Our Imperfect Memory and its Connection to Jewish History

The following post was initially published in Ha’Am, UCLA’s Jewish student newspaper 2016, Fall edition:


Imagine you were to enter a time machine and travel ten years into the past. To avoid drastically altering the course of history, you would, of course, be sure to keep yourself hidden and avoid all human interactions. Given your curiosity, you would probably want to visit your former home, past school or old group of friends to remind yourself how things used to be. Maybe you would choose to go back in time to an event you remember well or often think about: a bar/bat mitzvah, a time you got into big trouble, or even a first kiss.

What would initially be an interesting endeavor, however, would quickly become a difficult emotional scenario. If you were to actually go back in time, you would realize that everything was different than your recollections lead you to believe. Your friends would be very different than you recalled, the events and hang-out spots you frequented would be almost unrecognizable and, worst of all, the old you would probably be way more different than you remember.

Now, let us take a step back. Memory is an extremely enigmatic subject in the realm of psychology and neuroscience. Simple questions, such as how our brains store memories of our own phone numbers, or why we remember certain events better than others, is the subject of much debate and controversy. Even more elusive is the idea that occasionally, our brains store false memories in our heads. While a diverse array of scenarios can cause false memories — experiences such as priming, trauma, extreme happiness, or depression are common reasons — there is one specific, counter-intuitive cause of false memories that warrants thorough discussion. Interestingly enough, the act of recalling a memory actually causes that memory to change in some way. In order to understand how this works, a brief explanation on the science of memory is in order.

In short, when we are presented with a stimulus that passes a certain threshold — meaning that it is, by some factor, important to us — it becomes encoded into our memory. Then, if this information is impactful enough, our brains will eventually store it into our long-term memory. Once a memory is in storage, it is less likely to be forgotten. For more clarity, think of the difference between your memory of your own phone number compared to the memory of a phone number someone told you 10 seconds ago.

When a memory is in storage, we generally can recall it at some later stage. For instance, if I asked a friend to tell me all about his summer trip, his memory would be recalled from storage. This is the crucial step. Every time we recall a memory from storage, we interact with it in some way or another. When we finish thinking about the memory, it does not simply get placed back into our storage.  Rather, we actually need to re-encode that information before it is able to go back into storage.  When the memory is recalled and subsequently re-encoded it is, in a way, like the initial event is being re-lived and is therefore susceptible to change.

This brings us to the fascinating conclusion that memory is extremely malleable. Our memory of an event will slightly change every time we remember it. In enough time, we create false memories out of real past experiences. While there are many interesting applications of this idea, like reliability of eye-witnesses, treating patients with PTSD, or people who make a legal claim against somebody many years after an event, I think that it can bolster our understanding of and connection with Jewish history.

It is no secret that the vast majority of the Torah is composed of a mythic and fictitious history. No serious historical or scientific argument can be made for a worldwide flood, millions of people leaving Egypt, ancient Israelite encampments in the desert, the list goes on. However, these are not just interesting stories meant for a good read; these “historical” stories make up the essence of what it means to be Jewish.

Jewish history, as delineated in the Torah, is an inseparable part of our Jewish moral obligation. We learn that societies are destroyed when there is moral corruption (Genesis 6:5, Genesis 18:17) and that we need to be kind to foreigners, for we were once foreigners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21). We are taught that some nations are irredeemable for their lack of hospitality (Deuteronomy 23:4) and that because God rested on the seventh day of creation, we need to give our animals and workers a rest (Deuteronomy 5:14). We are, furthermore, told that the happenings and narratives of our forefathers are symbolical and representative of our daily conflicts and struggles, and that we must learn something about our own lives from each of their actions (Ramban Genesis 12:6). In the classical sense of Judaic moral thought, our history as a nation is directly tied to our moral obligations. When the history of the Torah is deemed to be false, what happens to our Jewish moral obligation?

Jewish history is uniquely intended to be constantly remembered, recalled, and relived. Every day, Jews are commanded to remember multiple events in Jewish history — Exodus and Amalek are two examples — and, occasionally, such as with the holiday of Passover, we actually relive our history. It is in this light that the composer of the Passover Haggadah includes the very famous Talmudic line, “In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had left Egypt.” In classical Judaism, history is not meant to be studied solely as a dry, academic endeavor, but rather as an interactive engagement.

Based on what we previously mentioned about memory, constantly recalling our history as Jews involves constantly skewing it, too. Here is a quick example. It is likely that some type of Exodus from Egypt did happen (click here for more), but it certainly did not happen as the Torah recounts. However, when we understand that, according to modern biblical scholarship, the epic of the Exodus would have been written down hundreds of years after the initial event, it makes sense. The story was passed down orally, and every generation recalled and re-lived this story, embellishing it slightly with each recitation until the memory was eventually something completely different.

Ironically, the fact that an event has been purported to have been passed down for many generations, such as the story of Moses at Sinai, is not a proof for the historical validity of the Torah. Rather, it is a reason to be even more suspicious about its historical accuracy, given that these stories were written down in their final form hundreds of years later.

So, where does this leave us? Well, going back to our original case, if you jumped back in your time machine and returned to the present, your conception of your self-identify would probably not significantly change, even if it was based on a faulty memory of your history. The fact that we are constantly “updating” our memories is a natural part of human progression, and it is actually a sign of maturity, as opposed to people who are “stuck in the past.” What is important to our self-identity is not the factual historical event, but how that event molded the way we are today. In this light, we can safely let go of our fear of Jewish history being factually incorrect.

In Judaism’s evolution, the memory of events has certainly changed from one generation to another to such a great extent that the initial event would be unrecognizable. Layers of Midrash, exegetical details, new insights, and fanciful interpretations are constantly added to our cultural history or, as scholars call it, mnemohistory.  Just think about the Talmudic line that all of these interpretations were revealed at Sinai and practiced all along! However, it is unimportant that the ideas rooted in our Jewish memory are historically false. The important matter is that we have, deeply embedded in our collective Jewish memory, a living history that is infused with new meaning each time it is recalled.

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