud voice. After 30 people were killed in a suicide bombing at Passover Seder in a hotel in Netanya, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield. During the campaign, n May 2002, the following newspaper account was written about one of the Israeli Generals[8]:

“During the fierce fighting in Jenin, Israel's Commander in Chief, General Shaul Mofaz, came to inspect the fighting forces in the area. He gathered the commanders and officers for a briefing. He suddenly noticed that one of his Major Generals, Avraham Gutman, had a long rip on his army shirt. He immediately asked him about the tear;  Gutman told him that his mother had passed away the day before and that he had just come from the funeral. (One of the customs of mourning is the tearing of one's garment.)
General Mofaz immediately ordered him to leave the command post and return home to sit Shiva for his mother.  Avraham refused his Commander in Chief, and told Mofaz the following story.
He had volunteered to join his unit when he heard that they had been called up for Operation Defensive Shield. Within days his unit began preparations around the terrorist enclave in Jenin. It was not too long before he and his unit began the painstaking mopping up operation in the city.
In the midst of the second day of battle, as he was speaking to the Regional Commander, Eyal Shlein , his cell phone rang. He saw that the caller was his 92 year old mother. All of his family knew not to call him while he was in the army, so the call itself was a mystery. His commander said to him " Your Imma (mother) is more important than anything else... answer the call."
His mother said "I have two things to tell you. The first is that as a commander in the field you have a responsibility to bring your soldiers back home, safe and sound."
Then she said: “Remember Avraham, You are my revenge against the Nazis." With that she hung up.
Several hours later Avraham Guttman’s mother passed away, and he went to her funeral. So why did he return to his troops?  Guttman explained to Mofaz: "I have no choice. I am returning to battle.  This was my mother's last request!"
Avraham Guttman’s story is our story. From our very beginnings in Egypt, the Jews have never forgotten past traumas; but we haven’t been defeated by them either. Instead, we have used memories of slavery to transcend slavery, because the lesson we have learned is that if a people can be redeemed from exile once, they can be redeemed from any exile. And by remembering slavery this way, we have found a way to turn tragedy into strength. Just ask Avraham Guttman.



[1] Yoma 75a
[2] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay two, Section one
[3] On Hysteria, by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, The Case of Miss Lucy R.
[4] Pesachim 116a
[5] Sotah 32b
[6] Exodus and Revolution, page 4
[7] I have offered other responses in “WhyVisiting Auschwitz Still Matters”, Jewish Week, February 27, 2018
[8] Avraham Guttman:A Soldier of the Jewish People, Hatsofeh, May 3, 2002


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