U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Passover and Philosophy of History

(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of weekly guest posts by Rivka Maizlish. — Ben Alpers)

This week, every Jew who celebrates Passover becomes an historian. Passover, a holiday devoted to retelling and reexamining the past, uses several of the historians’ and the pedagogue’s tools to access history. During the Passover Seder—like an extended seminar with food and wine—participants retell the story of slavery and exodus in the form of a narrative, they begin the examination of the past with a series of questions about the present, and they engage with previous interpretations of the past— all methods central to the historian’s practice. Yet Jews celebrating Passover are obligated to become unusual historians; they are not commanded to study or to understand the past, but to experience it. Every Jew must feel as if he or she personally experienced slavery and liberation in Egypt.

Historians tend to regard the notion of personally experiencing the past with skepticism. We fear that this attitude would destroy the “noble dream” of objective analysis, or we insist that it is impossible to access and experience the past. Several writers of history, however, from Jules Michelet to Lewis Mumford, have believed that they were living in or with the past they studied. R.G. Collingwood, Oxford archeologist and philosopher, would have seemed comically out of place at a Seder, but in his The Idea of History, a collection of lectures published posthumously in 1946, Collingwood embraced the idea of re-experiencing the past as not only possible or desirable, but essential to historical knowledge. “What must the historian do in order that he may know [the past]?” asked Collingwood. “The historian,” he answered boldly, “must re-enact the past in his own mind.” In other words, to discover an idea from the past, Collingwood asserted, “the historian must think it again for himself.”[1] Following Lockean psychology, which separates knowledge of the word from knowledge of the thing, Collingwood argued that “merely reading the words [from the past] and being able to translate them does not amount to knowing their historical significance.” Only after re-enacting the past, insisted Collingwood, “has [the historian] any knowledge, as distinct from merely philological knowledge.”[2] The Passover Seder involves rituals designed to affect the senses so that Jews do not only comprehend words like “slavery” and “freedom,” but actually feel slavery and taste freedom—the only true form of historical knowledge, according to Collingwood.

Food plays a major part in the Passover endeavor to re-enact the past. Like the student who tastes hardtack in her high school history class, Jews at Passover eat matzah—not too different from hardtack, in fact—to experience the bread of slavery. Horseradish elicits the tears and the bitterness of slavery, and a sweet dish embodies the contrast of freedom. In addition to food, participants at the Seder eat while reclining to re-enact the luxury and sweetness of freedom, and Passover songs and prayers always use the dreaded “we”—anathema to historians—repeating “we were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Over several centuries of diaspora, Jews have created countless new Passover rituals, all designed to re-create the past. The Freedom Seders of Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary Labor Seders or Palestinian Solidarity Seders all represent an attempt to bring the past to life by recasting it as part of an urgent present.

Skeptics may be right to point out that the past remains in accessible, both to historians and to Jews carefully performing every last Passover ritual. But students of history and the philosophy of history should ask what, exactly, if not the “actual” past, is re-enacted or created through the Passover rituals aimed at accessing the past. For the Seder suggests a unique philosophy of the human relationship to history, and reflects a longing to access something that transcends time. Passover can be an occasion for liberation from the bonds of vulgar historicism, if historians remember that our subjects, from Michelet to Mumford to everyone sitting around a Seder table, often believe they can access a space outside time.



[1] Collingwood, The Idea of History, 282.

[2] Collingwood, 283.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “R.G. Collingwood, Oxford archeologist and philosopher, would have seemed comically out of place at a Seder, but in his The Idea of History, a collection of lectures published posthumously in 1964, Collingwood embraced the idea of re-experiencing the past as not only possible or desirable, but essential to historical knowledge.”

    That should be 1946.

    • That’s entirely my fault, Varad. Good catch! Rivka wrote the post on a computer that didn’t have number keys (I’ll let her explain further if she’d like) and so wrote out all the dates as words. She had the date correct in the post as sent to me; I simply typed the date in too fast in editing her post. I’ve corrected it above.

      • Ben, I figured she simply transposed the numbers typing quickly or something. I didn’t think she didn’t know the correct date. As for the number-keyless computer, it must be one of those netpads or similar mini-computer.

  2. Also, it might be more plausibly argued that Collingwood’s doctrine of re-enactment is the progeny not of Lockean psychology but of British idealism (of which he was maybe the last light). The historian has to re-enact the past because he has no independent access to it, therefore he cannot experience it empirically. Its existence is purely ideal. Collingwood doesn’t assign the past any independent ontological existence. For him, all we can know of the past is what we can know of it in the present.

    It’s been a while since I read Idea of History so I may be fuzzy on details. Yet I think it’s a misnomer to place Collingwood in the empiricist camp when he came out of a different philosophical tradition entirely.

  3. Ben,
    Thank you for a beautiful description of ritually enacted living history. Whatever the affinities with Collingwood’s idealism, I think the Seder a superior act of historical imagination because it is something more than a mere intellectual exercise. Academic history does things that a Seder can’t, and these things are good and important. But in terms of connecting non-academics to the past in a meaningful way, I think it will always take a back seat to traditional practices like the Seder.

    • Rivka,

      My apologies for attributing the post to Ben. I didn’t read the editor’s note below his name. Thank you again (for the first time) for the post.
      –Chris

  4. Yet Jews celebrating Passover are obligated to become unusual historians; they are not commanded to study or to understand the past, but to experience it. Every Jew must feel as if he or she personally experienced slavery and liberation in Egypt.

    Historians tend to regard the notion of personally experiencing the past with skepticism.

    Collingwood embraced the idea of re-experiencing the past as not only possible or desirable, but essential to historical knowledge. “What must the historian do in order that he may know [the past]?” asked Collingwood. “The historian,” he answered boldly, “must re-enact the past in his own mind.”

    I like this Rivka Maizlish person’s stuff. Is this a “confessing history” thing?

  5. One thing I would add is that while Collingwood was certainly a proponent of historical re-enactment, he also emphasized the necessity of detachment.

    “When, as a historian, I relive in my own mind a certain experience of Julius Caesar, I am not simply being Julius Caesar; on the contrary, I am myself, and know that I am myself; the way in which I incorporate Julius Caesar’s experience with my own personality is not by confusing myself with him, but by distinguishing myself from him and at the same time making his experience my own.” (Idea of History, 174)

    To Collingwood, the experience lost much of its significance without the necessary contrast of the of the historians distinction between the experience of the past and that of the present. Unfortunately, once an idea is introduced into the historian’s mind, it becomes part of their own experience and for this reason, total separation of the two can never happen completely.

    Still, it is important to point out that the Passover Seder is not only significant for its re-enactment of the past but also for the contrast it presents to the present for those participating.

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