Digital Memories of Passover and Easter

The confluence of Passover and Easter this week seems to beg for comparisons. The pluralistically-minded among us conjure something auspicious and then are challenged to articulate what the relations really are. Can we talk about Judaism and Christianity in the same breath because they are both "Abrahamic" traditions? Both "peoples of the book" (to use a Quranic phrase)? Both monotheistic? Both drawing from a shared moral code?

The French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Léger once discussed religion as a "chain of memory," and I think that this metaphorical process offers some crucial insights for how traditions operate. Judaism and Christianity are chains of memory. And among the links of the chain are the memorial times of Passover and Easter.

We tend to think about memorials as structures in space. The Washington Mall is full of them: built structures, usually made from heavy stone that holds the past down, gravity giving way to gravitas. People travel to the sites, to see and be held by the places, as the journey itself becomes part of the memorializing process.

But rituals are memorials in time. Their gravity comes from their repetition, the multiple links along the temporal chain.

Passover is an annual event that serves as a memorial of, and to, the ancient Israelites, of their time spent in captivity in Egypt, and ultimately their liberation, exodus, and movement to the promised land. Easter is also an annual event, serving to remind Christians of the resurrection of an ancient Israelite named Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. That they are both springtime rituals and both oriented toward themes of liberation and rebirth is not insignificant. Meanwhile, the seasonal timing hints at their connections with ancient agricultural rites.

Passover and Easter are key memorials in their respective religious traditions. They are times for memory to be enacted, to be built.

Only, this memory is not like cramming for the SAT, memorizing bits of information in the head that can be recalled later. Instead, this memory is what we might call digital memory. Which is not what we contemporaries might believe it to be.

I take the term from Stanley Crouch's recent biography of jazz giant Charlie Parker, Kansas City Lightning. Crouch says that part of Bird's bebopping abilities is owed to his acute digital memory. That is, his fingers, his digits, could remember where all the notes were on his saxophone so he didn't have to spend time reading notes off the page. His body remembered. If he thought about what to remember, he wouldn't be so quick, the notes stuttered and scattered. Digital memory is activated in fingers, through arms and mouth.

Crouch's take on a pre-Internet phenomenon clues us in to the digital memorial structures of religious rituals like Passover and Easter.

The Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi looks at the role of remembrance (zakhor) through the Hebrew Bible, and says that the memory enacted in the Passover Seder is not "recollection, which still preserves a sense of distance, but reactualization." The Talmud puts it directly and forcefully: "In each and every generation let each person regard himself as though he had emerged from Egypt." In the eating, the praying, the drinking, and the communing, the present-day community begins the evening in bondage; then they are liberated, and finally redeemed. The past is made real to us through the digits, the sounds, the palate. Matzah, bitter herbs, stories, questions, and a table full of people builds the memorial.

Likewise, Christianity, where bread transcends symbolic dimensions and becomes actualized. The Jesus of John's Gospel says, "I am the living bread which came down out of heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: yea and the bread which I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world." Ultimately, at the Last Supper, Jesus identifies himself with the bread and wine. With his disciples he observes the Passover Seder, taking the bread and wine, telling them to eat of it, and saying, "Do this in remembrance of me." Take, eat.

In the Jewish and Christian chains of memory, the memorializing process is not some type of thinking we do with our brains; it is something we enact through our bodies. This digital memory is touched with fingers, and ultimately ingested, chewed, and swallowed.