One of the most influential theorists of religion in the twentieth century is the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In a 1966 essay called “Religion as a Cultural System,” Geertz (famously, to those of us who study this stuff from an academic point of view) proposed this definition of religion:

Religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

You may want to read the definition over again, and maybe one more time after that. An essential element of Geertz’s approach is that religion, like language, is a symbolic activity. Geertz is a symbolic anthropologist, and he follows in the tradition of earlier structuralist thinkers who saw human life as fundamentally about making meaning of nature and experience. So Geertz’s definition of religion sees the elements of religious life as symbolic, suggesting something beyond themselves. What makes religious symbols so unique–different from, say, a billboard we might see on the highway–is that they feel particularly immanent or real to us. The connections we have with them, the associations they arouse, are uniquely rich.

Geertz’s approach is very useful for many of us today, who see religious activity as fundamentally about meaning. When we read the original commandments of Passover in Parshat Bo this week, in particular the words, “And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I went out of Egypt'” (Exodus 13:8, an approach like Geertz’s makes a lot of sense. Indeed, it seems perfectly aligned with the words and practice as outlined in the Mishnah and the Haggadah, namely that when we say these words we point to the shank bone (in memory of the Paschal sacrifice), making the symbolic food meaningful. As I have written in many other places, the Haggadah invites us to play with history, to recognize that we are in the time and space that we live in, but to imagine ourselves into another time and place. And, at Passover, we aim to do this just as Geertz says: with such an ‘aura of factuality’ that it seems ‘uniquely realistic.’ In other words, our imagination should be so powerful that we can really feel ourselves leaving Egypt.

One of the important critiques of Geertz, however, comes from a contemporary anthropologist named Talal Asad. Asad’s major point is that not everyone engages in practices deemed religious because they’re searching for meaning. In Geertz’s formulation, the quest for meaning is primary (it’s what all human beings try to do), and religion happens to provide a powerful vehicle for meaning. But if other avenues were more promising, people would choose those. Asad points out that many people in the world aren’t necessarily looking for meaning—they’re simply doing what they do, and the motivations for doing so can be extremely varied. As Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist influenced by Asad writes, “Tradition… is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a tradition’s adherents are constituted.” In other words, it’s not that I’m looking for meaning, and that doing the seder provides me with meaning. Rather I am a Jew, and doing the seder is what Jews do. When I enact the seder, I am doing nothing less (and nothing more) than being a Jew.

There is something important and deeply resonant in this critique. In my work in Hillel, I often find that we focus on the word “meaningful.” We feel a need to make everything meaningful, which leads us to want to make meaning explicit, to teach and tell folks, “Here’s what this ritual means.” But I have often felt that perhaps the word we should be equally if not more focused on is “memorable.” We should be helping people engage in memorable Jewish experiences. Memory is a different creature than meaning. It’s something we inhabit, something a bit more porous. Meaning posits that we stand outside of our experience and analyze it; memory opens up to the possibility that we fuse with our experience, or that it fuses with us. It is more elastic, and it can even incorporate meaning.

I have long been preoccupied with Rabban Gamaliel’s statement in the Mishnah, which we repeat at the Seder: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally left Egypt.” To me, the key word in this formulation has always been “as if,” which acknowledges our historical distance from the events of the Exodus and also invites us to get as close to them as we can. To me this one Hebrew word, k’ilu, “as if,” marks what Clifford Geertz and Talal Asad spend hundreds of pages unpacking.

Shabbat shalom.

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The following are remarks I delivered at the Yom Hashoah observance on Monday evening. For an audio version, click here.

Several years ago, the writer Daniel Mendelsohn came to Northwestern to talk about his Holocaust-related memoir, The Lost. In his talk, Mendelsohn reflected on one of the key questions of his book, namely what effects, if any, are at play in the discrepancies between historical truth and the truth of memory. Does it make a difference, Mendelsohn asked, if the historical records show that cousin Fayge died in 1942 and not 1943, as Bubbe remembered it? Or if she was born in 1922, and not 1924, as Zayde insists? Does it make a difference if she spelled her name with an i and not a y, or if her birthmark was on the left arm and not the right?

These are seemingly small details, separated by orders of magnitude from questions of the historical veracity of the Holocaust. What they remind us of, however, is that we are at a critical moment, a “hinge moment,” as Mendelsohn put it. We are at a moment when the Holocaust, the Shoah, is swinging, when it is moving from being memory to being history.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain writes in his Passover Haggadah that history is his story—a story from which are a separate, something we are able to objectify and treat at a remove. Memory, by contrast, is my story, our story. Memory is lived. It is, in the psycho-social sense, an imagination, an imaginary—it is a world we enter into and which enters into us. Or, perhaps, memory is that which constitutes our world. To be human is to have memory, to remember and to re-member—to constitute ourselves by making ourselves members of our story. To remember is to fulfill our role as the constituents, the custodians, of memory.

The work of Holocaust history and scholarship, of documenting and quantifying and using the best of science to understand what happened—this work is vital. But that work runs parallel with the task of remembering, of telling and making meaning, of telling and retelling again. If the former is the work of historians, the latter is the work of artists and actors, writers and musicians, poets and clergymen.

That is why we gather here. That is why we tell our stories: not simply to dryly testify to the historical facticity of the Holocaust, but to do what the Rabbis of two thousand years ago instructed us to do at the Passover seder that we enacted not two weeks ago: b’khol dor va’dor hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah memitzrayim – In every generation each individual is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt. Today we can add that in each generation, each individual is obligated to see himself as if he personally lived through the Shoah. I hesitate to specify whether we must see ourselves as having survived or perished – we are perhaps still too close to the events to know how we lived through. But we must see ourselves as having been there, having suffered. Not to be despondent, not to be fatalistic, not to wallow in self-pity, but simply and powerfully to imagine ourselves as part of the story of the Shoah. That is our duty, to those who perished, to those who survived, and to ourselves. We must make the stories of the Shoah our stories, if we are to keep memory from becoming simply history.

It is that simple, and yet it cannot possibly be that simple. For the phrase “Never Forget,” which has become the motto of the lampcarriers of zekher haShoah, of Shoah memory, begs a question of interpretation: On whose behalf are we not to forget? When we say Never Forget, do we do so on behalf of the khallalei ha-Shoah, the victims and their families? Or do we do so on behalf of humanity as a whole, for the Nazis’ attack upon very concept of what it means to be human?

Likewise, when we utter the more muscular phrase ‘Never Again,’ how do we mean it? To what extent is the Shoah a unique feature of Jewish life, and to what extent is it a feature of the life of humanity as a whole? When we say ‘Never Again,’ do we mean Never again for the Jews? Or do we mean Never again for anyone?

A year ago today, my family and I observed Yom Hashoah in Israel. My wife and I purposely got our kids in the car and began driving so that we would be on the road when the air raid sirens sounded. We wanted our children to see and feel what Yom Hashoah in Israel is: a moment of national unity, a moment of shared memory. When the siren sounds, every Jewish man, woman, and child across the country stops what they are doing—they rise from their desks at work, they stop walking in the shopping malls, they pull their cars to the side of the road and stand at attention. In this singular moment, time overrides space, and commands the attention of a nation.

No one else could observe Yom Hashoah this way, because the Shoah is a unique memory of the Jewish people. (Not, I would hasten to add, because the Holocaust provides the raison d’etre of the State of Israel. That false storyline has sadly become popularized of late, a testament both to the effectiveness of Holocaust education, and ineffectiveness of Zionist education, on the general American public. Zionism predates the Shoah by two generations, and the State of Israel was being built before the ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Shoah perhaps hastened, but certainly did not cause, the establishment of Medinat Yisrael. But I digress.)

The Shoah is a unique memory of the Jewish people. Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, will and must always have a unique memory of the Shoah. The memory of the six million is part of our inheritance, and we are therefore its primary custodians. And yet humanity as a whole must also not only learn the history, but internalize the memory, of the Holocaust. All of us have this duty, whether or not we are Jews. The Holocaust is both a singular event in Jewish history, and sadly only the most grandiose of a tragic litany of genocides in human history.

So when we say Never Again, we mean both: Never Again for the Jews, and Never Again for anyone:

Never Again for Armenia,
Never Again for Cambodia,
Never Again for Yugoslavia,
Never Again for Rwanda,
Never Again for Sudan,
Never Again for Congo,
Never Again for anyone.

And when we say Never Forget, we likewise say it for ourselves and for all of humanity. Particularly now, at this hinge moment of history, when we say Never Forget, we remind and rededicate ourselves to not only learning the facts of history, but to kindling the flame of memory. Particularly now, particularly today, we must remember to remember.

Some of us with young children are blessed with the opportunity to be wide awake and preparing breakfast on a Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. Such is my life. For the uninitiated: At that hour, NPR in Chicago airs funky documentaries on a program called Re:Sound, part of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. This is the stuff that will one day become Ira Glass, but which is today oftentimes just out there, in both senses of the phrase.

Lo and behold, this morning (or yesterday morning, by the time many of you read this), they’re airing a documentary interviewing what sounded like a bunch of American World War II vets. I tuned in mid-way through. They’re telling their stories about their ship being stopped, something about the British and the French and the Germans. I wasn’t paying much attention. I was more focused on brewing my coffee. But then my ears perked up, as they mentioned they were on a ship full of Jewish refugees bound for Palestine. Slowly but surely, it turned out they were telling the story of the ship Exodus 1947, made famous by Leon Uris and Paul Newman. So of course they got my attention.

The story is worth listening to. (Here it is.) What I found particularly interesting, however, was the short interview afterwards with the creator of the documentary. Specifically, he wound up dwelling on the question of whether or not any of these young men were aware of what they were getting into when they signed up. Most of them claim they were, but one of them says the others are mis-remembering, that in fact none of them knew that they were going to be attempting to run a British blockade and be part of a story that would turn the tide of history. The producer reflects on the way in which we tell our stories, and how our narratives don’t always jibe with history, even though they are true to us now.

One reaction is to point out the poetic symmetry between this moment of mis-remembering and the more famous conversation around the fallibility of Holocaust testimonies, which Daniel Mendelsohn explored in his book Lost. What does it mean, and what does it matter, to say that this kind of thing is counter-factual? It doesn’t do a great deal to the story itself, but it tells us a tremendous amount about the human psyche. At the same time, it calls into question our notions of objective historical truth in ways that may be troubling.

Related to this is the broader question of the relative value of history and memory, a timely question as Passover fast approaches. In his seminal book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi makes this very distinction (he was an emininent historian at Columbia), arguing that it is memory and not history that preserves the Jewish people. I have reflected on this before in relation to the Exodus (from Egypt, that is): the historical question (did the Exodus really happen?) is not nearly as meaningful as What can we learn from the story of the Exodus? As anyone who has read the book of Exodus knows, it is an account full of gaps and questions–the stuff of midrash. And as anyone who has read the Passover Haggadah knows, we don’t even read the story of the Exodus at the seder! Instead we cut straight to the gaps and questions and midrash. (As the Mishnah tells us: “One begins in shame and ends in praise. And one expounds–creates midrash–on the passage [from Deuteronomy 26] ‘My ancestor was a wandering Aramean’ until its conclusion.”)

We are too close to the events of Exodus 1947 to stop being interested in the facts. They matter too much for present-day politics. But as the producer of the episode said, he aimed to sidestep those questions for the purposes of this story, and instead chose to focus on the enduring human questions within the story as it is told by its participants. This is an essential move for a twenty-first century consciousness–for those of us drawn to religous narrative and all of us striving to be human.