Paul Mendes-Flohr is providing a fascinating look at Jweish memory and Jewish history in his class on the topic. The reading begins (chronologically) with Spinoza, often referred to as "the first modern Jew," and continues through the 20th century, emphasizing the flourishing of Jewish historiography that began with Spinoza's Biblical criticism and flowered with Mendelssohn and the Berlin Haskalah. The idea of the class is to try to gain a better understanding and fuller appreciation of how Jewish memory and Jewish historiography have been shaped by Biblical and prophetic models of memory and progress; how those models contributed to Enlightenment thinking and then circled back to separate Jewish historical consciousness from Jewish religious memory.
Professor Mendes-Flohr has even brought in that great "Jewish" thinker Friederich Nietzsche, who, while often cited as inspiration for the rise of Fascism and Nazism, also warned of the weaknesses of the "monumental" view of history he espoused. In Professor Mendes-Flohr's words (from the lecture notes he freely shares), Nietzsche understood that this view of history could result in "a frenzy of fanaticism, and [encourage] visionary hotheads and plain scoundrels to destroy empires, assassinate princes, ignite wars and revolutions." In Nietzsche's own words (from his essay, On the Uses and Abuses of History), if monumental history -- built around exemplary historical figures and their heroic deeds -- is placed in the hands of "talented egoists and wild crowds of evil rascals, then empires are destroyed, leaders assassinated, wars and revolutions instigated."
Nietzsche, of course, was not Jewish, and is tarred with the brush of being the preferred philosopher of the Nazis. Here, however, is what he said about the Jews in Human, All Too Human:
As soon as it is no longer a matter of preserving nations, but of producing the strongest possible European mixed race, the Jew is just as useful and desirable an ingredient as any other national remnant. Unpleasant, even dangerous, qualities can be found in every nation and every individual: it is cruel to demand that the Jew be an exception. In him, these qualities may even be dangerous and revolting to an unusual degree; and perhaps the young stock-exchange Jew is altogether the most disgusting invention of mankind. In spite of that, I should like to know how much one must forgive a people in a total accounting when they have had the most painful history of all peoples, not without the fault of all of us, and when one owes to them the noblest man (Christ), the purest sage (Spinoza), the most powerful book, and the most effective moral law in the world. Moreover, in the darkest times of the Middle Ages, when the Asiatic cloud masses had gathered heavily over Europe, it was Jewish free-thinkers, scholars, and physicians who clung to the banner of enlightenment and spiritual independence in the face of the harshest personal pressures and defended Europe against Asia. We owe it to their exertions, not least of all, that a more neutral, more rational, and certainly unmythical explanation of the world was eventually able to triumph again, and that the bond of culture which now links us with the enlightenment of Greco-Roman antiquity remained unbroken. If Christianity has done everything to orientalize the Occident, Judaism has helped significantly to occidentalize it again and again: in a certain sense this means as much as making Europe's task and history a continuation of the Greek.
Friederich Nietzsche, 1844-1900
Nietzsche walked the line between brilliance and insanity until he fell off on the wrong side. But that's not my point. My point is that Jewish memory, as enshrined in the Bible and affirmed by the rabbis, kept Jewish memory apart from critical historical consciousness, even as Jews were kept apart from the broad stream of history. This had a remarkably profound and lasting effect on the way Jews remember things, and on what we consider progress to be. For millennia, Jewish memory was pegged to seminal events in Jewish history, and circumscribed the same mnemonic circle over and over again: every calamity was a reminder of the Temple's destruction, every victory was an Exodus.
Even now, today, we see ourselves -- don't we? -- as burdened by an enormous individual and collective responsibility to do well, get it right, be the rising tide that lifts all boats, and to remember and redress injustice. This kind of thinking isn't limited to Jews, but it is, to a very large extent, the result of Biblical imperative and rabbinic law, and the ways in which these informed Christian thought. As Enlightenment thinking pulled philosophy away from religion, "talented egoists" cherry-picked philosophy for ideas that could foment radical change and wholesale destruction.
Which isn't to say that talented egoists didn't or don't exist in the religious sphere. It's to say that our memory and history are inflected with -- messianic hopes! We remember our own and society's failures, and we work to try to help everything and everyone progress toward an Event or Goal that, in the back of our minds if nowhere else, is ultimately redemptive. As the historian Nathan Rotenstreivch said, Jewish history is "a synthesis between meaning and reality."
It's stimulating to read and think about history and memory -- especially when you're old enough to have a little of the former, and to start losing a little of the latter (thereby appreciating it all the more). But I wonder: what good does it do? At the end of the day, what have you got? Perhaps all this cerebrating and remembering overheated poor Nietzsche's brain. After all, he was reportedly counseled to chill out: "Be more stupid," his colleague Immermann told him, "and you will feel better."
I am fascinated to be discovering how deeply Jewish my thinking is, despite my deeply un-Jewish upbringing; amazed to understand how we are all -- even, perhaps especially the most strident atheists -- wired to think like good little messianists: there's an ultimate state at which things should arrive, and we must help get our world to that state.
"Be more stupid and you will feel better." These immortal words should be inscribed at the gates of every university and library, in order to scare away the meek, the dilettantish and the sensible.
But they haven't scared me yet.