(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.” 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.” 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.