"From Eternity to Eternity": Thoughts and Considerations in Honor of Passover

By Moyshe Shtarkman, translated by Ross Perlin

This essay by cultural critic Moyshe Shtarkman (1906-75) was first published in April 1960 in the journal Folk un velt (Nation and World). In it, Shtarkman stitches together a complex, wide-ranging argument that historical memory, exemplified by the Passover seder and the retelling of the exodus from Egypt, has been a key factor in Jewish historical survival. Citing famous Jewish historians and thinkers of different eras (Josephus, Simon Dubnow, Hermann Cohen), he also suggests that the very idea of historical memory and national identity may derive from the Jewish prophetic tradition. There is a specifically “Jewish way” in world history, a kind of historical mission that must be remembered and continued. The Jewish “greatest generation” to which Shtarkman himself belonged came through the Holocaust and founded the state of Israel—a powerful demonstration that the cyclical drama of Jewish history is still far from over. In 2011, the Yiddish Book Center's fellows went to New York to pack up Shtarkman's library and prepare it for the trip to Amherst. Emma Morgenstern wrote about the trip in the Summer 2011 issue of Pakn Treger.

The Jews are a historical people—not only because they are an old people but also because they are constantly being called upon to keep historical memory alive. We are always being summoned to seek a historic rationale for our path through world history, for our ongoing struggle in the wider human arena.

Jewish tradition gives us the keys to many historical puzzles. It tells us that the diasporic history of our people began in the land of Canaan—when our entire people consisted of a single family, the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and that the Lord forged a special divine bond with each one of the Jewish patriarchs that was brought to bear on their children and their children’s children, as all of us know.

The children of Israel were not the only people enslaved in Egypt, but of those enslaved, only the Jews kept historical memory alive. They willingly faced pain in order to read stories about their venerable lineage and about the coming liberation.

However fantastical, the Talmudic and rabbinic legends are starkly realistic when it comes to clarifying the reasons why Jewish national existence continued during the years of bondage in Egypt. The Jews did not change their language there, did not change their names, did not give up their customs, and they took responsibility for each other. “And so,” as the Haggadah says, “the ministering angels of heaven could bear witness that they were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”; this is the inspired conclusion from the foregoing, more sober clarification of how Jewish existence can and must be preserved, even under the conditions of greatest hardship.

Because the memory of peoplehood remained alive among the children of Israel, Moses and Aaron were able to come to them with the message of redemption, urging them to begin a “National Spring” by our own national calendar, which indeed begins in the spring month of Nissan: “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months. It shall be for you the first month of the year” (Exodus 12:2). (1)

Jews have never thought of their history as merely the past. They transformed glorious events from “long ago” into a new “now”: every Pesach, a new exodus from Egypt; every Shavuot, once again the giving of Torah; every Sukkos, resting again in those shelters we had during our long desert wander to the promised land.

Jews have never thought of their history as merely the past. They transformed glorious events from “long ago” into a new “now”: every Pesach, a new exodus from Egypt; every Shavuot, once again the giving of Torah; every Sukkos, resting again in those shelters we had during our long desert wander to the promised land.

Historical memory—a national past kindling the desire for national renewal— enabled the prophet Ezekiel to prepare the Jews in Babylonian captivity for the longed-for return to Zion. Historical consciousness, strengthened by a distinctive way of life, was likewise crucial during the long era of diaspora, from the destruction of the Second Temple up until the Holocaust, that third Destruction. (2) Memory kept alive the faith that our longing would find fulfillment, the longing expressed in the words “Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). And the state of Israel is our longed-for renewal. The Jewish state is Jewish history transformed into a Jewish present. Every event in Israel invites us to make historical comparisons. So it is no wonder that archaeology is all the rage from Dan to Eilat, across all of Israel.

Archaeological digs are proceeding in all parts of the world, especially in lands that have played a significant role in the history of mankind. We dig up buildings that bear witness to the construction techniques of certain peoples; we discover statues that illuminate the art of certain regions; we find fortresses that confirm that certain peoples in antiquity excelled in war; we find fortification walls that bear witness to the hard labor of the period’s slaves. But the most important archaeological finds relating to the Jews of the past have not been buildings or fortresses but written texts whose meanings are the same today as they were when the information was written down: Jewish national consciousness.

In no way does having historical consciousness mean a narrowing of one’s own horizon, a limiting of one’s gaze. Thinking in Jewish historical categories means the universalism of the prophets, the eternal ethical values of our sages, and redemption not only for Jews but for all of humanity. Thinking in Jewish historical categories means thinking about the connections among nations—not only Jerusalem but also Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon; Rome, Athens, and Carthage. It means thinking through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, philosophy and science, economics and politics. Jewish history is a ring that encircles the history of all humanity. The martyred historian Simon Dubnow saw Jewish history almost as an axis running through the center of world history. (3) And it may be fitting to treat a phrase of Hermann Cohen’s as a commentary on Dubnow’s idea—that the whole concept and sense of history, in general, is an achievement of the Jewish prophetic tradition. (4)

To use terms from the world of literature, the Passover Haggadah is the most successful historical anthology in existence. From the slender Haggadah and the inspiration that shines forth from it comes a teaching—that the glories of the Jewish past presage a beautiful Jewish future, because prophecy is really the spirit of Jewish history. The Jewish religion has brought forth many distinguished individuals, but the central hero of Jewish history is the entire Jewish people—so it has been from the exodus from Egypt down to the present day. The accomplishments in terms of learning and in the realm of conscience, the achievement of being a scattered minority in a hostile non-Jewish world—these are attainments without equal in the annals of humanity. Only faith has given the Jews this strength. The historian Josephus Flavius, son of Matityahu HaKohen (5), already knew this, at the time when our nearly 2,000-year martyrdom was only just beginning. In his work The Jewish War, he emphasizes that religion caused the Jews to become a people—a people their enemies could never conquer.

The Passover reminder “remember the exodus from Egypt” keeps Jews’ historical memory alive. Our journey from bondage to freedom must remain an eternal reminder to be free in spirit, even when physically enslaved. Jews trapped in medieval ghettos—indeed, Jews in ghettos of every era—have understood this. They were prisoners, but they were not slaves; if they had been slaves, they never could have managed to create those values of the spirit with which we still nurture ourselves today.

A single comparison is sufficient to understand the difference between Jewish history and the histories of those foreign peoples among whom Jews have lived in the course of diaspora. While the historical development of Jews and the Jewish religion occurred at the same time, the religion of other peoples was brought to them from the outside. In many cases, “national beliefs” were imposed on subdued peoples either by foreign invaders or by their own brutal rulers. Thus was it possible for one Christian people to go to war against another and for the sword of Islam not to spare even a people believing in Islam. Among Jews there could never be such a division between the purely national and the purely spiritual. In the introduction to his history of Jewish philosophy, the erudite and often impenetrable David Neumark underlined that spiritual unity is the axis on which the entire national development of the Jewish people has turned.

We have to think in historical categories and research Jewish history not to boast but to spin the threads that link us with all other generations of Jews. We have to ensure that those who come after us will continue spinning the threads. Instead of seeking people to brag to or answer to (as Jewish apologists do), let us rather get to know ourselves better, our national identity and the spirit of our people.

Jewish history is very much an exact science, and all of its predictions have come true. All clever heads put together cannot contradict the facts of our historical experience. There is a “Jewish way” in world history, and we must continue farther along on that path. True renewal does not mean throwing out the old. A true renaissance uses what is valuable from the past in order to enrich the spirit of the present and the future. Jewish history is written not only for the telling but for the showing. Failing to recognize the manifestations of Jewish history means ignoring the truth that our past as a people has bequeathed us, denying a legacy.

Every generation of Jews has a special mission to enact and to repeat certain episodes from the history of previous generations. Our generation of Jews recapitulated the martyrdom experienced by every generation of Jewish martyrs—and it also lived to repeat the glories of the exodus from Egypt and the return to Zion. No previous generation of Jews ever experienced a historical period simultaneously filled with so many destructive and redemptive experiences. Our generation, the generation whose sons and daughters fought inside the ghetto walls and stormed the fortresses of Arab enemies, has demonstrated for future generations that the living legacy of the past is not some additional burden. It is an inheritance of culture and civilization, by which cultured and civilized Jews can be enriched and strengthened during great crises and signal acts of heroism.

The Jews have remained a people from the exodus out of Egypt up until now because in every generation we had idealists who refused simply to imitate other peoples. Learning from other peoples is no sin, but mimicking others means denying one’s own self.

We need to have a historical approach to all problems, and to problems of the spirit absolutely and without doubt. A historical approach teaches us that Jewish history never flows peacefully. Every epoch in Jewish history is a drama—and not some self-contained little chapter but the beginning of yet another drama. The Jewish historical drama can be heroic or tragic, but it should never be turned into a tragicomedy, with unconscious Jews as the protagonists.

As we are speaking of eternity—of Jewish eternity—we must remember that the word eternity has a double meaning. There is the eternity of the past and the eternity of the future. And when we speak of the Jewish historical path, from eternity to eternity, let us consider the deep import of a short saying, an aphorism sculpted by a great Jewish mind, that of the medieval philosopher, astronomer, and Bible commentator Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom. He reminds us, just as he reminded his own generation, “Living means thinking and remembering.”

Writer and linguist Ross Perlin is the assistant director of the Endangered Language Alliance, where he directs the Jewish Languages Project, and the author of Intern Nation (Verso, 2011). He was a 2015 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow, working on a collection of Moyshe Shtarkman’s essays.

1 Although the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) falls in Tishrei, the seventh month, Nissan is technically the first month because of this verse from Exodus.

2 The Yiddish word for the Holocaust, khurbm, means “destruction” and refers back to other major “destructions” of the Jewish past, including the destruction of the two temples.

3 Perhaps the greatest of all historians who wrote in Yiddish, Dubnow (1860–1941) was killed in Riga during the Holocaust.

4 Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) was a famous German-Jewish philosopher.

5 Shtarkman is citing the best-known Jewish historians of different epochs—Josephus (37–100 CE) wrote in Greek on the Jewish uprisings against the Romans.