The Past as Interpretive Narrative

February 1, 2013
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Yakir Englander

The phrase, “Know from whence you came,” compels me and many other Jews to stand at attention. The words evoke a responsibility for cultural gardens deep in my being, planted eons before my parents conceived me, at that distant moment when the divine decision was made determining in which generation my soul would be rooted. These same words, too, sometimes choke out any feeling of creativity or eros, any desire to live in the present and be free of sediments of the past, any wish to breathe freely, to become fluid and formless.

The divine covenant with Abraham is to this very day inscribed in the flesh of the male sexual organ in order that even the most intimate sphere of Jewish existence will remain connected to the past. A story from our rich folklore has Abraham standing at the gates of paradise. He is brandishing a double-edged sword barring passage to any Jew who has had sexual relations with a “stranger” — as if a man who “knows” a woman intimately could ever thereafter consider her a “stranger”!

Today, a common notion that we are caught in a process of “generational decline” forces us to live our present fearfully, with our faces turned backward. We are constrained to believe that “ideal reality” is a reenactment of the past. That would be a futile effort, much like that of a dog attempting to lap up the ocean: a labor in itself doomed to failure, and certain to stifle any possibility that we might recreate ourselves in our own image and likeness.

The poet Yehuda Amichai muses on this subject in a poem:

“Let the Mountain of Memory remember, not I … let all of them remember, and let me rest.”

So, generation after generation, we are born and our male bodies bear witness, showing who we are not. We recognize and identify with each other in the communal showers of Israel’s defense forces, at Jewish summer camps around the world, in the death camps of the Shoah. Whenever we encounter our own small scars, our hearts are filled with the great courageous narratives of Jewish martyrs who died to sanctify the divine name. To use our deaths and our wars in Israel, our narrative of sacrifice (the akedah), and the history of dying in God’s name (kiddush haShem), suggest that we will never consider ourselves whole until the terrible sword wielded by our common father, Abraham, will have completed its work.

But the past also has its advantages. I, for example, was born into a Hasidic community, a narrative rooted in the past. I was given a gift of untold value: The Baal Shem Tov taught me to argue with God and to forego paradise; Rabbi Levi Yitzchok interceded for me when I erred, and Rabbi Itzik’l could be counted on to work miracles whenever called upon. From the Hasidim of Vishnitz, I learned how to gaze upon the face of a tzaddik, and from the Tzaddik of Bobov I learned how eyes may still smile even after the Holocaust.

Thus, the present forged the past that created my present. The unique narrative of Hasidism enabled me to live in a reality utterly different from “modernity,” in which life is too often confined to the “evident,” too often devoid of color and magic. In a world where every action restores and recreates a story, nature mingles with miracle, and life at every instant brings whole worlds into being and sanctifies them.

It is ironic, perhaps, that Jews quote the Mishnah’s injunction, “Know from whence you came,” at one of life’s most difficult moments — the funeral service. We need to remember that the past is a narrative we compose both for ourselves and for the community. Even as we endeavor to describe the past in detail, it is we who are responsible for choosing which events we will entrust to future generations, which droplets of the ocean we will lick up.

We should not, then, blame the past for the consequences of our own choices in this life. And since there is no single common Jewish past — for every interpretive narrative an opposite story may be found — we must choose how to create the present.

There are elements of the past that have no place in our life today. For example, when I hear that peace between Jews and Arabs is impossible because “Esau has always hated Jacob,” I declare now, with my whole heart, “No! This history does not serve us.” Following the example of the Hasidic tzaddik, I am able — as I give shape to my own life — to refuse facets of the Jewish past that were forged in fear. I will not absorb expressions from the past that create in my soul hatred for the “other.”

Truthfully, there are times when that terrible two-edged sword should be sheathed, and returned unused to its angelic guardian.

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Yakir Englander is a post-doctoral fellow in Israel studies and a visiting professor of religious studies at Northwestern University. His doctorate from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem addresses new understandings of the images of the male body in Jewish ultra-Orthodox contexts in recent decades. Englander is vice president of the Kids4Peace Interfaith Dialogue Program in Israel and Palestine ( This essay was translated by Henry R. Carse.

1 Comment

  1. I met Yakir Englander briefly in the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar organized by the Fulbright in Reno, NAVADA, USA. Albeit my meeting with Yakir was short but he has such a peace loving and charming personality that has won my heart. I strongly support his ideas expressed in this paper and his efforts for bring peace and harmony among the Arabs and the Jewish Worlds. I wish there were more Yakirs living in this world to make it a paradise to live.
    May God bless him with courage and success in his endeavors.
    Shahid A. Rajput

    Posted by
    Dr. Shahid Ahmad Rajput
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