In synagogue over the last two days of Rosh Hashanah, I was struck by a passage that I never really noticed in previous years. It’s from Zikhronot, the prayers or verses of remembrance in the Musaf Amidah that we recite on the holiday:
You remember the deeds of the world and You are mindful of Your creatures since the beginning of time.
Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.
Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze;
You remember every deed, and nothing in creation can be hidden from You.
Everything is revealed and known to You, Adonai our God; You see to the end of time.
It is You who established a rite of remembrance, to take account of every being, every soul, to recall the multitude of deeds, and call to mind countless creations.
That image a God that remembers every being that has ever lived—and every deed that’s ever been done—since the beginning of time, reminded me of two passages in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which serve as bookends of the text.
The first has to do with Eichmann. One of Arendt’s most puzzling complaints throughout the book is that Eichmann repeatedly forgot or got wrong critical facts about his involvement in the Holocaust. She keeps coming back to his faulty memory, almost as if his forgetfulness were of equal stature with his other crimes, a crime unto itself.
She seems weirdly puzzled and even more weirdly outraged by his lapses of memory. The lapses, after all, seem perfectly explicable as convenient stories Eichmann told in order to save his life. And regardless of their explanation, don’t they pale in comparison to the mounting detail of his involvement in the mass murder of the Jews? Why is Arendt so fixated on them?
As she narrates Eichmann’s slow ascension in the Nazi chain of command, her animus for his terrible memory reaches a climax, when she recounts in chapter five his testimony to Israeli interrogators about a trip he made to Bratislava in 1942:
What he remembered was that he was there as the guest of Sano Mach, Minister of the Interior in the German-established Slovakian puppet government….Eichmann remembered this because it was unusual for him to receive social invitations from members of governments; it was an honor. Mach, as Eichmann recalled, was a nice, easygoing fellow who invited him to bowl with him. Did he really have no other business in Bratislava in the middle of the war than to go bowling with the Minister of the Interior? No, absolutely no other business; he remembered it all very well, how they bowled, and how drinks were served just before the news of the attempt on Heydrich’s life arrived. Four months and fifty-five tapes later, Captain Less, the Israeli examiner, came back to this point, and Eichmann told the same story in nearly identical words, adding that this day had been “unforgettable,” because his “superior had been assassinated.” This time, however, he was confronted with a document that said he had been sent to Bratislava to talk over “the current evacuation action against Jews from Slovakia.” He admitted his error at once: “Clear, clear, that was an order from Berlin, they did not send me there to go bowling.” Had he lied twice, with great consistency? Hardly. To evacuate and deport Jews had become routine business; what stuck in his mind was bowling…
The second passage occurs near the end of the book, in Arendt’s discussion of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt, who gave Jewish partisans in Poland forged papers and military trucks. For five months in late 1941 and early 1942, Schmidt helped save Jews, expecting and receiving nothing in return, until he was arrested and killed by the Nazis.
Reflecting upon the power of Schmidt’s actions, Arendt points out that a critical weapon of the Nazis was to deny their opponents—and their victims—a heroic or even individual death. Where the God of the Jews remembers every being and every deed, the Nazis sought to make their victims and opponents—and all they had done during their time on earth—”disappear in silent anonymity.” Hence, the industrialized murder, followed by a near total erasure of the crimes.
But while the Nazis tried ”to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear,” the Schmidt testimony revealed that “the holes of oblivion do not exist.”
Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing [including Schmidt’s good deeds] can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run.
We have here two tales: one of forgetfulness, which is an adjutant to the most heinous of crimes, if not a crime in its own right; one of recall, which is often the only helpmate goodness in this world can have. The first is the servant of evil; the second of, not godliness, but goodness. Reporting on the testimony of Schmidt’s deeds in the Jerusalem courtroom, Arendt writes:
During the few minutes it took Kovner [the witness] to tell of the help that had come from a German sergeant, a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question—how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told.
And here we come back to Zikhronot. The God that remembers every person that ever existed, and every deed that was ever committed, is a God who makes goodness possible by ensuring these holes of oblivion do not exist. Arendt was no believer, but she was, I’ve argued, a deeply Jewish thinker, and in a trial in a courtroom, she found not the God of the Jews but an imperfect entity that might serve the same function: ”a rite of remembrance, to take account of every being, every soul, to recall the multitude of deeds, and call to mind countless creations.”
* * * *
On an unrelated note, I couldn’t help noticing a marginal note in the mazhor. In a discussion of the Aleinu, the prayer we recite at the conclusion of every service, the editors make note of an interpretation of the prayer that first arose in the 19th century. It was then, apparently, that rabbis began to argue that a passage that previously had been understood to refer to the establishment of God’s sovereignty across the earth should now be understood to refer to the injunction to repair the world. Men and women, in other words, must work to establish righteousness and justice throughout the world. Whether and how that injunction was connected to the establishment of God’s sovereignty across the earth wasn’t made clear, at least not to me. But what was clear, extraordinarily and powerfully clear, is the editors’ conclusion:
Even earlier [than during the nineteenth century], Maimonides (12th century) had argued that the single most important characteristic of God’s sovereignty would be an end to one people dominating another.