Stewards of Remembrance

There is a gift of remembrance, nestled in the human heart, that makes the angels tremble with jealousy. Remembrance is not the simple muscle memory of the living creature, human or animal, that yearns instinctually for the food it once had, misses shelter, longs for a lost kiss, or the embrace of a mother. In remembrance there is something more. 

Looking at old photographs, engaged in reminiscience, there is a haunting, a deep sadness, an awareness of the passing of time itself, a sorrow and wisdom embedded in the notion that the moment itself, the presence of the present, is eternally passing away. Often we can hold this quality of remembrance before the powers of our thought for only a moment, before it flits away; as if we get glimpses of a secret dwelling within, and beyond, time itself. 

The past is eternally past; this moment, too, is already past; the drama of our human lives will fade away, will be held onto only as sweet memory, as history. The hands of those who came before us have worked hard to bring us to the present. Our ancestors are no longer with us, and yet our remembrance of them is charged with gratitude, awe and responsibility. 

It as if somewhere, a candle is lit that bathes the halls and caverns of time itself in the light of remembrance, a light suffused with the sigh of the human heart, the yearning, hope and sorrow of our incomplete redemption. When we turn our gaze upon the past, we see by virtue of this light only; in this light, the daily motions of humans upon the earth are captured as shadows. We cannot see this candle directly, but to sit before it fills our hearts with a deep, unspeakable sadness and a warm, unquenchable gratitude.

Nature already does a great job consecrating space; humans can build temples of spatial holiness that, in the end, mimic the beauty of nature, or gesture to a truth beyond it. This is all well and good, though one wonders if nature itself already offers, to our gaze, the most perfect temple imaginable. 

But nature cannot speak of time or remembrance; before remembrance, nature is mute, its gaze does not venture towards these realms. An animal cannot tap into this eerie, ghostlike quality of awareness of the passing of time itself, in its ineffable, simple yet staggering beauty. It is as if humans have been gifted the ability to dwell in time, to consecrate time itself. It is given to humans to build structures of holiness in time itself. In our hearts and minds, existence doubles back upon itself; we are ‘he who writes and he who is written’ (Jabes). We are stewards of remembrance, entrusted to care for that candle that, flame bent towards the past, makes its nest in the very pulse of being. 

(Written at the wake of Dottie Nabakowski)

History as a trial

‘To present history as a trial in which man as advocate for mute nature makes a complaint against the nonappearance of the promised Messiah. The court, however, decides to hear witnesses for the future. There appear the poet who senses it, the sculptor who sees it, the musician who hears it, and the philosopher who knows it. Their testimony thus diverges, though all of them testify to his coming. The court does not dare admit its indecision. Hence there is no end of new complaints or new witnesses. There is torture and martyrdom. The jury benches are occupied by the living, who listen to the human prosecutor and the witnesses with equal mistrust. The jurors’ seats are inherited by their sons. At length they grow afraid they may be driven from their benches. Finally all the jurors take flight, and only the prosecutor and the witnesses remain.’
– Walter Benjamin

Who is a good person?

When I saw this cheesy meme appear on my Facebook news feed the other day, it got me thinking about the nature of this ‘goodness of people’. What compels a person to perform a Good act? What makes someone a Good Person? Is it because there exists some fundamental, irreducible ethical impulse that throbs in our hearts whenever we see an injustice and feel moved to rectify it? Is there some primordial force of moral Goodness within us, that manifests in the world whenever we perform a Good Deed?

I don’t know. And when I ask this question, I’m not sure whose answer I trust more- the reasoned formulation of an ethical philosopher like Emmanuel Levinas, or the straightforward, commonsense proclamation of a 6 year old. But regardless, what interests me about this meme is that it cares little for this holy moral spark that supposedly exists in the heart. It concerns itself, instead, with the socially constructed ideal of the Good Person.

None of us are saints. Our days are passed, mostly, in the pursuit of tasks that our self-interest places before us. Most of the time we try to get by in the world, while doing the least harm possible.

Nonetheless, in some moments, we are compelled by circumstances to do a Good Deed. In these moments we try, as the meme says, to ‘be the reason someone believes in the goodness of people’. We try to be a Good Person- that is, we strike the pose, we perform the image of the Good Person before the gaze of the Other.

In public, we do good deeds so that others may believe, not only that the Good Person exists, but that we, in fact, are one of these Good People. And even in an anonymous Good Deed, we strive inwardly to embody, before our own gaze, the ideal of the Good Person we wish to become.

In this roundabout way, the human race presents and re-presents to and for itself, through the generations, the image of the Good. Each of us strikes a pose of Goodness designed to convince the mass of others, and ourselves, that the Good has not vanished from the world, that we, in this moment of the Good Deed, are the embodied ideal of the Good Person.

None of us are saints. Really, we are all flawed, partial beings- we cannot claim that, in all or even most of our moments, we walk the earth with none but the Good on our minds.  But like the whispered rumor of an impending Messiah, that, passed from person to person, keeps religious faith alive through the generations, so do human beings strike the pose of the Good, so that another may ‘believe in the goodness of people’- so that the image of the Good may not vanish from this world.

The ideal of the Good reveals itself in us in those brief moments- or rather, our actions gesture towards it. In this way the Good, the ethical principle, flits about the human world. It does not exist in and for itself, but rather it is reflected, like a play of mirrors, between humans through gesture, word and deed. We speak of it when we lie down and when we arise; we bear witness to it, together. Like a spark between stones, it appears when our action, driven by our will, strikes the hard surface of given reality. It is that self-evident sensation of justice and righteousness which, when it appears, needs no explanation, though from our different perspectives, each of us offers no shortage of conflicting and competing interpretations as to the shape and form it takes in any given moment, choice or deed.

But if the Good is socially constructed in this way, we must then ask- where did this image of the Good originate? Who started the rumor that the Good Person exists? Who implanted the idea of the Good in our hearts? This is Kant’s argument for the existence of God- humans, he said, have manifest access to only partial, incomplete, relative truths in this world. Nonetheless, we find, in our heads, the idea of an absolute, transcendent truth.  From where did we get this idea? Surely not from the partial fragments of this world! This ideal of absolute truth must have been gifted to us from a transcendent source that lingers beyond our perception, a hidden source that we, gesturing blindly, call God.

Who is a Good Person? One who is convinced that the belief in the existence of the Good must not vanish from this world, one who, therefore, resolves time and again to strike a pose.

‘And You Are Faithful to Resuscitate the Dead’- Towards a Torah of Radical Remembrance

“And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead.”

                 – from ‘Gevurot’, ‘God’s Strength’, a daily Jewish prayer

“The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.”

                 – Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

For modern secular Jews, the ‘resuscitation of the dead’ can be one of the more alienating aspects of our tradition. Techiat HaMeitim, codified as one of the 13 foundational principles of Judaism by Maimonides in the 12th century, dictates that when Moshiach (Messiah) returns and redeems the world, the bodies and souls of the faithful will be resurrected to live again in a perfected world, this world, a world which will be at once fully ‘earthly’, and fully ‘divine’. Most of the time, I see Reform or Reconstructionist prayer books change this daily prayer from ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who resuscitates the dead’ to something like ‘blessed are you, Hashem, who gives life to all that lives’. Says the Enlightened Jew to himself- ‘of course, my dead body will not rise, fully intact, from my grave one day when a Messiah comes, and walk upon the earth again for all eternity, as the rabbis promised’. So we discard this notion completely, and regard the resuscitation of the dead as a quaint, magical notion, ill-suited to the rational world of today.

I would like to resuscitate this dead notion of the resuscitation of the dead, through a Marxist lens. I think, in discarding it completely, we are losing one of the most compelling aspects of our tradition. I would like to reinterpret it as referring, not to the literal reawakening of the human body, but to a way of relating to memory, animated by a passionate fidelity to the living past. Moreover, the memory in question is inherently radical and revolutionary. According to Rabbinic tradition, the resuscitation of the dead will occur only once the Messiah has come- and the Messiah comes to end all wars and oppression, and usher in an era of tranquility and peace upon the earth. It is no coincidence that, for the rabbis, the dead will awaken when the earthly bonds of oppression are shattered.

In 1940, the German Jewish philosopher and Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ as he was trying to escape Nazi-occupied France. He committed suicide one stormy night on the border, unwilling to be delivered by the French to the Germans. Fellow theorist and German Jew Hannah Arendt managed to smuggle his ‘Theses’ on scraps of paper out of Europe, and to publish it as his last work.

Benjamin’s ‘Theses’ are suffused with a Jewish spirit of radical remembrance, a quality that Benjamin himself, within the 18 Theses and in his larger life’s work, makes no effort to hide. For Benjamin, the Marxist historian is commanded to remember the struggling, oppressed peoples of the past, and to continue their struggle in the present. Echoing Howard Zinn, the ‘official’, textbook history of the past is most often the history of the victors, the gilded, hegemonic narrative crafted by the rulers of society, the story that fits their interests, portrays their rule as benevolent, inevitable, natural and divine. And why would we expect any different? Today, those with the power and resources write the textbooks and control the narrative; yesterday, the kings had the scribes, the rich had the parchment. Everyone else- the 99% of past and present, the overwhelming majority of the human race- could not as easily transmit their stories and histories to future generations. Of course, the historical memory of any suffering people is long- in rituals, in customs, in stories, in rich oral traditions, cultural memory is preserved and transmitted by all oppressed peoples as a means of survival. But this memory rarely builds monuments to itself; it is rarely recorded diligently, in great detail, and guarded closely in the king’s palace. It is not broadcast to millions of living rooms on the nightly news; the state produces textbooks glorifying its leaders, not exposing their barbarism.

It is the task of the radical historian to tear away the textbook ‘bourgeois’ version of history, and to listen, underneath, for the narrative and perspective of the oppressed. From this perspective, it is clear, writes Benjamin, that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” To uncover the history of the oppressed is to learn that they lived, suffered, and died under oppression, and to realize that their struggle against that oppression, in their lifetime, was not completed. This memory is a work of mourning, a realization that the textbook version of history is dripping with blood, and that the suffering of the oppressed has not yet been avenged. And because “all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them”, the radical historian realizes that yesterday’s king left the seat warm for today’s president; today’s America is the Roman Empire reincarnate; we confront the very same oppressor our ancestors faced.

When we uncover this hidden truth of the past, we clarify the past, we bring it from a place of obscurity, hiddenness and falsehood- for example, ‘Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land, and the Israel/Palestine conflict is caused by antisemitism’- into a light of truth- ‘actually, Zionists drove the Palestinians off of their land, and that has caused the conflict today’. This clarifies, not only the past, but the present as well. Growing up, we are taught that the suffering of our situation is ‘natural’, or inexplicable, arbitrary and beyond our control; later, we realize this is actually the oppressor’s narrative, and that systemic inequality, not blind chance, structures our world through a series of traceable processes, in the past, that create and condition our suffering in the present.

In his ‘Arcades Project’, Benjamin describes this illuminating, clarifying power of radical memory as a form of awakening, as the ‘dialectical, Copernican turn of remembrance’. It is an awakening, because once we awaken to the root causes of our situation, we realize, like Neo leaving the Matrix, how asleep we once had been. “The tradition of all dead generations”, writes Marx, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” As long as oppressive structures are not overthrown, humanity remains in a kind of sleep, in an incomplete process of shrugging off the yoke of the past, of overcoming systemic inequities that are outmoded, reactionary, that prevent humanity from achieving its full potential. The existence of Donald Trump as president mocks us, like a sick joke, a rotting remnant of a capitalist world-system on life support, surviving only through the worst crisis-ridden speculations of finance capital, a nightmare which should have died long ago.

Just as our ancestors were unable to vanquish the enemy, it is by no means guaranteed that their stories of struggle, and our own, will be remembered. “In every era,” writes Benjamin, “the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism which is about to overpower it”. In every era, the ‘truth’ of the past threatens to be forgotten. The false version of events, told by the oppressor, is largely accepted as fact; the stories of the oppressed threaten to be buried under the weight of this oppression, to slip permanently from our collective memory. It is incumbent upon us to attempt, over and over again, to re-awaken and clarify subterranean history, to overcome the gravity of forgetting, to do continuous, circuitous and always-novel battle, with pen and sword, against the persistent effort of the rulers to maintain hegemony, to restore illusory narratives, to destroy radically subversive institutions of cultural memory.

“And you are faithful to resuscitate the dead”. With this plea, the rabbis begged God not to forget, but to fulfill, the tradition of the oppressed. Though we oppressed Jews may die today, they said, God will not forget our suffering, as He will not forget those who came before; one day, the Messiah will come, this earth will know peace, and we all will dwell anew and free in this kingdom of peace. This is not a heaven or afterlife, occurring on some other plane or dimension- our bodies are restored on earth, the promised kingdom is created politically, here, as a harmonious human society, at once earthly and divine but in the flesh, immanent, interpersonal, within our grasp.

In the future messianic kingdom, according to rabbinic tradition, all the faithful, oppressed Jews who have existed across all moments of history will be resurrected; they will dwell together, in harmony, in the land of peace towards which, in the suffering of their former lives, their prayers had always turned. Says Chabad.org– “In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since ‘G‑d does not deprive any creature of its due’, all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.” In the same way, the Marxist historian believes that in the future, all the oppressed of the past will be remembered; the enemy that oppressed them will be finally vanquished; the world for which they struggled will come to fruition; they will be redeemed. The spirit dwelling behind both these Messianic visions is the same.

“The Era of Moshiach is not a supernatural world; it is the very same world we know today–without the corruptions of human nature. Man will have conquered his selfishness and prejudices; a harmonious world community will devote its energies and resources for the common good and the quest for continued growth in wisdom and perfection. In short, the Era of Moshiach represents man’s attainment of the peak of his natural potential.”

Neither the radical historian nor the religious Jew prays for the liberatory force of history, or for God, merely to ‘remember’ the dead, but to bring the dead back to life. The latter is much more radical. It is not that in the promised stateless classless society, the great, definitive history book will finally be written, and all oppressed narratives of the past will be remembered fully, in a grand apotheosis of knowledge- this fantasy of pure knowledge, of total accuracy in and for itself, is in fact closer to the bourgeois fantasy of total history. Rather, it is that the better world, for which our oppressed ancestors struggled, will finally come to fruition; their vision will be actualized; their arrow will reach its target; their oppressors will have not won. Freedom, which for them was only partial, a distant, longed-for vision, becomes actual, confirming their faith in its inevitability. By avenging their oppression, by vanquishing their oppressor, we bring to fruition that which, for them, slumbered in potentiality. Their struggle was not for naught- just as the end of a sentence bestows meaning upon its beginning, the meaning of their struggle is retroactively confirmed, made apparent, vindicated by our success in the present. They are brought back to life in victory, and their death- that is, their defeat by the oppressor- was in fact a falsehood.

When we struggle, in the present, we struggle also for the past; we fight for those before us, who were vanquished, who pray now, from beyond the grave, for our success. We bring with us their hope, it animates and sustains us. We avenge their deaths and we redeem their lives. So in the present, we pray for them to give us strength; we pray for the spirit of resistance that animated their bones, to animate ours as well; we pray that the liberatory spirit of God which guided their hands, will guide ours to victory. We have faith that their struggle was not in vain- that the movement of history towards justice ‘is faithful to resuscitate the dead’.

‘You will resuscitate the dead’- for the religious Jew or radical historian who mutters these words, the memory is turned toward the past, but the promise is futural. Suspended in this dislocated temporality, the religious Jew is comforted by the promise, not just that yesterday’s dead will be revived, but that we too, one day in the future, will be revived as well. Similarly, when we remember the struggles of oppressed peoples in the past, we know that they expected this of us; we ourselves pray that one day, some future radical will remember our struggle. The torch of struggle is passed between the generations, casting a glow into past and future with a flame that scintillates within this imperfect world, and gestures beyond, toward the half-glimpsed promise of the world’s perfection.

‘And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead’- may we merit, in our own day, to see humanity awaken from its sleep, unshackle the cords of oppression, and complete the process of liberation that animated our ancestors in struggle, and animates us today.

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