Remember the Days of Old



Old pholotsHaazinu is powerful poetry, often difficult both in its language and in its message. The verses near the beginning of the parashah seem less a farewell address from Moses than a prophetic diatribe and fearsome warning. The basic pattern is clear: it speaks of the unmerited, beneficent gifts God gave to the people of Israel, their insensitive lack of gratitude and betrayal of their Benefactor, and the resulting divine anger leading God to a promise of frightful punishments, stopping just short of annihilation (Deuteronomy 32:8–26). The message is that in times when things seem to be going well, when the Jewish people are prospering, thriving economically, comfortable with their lives, they are most likely to forsake the Eternal and turn to false gods that begin to demand their loyalty and allegiance. Each generation may indeed draw a message for themselves about the implications regarding their own society.

I would like to focus on the verse that introduces the passage above that begins, Zechor y’mot olam:

“Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of ages past;
Ask your parent, who will inform you,
Your elders, who will tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

This verse serves as the motto for the historian, a validation of my own academic work in studying and teaching and publishing aspects of the Jewish past. Why is this important? Why should progressive rabbis and ideally all progressive Jews have some exposure on a serious academic level to the history of our people in the medieval and modern periods?

For anyone interested in interfaith dialogue, it is certainly not a healthy approach when Jews come with the simplistic attitude: “Your ancestors persecuted my ancestors: Crusades, ritual murder, poisoning the wells, forced conversion, massacres” — especially when many of the “memories” of such persecutions are historically problematic. For periods extending more than a thousand years, Jews were totally dependent on the policies of the Christian and Muslim governments, and the behavior of the populations where they lived was crucial for Jewish survival. There were of course instances of persecution, almost always condemned and often punished by the sovereign, but the prevailing policy both under Christianity and Islam was a one of toleration that — under specific ground-rules — enabled Jews to live and often to thrive while observing their own religious traditions. The policy regarding deviant, “heretical” groups within Christianity or Islam was generally less tolerant than that regarding the Jews.

The obligation to remember the days of old has special relevance regarding the Holocaust. Following the dramatic court victory of Professor Deborah Lipstadt over David Irving, dramatized in the recent motion picture Denial, it seemed as if there would no longer be a need to present the massive factual data documenting the implementation of the Nazi policy to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe. Yet, largely because of the Internet, there has been a recent reinvigoration of Holocaust denial, especially online, representing the phenomenon of “post-truth.” Internet searches reveal such titles as “Holocaust Against Jews is a Total Lie — Proof,” or “Jewish Scholar Refutes the Holocaust.”1 While this seems to be a lunatic fringe, it remains extremely disturbing to see such absurdities in the public domain.

On the other hand, there is a tendency on the part of some who are firmly committed to the reality of Nazi genocide to repudiate and condemn any comparison between the experience of Jews under the Nazis and contemporary problems. A recent column in The Jewish Chronicle stated, “In 2015, 200 people, including 20 rabbis signed a strongly-worded open letter from the Jewish Council for Racial Equality condemning Britain’s refusal to admit more [refugees] from the Calais migrant camp. They compared the migrants’ plight to that of the Jewish refugees trying to flee Hitler.” The columnist condemned this comparison, writing that it was “odious to instrumentalise the Holocaust in this way.”2

Is this comparison between current refugee policies and those of the late 1930s indeed “odious”? Certainly, part of our remembering the days of old should include the SS St. Louis, which departed from Hamburg in May 1939 with some 937 refugee passengers bound for Havana, only to be informed upon arrival that the Cuban government had altered its immigration policy and would not allow the passengers to disembark. The United States Coast Guard then patrolled the area near the Florida coast to ensure there would be no attempt to land in US territory. Nor would the Canadian government accept the refugees. The ship returned to Europe, and its passengers were disbursed in England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands; many of them did not survive the war. Other aspects of extremely restrictive American policy toward potential Jewish immigrants in the late 1930s may also seem to have contemporary resonance. There will always be differences between various groups seeking asylum, but certainly such comparisons between present-day policies and what we “remember from days of old” are legitimate and often justified.

Yet invoking “the lessons of history” is frequently more complicated than it may seem. The often-quoted statement by George Santayana, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is actually extremely problematic. “Remembering the past” may indeed lead to questionable decisions about the present and future. To cite one historical example: in September 1939, following the outbreak of war in Europe, the overwhelming majority of American rabbis, who for six and a half years had been vehemently condemning the Nazi regime in Germany, argued in their sermons that the United States should stay out of this war. They (or, if they were younger, their own rabbis) remembered having been persuaded in 1917 to enter a European conflict based on inspiring slogans: it was “the war to end war,” “to make the world safe for democracy,” to facilitate national self-determination. But none of these ideals had been successfully achieved. And there was a downside in addition to the loss of life in combat: important principles of social justice — freedom of speech and assembly, a reasonable limit of hours in the workweek, guarantees against child labor — had been sacrificed once America entered the war. So these rabbis, “remembering the days of old,” applied the lessons of the First World War to the new war, not realizing at first that the situation in 1939 and 1940, even before the systematic mass murder of Jews had begun, was fundamentally different from the situation in 1914 and 1917.3 The result was German control over an entire continent with devastating consequences.

History never replicates itself exactly. It may indeed be argued that as much trouble results from applying lessons from the past to new situations that appear to be similar but are always somewhat different, as from not applying such lessons at all. The study of history may also enable us to challenge simplistic generalizations that neither reflect the complex realities of the past nor apply in an obvious manner to the present.

To remember the days of old will rarely provide definitive answers for the challenges of the present. Frequently we hear the metaphor of marching proudly into the future. The less inspiring yet more appropriate metaphor would be walking backward into the future, for we can see nothing ahead of us. Even the most highly respected academic experts and news columnists failed to predict the upheavals in the Middle East starting with the Arab Spring, and they have no sound basis for predicting how things will end up in Syria or Afghanistan or Libya or Iran or with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All we can see is what was behind us, and its guidance for the future is always less than clear.

Yet despite the complexities of applying knowledge of the past to the present and future, it is still our obligation to remember the days of old. For this memory — whether it will guide or mislead about the present and the future — remains our precious legacy.

1. See Matthew d’Ancona, Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (London: Ebury Press, 2017); Matthew d’Ancona’s article in The Guardian, review section, May 13, 2017, p. 17

2. Melanie Phillips, “Not All Refugees Are Pure Victims,” The Jewish Chronicle, June 9, 2017, p. 38

3. For a representative example, see the sermon delivered on Rosh HaShanah 1939 by Abraham H. Feinberg of Rockford, Illinois, in Jewish Preaching in Times of War, 1800–2001 (Littman Library, 2008), pp. 389–98

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, after having taught Jewish Studies at American universities for 29 years (Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, George Washington University in D.C.), relocated in 2006 to England for a five-year term as Principal of Leo Baeck College. His recently completed book, Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution and Mass Murder, will be published by Hebrew Union College Press.

Article from Reform Judaism: