La Mémoire Collective
By Jon Pam
Nothing grabs your attention like a pretentious title to go with your matzah. For the non-French speaking amongst you, la mémoire collective means collective memory – that is, a shared pool of knowledge and narrative maintained by members of a community. This is a rather interesting psychological discipline that has spawned all sorts of studies into the analysis of cultural remembrance.
One idea that I want to focus on is memorialisation, or how a group goes about sanctifying in memory a moment or event in its shared history. Often the exercise of memorialisation has been used as justification for war or genocide, or for liberation struggles of various sorts . Yet this process is also evident in our celebration of Passover, and in the Torah reading for today. Our ancestors in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah – and later in exile in Babylon – developed the Passover rituals and associated story as an act of memorialisation. Their aim was not only to collectively remember who they were and where they came from, but to shape the people (i.e., the culture and society) they wanted to become.
Our ancestors had the support of astute scholars who helped interpret as well as create ritual, so we could tell ourselves our story. Ritual is at the heart of society and collective memory, whether for faiths or groups or families. Rituals can be as simple as always having roast chicken for your Friday night dinner or as complex as the practices of avelut (mourning).
It is well-documented that, often, holding to religious beliefs and practices is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety. Modern philosophers have taken this to heart. In his book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (Pantheon, 2012), Alain de Botton argues that many of our modern woes are due to the rejection of such practices, and we need to embrace them once again.
Our Torah reading today has a problem. I will not mince my words: this might be one of the most barbaric stories we tell ourselves. Not only do we get the death of Egypt’s first-born (Exodus 12:29); we seem to revel in the bloodiness of it, with extra detail about how we are to coat our doorposts with goat’s blood (Exodus 12:22). Yes, we are told that we are not to celebrate the Egyptians’ deaths, only the emancipation – but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Yet the rabbis and Temple priests might have understood the healing power of positive sacrament before Western academia and public health professionals were even a reality. Alongside many of our most traumatic tales, we find practices like dipping our finger in the wine to lament the plagues on the Egyptians, or leaving a part of our houses unpainted in mourning for our lost Temple. A friend of mine who is studying to be a therapist described such practices as “mass cognitive behavioural therapy”. Rituals, like the people who practise them, can be as disquieting or healing as we choose to make them.
Jon Pam is the Community Development Director for Masorti Judaism