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Modern Judaism 23.3 (2003) 226-242
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Recalling the past in Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption
In the brilliant little book Y. H. Yerushalmi published some twenty years ago under the title Zakhor, 1 a central yet problematic role is ascribed to Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig's attitude toward history is considered paradigmatic of a deep crisis in Jewish historiography and Jewish memory. Rosenzweig, Yerushalmi reminds us, had been trained as a historian, and he ignored nothing of modernity or of the modern historical outlook. Yet he objected to all attempts at the understanding of Judaism with the help of a category like that of historical development and felt able to reappropriate his Jewish heritage without the aid of history, quite without reference to any historical knowledge about Judaism.
Is this, though, the way one ought to relate to the Jewish tradition? Shouldn't knowledge about the history of Jews have played another rolein Rosenzweig's life and, more generally, in Jewish life? Memory or, rather, remembrance (Zakhor) is, after all, one of the first imperatives among Jews: "remember that you have been slaves in Egypt," "remember what Amalek did to you." Yerushalmi strongly insists on this point: "It was ancient Israel that first assigned a decisive significance to history." 2 How is it, then, that historiography played practically no role in traditional Jewish culture—that it was rejected, as in the case of Rosenzweig, rather than set at the center of Jewish life?
Yerushalmi leaves the question open, giving us only a hint as to the direction in which we should look in order to find an answer: he points to the distinction that one ought to draw between "historiography" and "collective memory." From the very first pages of his book, he also insists on the vital functions played by myth and rituals in the "memory" of the great religions of antiquity but also in that of the Jewish people today. This, however, is the precise point on whichRosenzweig might have been relevant to him and is relevant to us. Rosenzweig deserves our attention not so much because of his negative attitude toward historiography or because he succeeded in reappropriating his Jewish heritage without help from history. He is important, rather, because he put at the center of his thought the question of myth and, more particularly, of the role played by myth in our understanding of history. One may well say, indeed, that one mainstay of the [End Page 226] argument in The Star of Redemption is precisely to bring out the difference between recalling a mythological story and recalling or narrating the past as Jews do, for example when they narrate the story of slavery in Egypt. 3 But what is this difference?
This is not merely a Jewish question or a question merely for the historian. It is also a question for the philosopher and actually one of the oldest of philosophers' questions: Socrates, or, rather, Plato, arguedthat knowing is always, in a sense, remembering, recalling something we always know already. 4 Yet if knowing is always in a sense remembering, it is certainly not the case that remembering always is knowing. Socrates' project consisted precisely in bringing out the difference between, on the one hand, that "memory" (mneme) that is no knowledge—mythical memory—and, on the other hand, knowing by "recollection" or anamnesis. Isn't this also Rosenzweig's own project? Whetheror not he himself would have been ready to consider his own question as a philosophical one is much debated, and I come back to that issue at the end of this article. Yet whatever answer we give, the affinity between his question and one of the oldest philosophical queries must be kept in mind. This affinity becomes even more striking when one notes that Rosenzweig's reasons for rejecting the philosopher's approach are the same as his reasons for rejecting the historian's: in both the philosopher's and the historian's approach he sees a failure to overcome myth—and to overcome "paganism" (Heidentum), of which myth is one central...