Is the Mitzvah of Memory Possible in Whitehead’s Process Model?

By Dr. Arlette Poland

Judaism is nothing if it is not its history. That is what I teach my students. One of the first things they hear and likely one of the main things they remember: Jewish history. All of the experience of the history of the Jews is in every prayer, every service, every line of the Torah and Talmud. When a Cantor does her/his job properly, all the history of the Jews is heard and felt in every sound. History is Judaism and Judaism is its history.

Whitehead taught that the act of becoming involves all of the past being present and available in some way (sometimes very miniscule, of course) for the becoming event. While all the past exists in some way for the event, the becoming event will pay attention only to the past that will be familiar and/or interesting to it. The becoming event will then absorb the past that qualifies as interesting or familiar. This could be called the psychological aspect of Whitehead’s model. He termed this activity of accepting or rejecting an activity done by or with the subjective form for feeling.

As a Jew who is also a feminist and a Whiteheadian in the Process camp, I find the similarity in approach to history between Whitehead’s model and Judaism a curious one. One of the dominant teachings in Judaism today, and perhaps since the beginning with Abraham and Sarah, is to not forget. Don’t forget your ancestors. Don’t forget the suffering of those who went before. Don’t forget your family. Don’t forget your Jewishness.

So, the question becomes: Is it bad for life if we forget? Whitehead asserted that life requires change and newness. Is forgetting a way to get to a newness? I would argue not. Forgetting is not about enhancing or increasing life. Forgetting is loss. It is absence of value. Forgetting is about denying. When there is denying, the thing denied is not gone from the real experience of the past. It is just denied in the experience of the person now.

In Judaism remembering is a mitzvah, a commandment. We are to remember the past and our families. In Whiteheadian Process Philosophy, then, if we remember the past, we are accepting that past into our becoming event and the past lives on. That is the design and purpose of memory according to the Jewish sages. Remember. Do not forget. We are a people of history and in history. Do not forget us all. This memory is life and when lived today it is new.