Susannah Heschel - Colorado College

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The Importance of Memory in Perfecting the World

by Susannah Heschel
Eli Black Associate Professor of Jewish Studies
Department of Religion
Dartmouth College

May 22, 2005

Thank you very much. I thank you Dean Ashley and Chaplain Morgan, members of the faculty, students who are graduating and your proud and happy families. I thank you for the honor of inviting me to speak to you today.

We are gathered here this afternoon to take a moment in this weekend's great graduation celebrations to pause and reflect. This is a magnificent occasion, a culmination of years of hard work, and it is a moment of transition, leaving an institution which has transformed each of its students. This day of joy is fleeting, as are all the great moments of life, and we gather in a religious service because we want to sanctify this moment. This is a day of celebration; so how do we give our rejoicing a religious meaning? To sanctify means to make this passing moment eternal by bringing it into our memory, to implant it in our soul. The memory we create of this day, may it be a source of inspiration for us in the future, may it be a wellspring we can draw on to remind ourselves of who we are, what we stand for, the kinds of people we aspire to become.

To remember is very much a religious deed, a way to sanctify and a way to act morally. It is a central commandment of the Bible - God tells us, Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Through the power of remembering we human beings transform a day into a holy day. God gives us the freedom and power to sanctify.

Religious memory is sacramental - that means that God is present in the memory. God is in the institutional monument, in the church, and in a holy day of remembrance, in Passover or Easter, or in a commemoration, a wedding, a funeral, a baptism. We invite God's presence into this moment, and in so doing we cultivate our own sensibilities so that we are able to perceive the divine presence. Let us invite God to be with us on this weekend, that our celebration may be sanctified.

For those of you who are students, the many occasions of learning during your past years at Colorado College are now becoming your memories. What will you remember of your courses, of the books you've read, of the people you've met, of the wonderful teachers you’ve had, of the discussions you've held? Many facts and figures will recede, but what will you preserve of your experiences here? How will you be transformed by them?

For those of you who are parents, today brings the poignancy of remembering the birth and childhood, the suffering and the joy of raising up this child, and the wonder of this moment and the achievement it represents on your part.

There are some of you, who may be filled today with sorrow because a close relative has passed away and isn’t here. My own father died before I graduated from college and I missed him terribly. For those of you with such grief, let me tell you about a Jewish teaching that when there is a moment of celebration in your life, God goes personally to the Garden of Eden and escorts the souls of your relatives and ancestors to stand next to you and rejoice with you. So they are here with you, they are around you, and they are within you.

What is the meaning of your years at Colorado College? There is a Jewish story of a young scholar who comes before a rabbi and announces with great pride that he has gone through the whole Torah three times. But, the rabbi asks him, how much of the Torah has gone through you? With all that we study and master at the university, how much goes through us, and transforms us? Do we emerge solely as masters of a discipline, or are we also gaining respect and delight for the wonder and marvel of the world, for the diversity of creation and its gifts? You have gone through Colorado College; what of Colorado College has gone through you?

What is the ultimate significance of education? God calls upon us to cultivate our awareness of the greatness and mystery of life, to remember that each person is an image of God, to seek moments of holiness, and to make our own lives instruments for perfecting the world. "Stand still and consider the wondrous works of the Lord," says Job. We human beings will not perish for lack of information, but we may perish for lack of appreciation. Intellectual truth is not sufficient, and also the love taught by religion cannot stand alone. They must come together.

Our lives are constructed on memory, but just to remember our own experience is not sufficient. Memory does not stand by itself in biblical theology, it is not an internal, private experience. Rather, memory is connected to empathy and compassion for others, and to deeds of justice on their behalf. Jesus says in the gospels, Do this in memory of me and the Eucharist is the Christian act of remembering Christ. God tells us in the Bible, over and over again, Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt and therefore have compassion for the stranger in your midst. God calls upon us to remember that we were impoverished and to leave some gleanings of wheat in our fields for the poor. To remember, in the religious sense, is always an imperative to take on the obligation of tikkun olam, of perfecting the world. To remember our enslavement in Egypt is a commandment: Never be a Pharoah. Remembering means to ask ourselves, what gleanings from the fields of American prosperity do we provide the strangers in our midst, the homeless on our streets or the many immigrants seeking refuge from political persecution? For we Americans were all once strangers, slaves in Egypt, immigrants to the Promised Land.

What is striking is that in the Bible, memory is not unproductive nostalgia but an invigorating call to action. God remembers the covenant and forgives Israel – memory is linked to compassion, and expressed through justice. Remembering the exodus means that there must never be another enslavement – we must move to redemption. For example, in the United States, the government promises to provide us with defense, yet 44 million Americans have no health insurance, no defense against illness. They are still in Egypt; Pharoah has yet to capitulate.

Surprisingly, in the Bible God also remembers. What does the Bible mean when it says that God remembers? Is not God all-knowing? How can God be in need of a reminder? Doesn’t that violate the tenets of Aristotelian notions of divine omniscience? Perhaps the Bible seeks to emphasize that remembrance means attention to others, God's empathy for experiences that only human beings can have, and the generosity of spirit shown by God, to understand and help us. But note that when God remembers, it always leads to action: God remembers, has mercy, forgives our transgressions. We see that remembering is a divine act, given to human beings as an opportunity for the imitation of God.

How do we keep remembrance constructive and turn away from memories of perceived wickedness and injustice that often lead us to acts of retaliation and vengeance? This is a central religious dilemma; it’s at the heart of human existence, all the more at the forefront since Sept 11 and very much the religious challenge that faces the class of 2005. Theologically, the question is how to keep religion on the path of the prophetic rather than the apocalyptic, the path of tikkun olam, of perfecting the world, rather than on the path that claims that my religion is the only religion.

What we must keep in mind is that no religion is an island. If one religion turns fundamentalist, others will go in the same direction in reaction. We see it happening all around us: it is not only certain American Protestants who have become suspicious of modernity, opposed to religious pluralism, rejecting evolution, but many Muslims and Jews as well – and many Catholics are concerned about the direction that Pope Benedict XVI will take. No religion is an island. Let us be aware that the theological direction we choose for ourselves will ultimately be the same direction chosen by other religions, and let those who take a hard line theologically ask themselves if they truly want the other religions of this small world to be equally hard nosed.

To those who say religious thought is uninteresting to those who ignore religion and say it is the source of all our troubles, let us remind them of the great Civil Rights Movement in this country that did so much to soften hardened hearts and transform our social fabric; it was built on the prophet. There are those who ignore religion as irrelevant – but they do so at their peril – a peril to understanding our culture, and a peril to the richness of our own spirits. Religion, William Sloane Coffin notes, has dual functions: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Today we see a civil war between two kinds of religion, apocalyptic and prophetic theologies, and it is the prophetic tradition that desperately needs our support and we, all of us, need its ascendancy.

Apocalyptic theology proclaims that there is a divinely instituted order to come that is beyond human control, that God has the whole world in his hands – whereas the prophetic tradition places the initiative in human hands. Prophetic theology asserts that something better is coming and that we can bring it into being.

We face serious dilemmas in our world today and we have to ask which theological tradition is grappling with those dilemmas? Too many religious leaders have made religion into something insipid. They try to tame the grandeur and audacity of the Bible and worry instead about petty matters. They avoid the horrifying reality that what philosophers used to call natural evil has increasingly become moral evil. That is, famine is not the result of nature’s lack of rainfall or vegetation, famine is the result of a unfair distribution of resources; there is no famine where there is a functioning democracy, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner in economics, has demonstrated. Environmental catastrophe is not the result of changes in the natural order of the universe, but the result of human greed, self-centeredness, and indifference. Nuclear weapons were developed during the era of Auschwitz, the age of genocide – and the theological question today is not theodicy, justifying God in the face of evil, but anthropodicy: How can God keep faith in us?

We have to recognize that we are responsible for famine, environmental destruction, genocide, nuclear warfare, and that these are religious issues. It is not only the wrongdoing but the complacency and indifference, our refusal to accept responsibility that is the true evil. In the apocalyptic imagination, God is in control of our destiny and we can do nothing to change the course of history. The prophet Jeremiah condemned this and said, 2:14-15: “On your shirt is found the life-blood of the guiltless poor. Yet in spite of all these things, you say: I am innocent. Behold I will bring you to judgment for saying, I have not sinned.”

Today we must ask, is the Bible about the prophetic teachings of justice and righteousness, or is it a vision leading from the creation in Genesis to the utter destruction and devastation of the Book of Revelation? For apocalyptic theology, destruction is holy, part of an allegedly divine plan, and is echoed in the words of General von Moltke’s who said that “in war, Man’s noblest virtues come into play.” By contrast, Habakkuk declares, “Woe to him who builds a town with blood, and founds a city on iniquity!” ( 2:12). King David was forbidden by God to build the Temple in Jerusalem because he had bloody hands, he was a warrior. Peace depends upon righteousness (Ps 85:10). First there must be justice, only then can we enjoy love.

Look at the injustices we face in our society: More Native Americans are imprisoned per capita than any other group. Latinos are the fastest growing group behind bars; 10 percent of state and federal inmates in 1985, 18% in 1995. 47 percent of inmates are black. Keep this in mind when you read the bible. Remember Egypt: create a society of justice, not institutions of punishment.

We all have a deep craving to be liberated from prejudice, a longing to know how to love, how to be compassionate, how to look at other human beings as God sees them. We feel at times overwhelmed by the troubles of this world, and yet we have to remember that the word of God is not in heaven or beyond the sea, it is not too hard for us, it is in our hearts and in our mouths. The challenge is great, but it is not beyond our capacity to perfect this world.

Who will speak for me, asks God, who will remember the covenant of peace and compassion? Can we remember God and find the inner resources to respond like Isaiah, who said, “Here I am, send me.” (Isaiah 6:8).

To live a life in the prophetic tradition is a profound challenge, but it is to that goal that you must aspire and for which you have been educated: to engage in tikkun olam, to perfect this world of ours. Remember that.

King David, on his deathbed, tells his son Solomon: “Be strong and of good courage; Fear not, be not dismayed; for the Lord God is with you. God will not fail you nor forsake you until all the work for the service of the Lord is finished.” (1 Chron 28:20)

Each person is created in the divine image, and each image is distinct and unique, reminding us that it is God's intention to create enormous diversity. Each of us is accompanied by God and each of us goes forth strengthened and conscious of the task, that we are reminders and rememberers of the divine presence that is with us.

May this day be a source of blessing, for the graduating students, for your families, your friends, and your teachers, from this day unto eternity. May this world of ours be blessed and perfected by the tasks you will now take up. Amen.