The month of November is replete with memories and memorial ceremonies. It
is the month of Kristallnacht and of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin and
of Balfour Day as well. As time passes from the occurrence of these
important events, the question arises as to how to properly perpetuate the
memory of these pieces of the Jewish story. After all, we are aware how time
and its attrition have seriously winnowed the ranks of the Kristallnacht
victims of sixty-five years ago. The question therefore, of how to preserve
the memory of Kristallnacht is an acute one. Its particularity has been
subsumed in the general question of how to preserve the memory and record of
the Holocaust. Only time will tell if the present Holocaust memorials -
museums, books, films, educational courses and materials - will truly be
effective in a world in which we can expect Holocaust deniers to increase
and anti-Semitism to continue to thrive. But the main question, in my mind,
is how to preserve these memories in the Jewish world. And I am a skeptic as
to the long-range historical efficacy of such purely secular means of
memory. Secularism has little or no memory, emotion or heart. Its memorials
and ceremonies are in the main cold, artificial and eventually very easy to
forget and ignore. Judaism and the Jewish people know no way to meaningfully
and eternally commemorate great historical occurrences except by granting
them a religious motif and attaching some sort of Jewish ritual to them.
The method of the commemoration of Rabin's assassination has become a matter
of public debate. The obvious politicization of the event by the Left, the
failure of Oslo and all that it falsely promised, the gradual erosion of
Rabin's memory and policies in the public mind have all taken their toll.
Nevertheless, again in my opinion, it is the blatantly secular nature of the
form of commemoration that is causing it to become less and less of an event
every year. Gun salutes, lowered flags, entertainers singing songs, bonfires
and wreaths, all will not preserve memory and teach anything to the future
generations. And that I feel is the tragedy of the matter, that we have
somehow forgotten how to preserve Jewish memory and pass it on to the ages.
Gedalya ben Achikam was a viceroy of Judah, appointed by Nebuchadnezer to
head the small remaining community of Jews in Judah and Jerusalem after the
destruction of the First Temple. Zealots accused him of being a collaborator
with the Babylonian conqueror. They assassinated him "in the name of
Heaven." This killing occurred on the second of Tishrei. The rabbis declared
a fast day in memory of Gedalya and also, just as importantly as a moral
reminder to all of Israel, of the damage and immorality of this foul deed.
Since the second of Tishrei is the second day of Rosh Hashana, the fast day
was deferred by one day to the third day of Tishrei. It was given ritual
instruction and religious meaning. It was linked to the Ten days of
Repentance and to the holy day of Yom Kippur itself. And thus over
twenty-six hundred years later, Jewish children remember Gedalya and what
happened to him and are reminded of the dangers of zealotry and the
unacceptability of violence in a truly Jewish society. That individuals
choose not to obey that lesson in no way invalidates the lesson itself.
For many centuries, Ashkenazic Jewry commemorated the twentieth day of Sivan
as a day of fasting and mourning. It was on that day in thirteenth-century
Blois, France, that their Christian neighbors - who also believed that they
were acting for “the sake of Heaven”, massacred a number of innocent Jews.
The later mass massacres of 1648-9 by Chmielnitzky and his cohorts were
added to the commemoration of the twentieth day of Sivan. These events that
occurred centuries ago were kept alive by Jewish ritual, prayer services and
fasting. Therefore, they still survive. However, events, no matter how
momentous, tragic or historical, that have no framework of Judaism, that
borrow unsuccessful methods of commemoration from the non-Jewish world, have
an uphill battle to remain memorable or remembered in the future.