By tomorrow, the various memorials for 9/11 around the country will be matters of memory, allowing us to remember how we remembered. That exercise is worthwhile because it elucidates two different meanings of the word “remember”: the ordinary sense in which we merely bring to mind whatever it is we want to recall and the ritual usage that goes much deeper than that. We remember 9/11 — ritually; we remember how we remembered it — ordinarily.
It’s too bad we use the same word for both. Remembering 9/11 is a far cry from remembering where we put our checkbook or the way it was when we were ten. English sometimes strives to keep them different by calling the ordinary sense “remembering,” and the ritual sense “remembrance.”
We are all familiar with rituals of remembrance, an activity common to most religions but central also to secular communal consciousness. Even societies that deliberately reject religion — France during the French Revolution and the Soviet Union, for example — practice them. If nothing else, they must remember the revolutionary moment in which they were formed, and for that, they need something sacred, if not “religious.” Central to the act is usually an attempt to relive what happened in condensed form: rereading a Declaration of Independence, perhaps, or recreating a mock battle. With 9/11, there were six moments of silence — one for each of the four hijacked planes that caused the mayhem and one more for each of the buildings that crumbled.
Television too played this ritual role by reliving the day’s fateful horrors. Witnesses remembered what it was like; young people described growing up in the shadow of the tragedy, and pundits waxed eloquent on the meaning of the occasion — not to provide information that we didn’t know already, but to ritualize the knowledge we already had, by reviewing it, rehearsing it, re-feeling it, and reliving it.
Because ritual remembrance is a category of the sacred, and because Judaism and Christianity are religions where remembering is central, we can learn a lot about even the secular act of remembrance by borrowing terms and concepts from Jewish-Christian understanding.
First, Christian. At his Last Supper, Jesus famously said, “Do this in memory of me.” Ever since, the primary liturgical act for Christians has been the Eucharist, a ritualized replication of that moment, described by the Greek term for remembrance, anamnesis. The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship calls the Greek word ”practically untranslatable in English. ‘Memorial,’ ‘commemoration,’ ‘remembrance’ all suggest a recollection of the past, whereas anamnesis means making present an object or person from the past.” What matters is this sense of “making present,” as if past and present coalesce into a single intensive experience of “now.” It is as if we are able to inhabit two separate points in time simultaneously. Time stops momentarily (and momentously), as “then” and “now” become the same.
Jews do not use the Greek, but have the same ritual consciousness in, for example, the wedding ceremony where the concluding “seven blessings” (the sheva b’rakhot) invoke the idyllic Garden of Eden on one hand, and final redemption yet to come, on the other, collapsing them both into the current blissful moment under the wedding canopy.
In lieu of the Greek anamnesis, the specifically Jewish contribution is the parallel Hebrew word for remembrance, zekher (or zikaron, a variant that means the same thing). We hear regularly of a zekher with reference to the Temple, creation, leaving Egypt, and other events and realities of another era. But the most telling use of zekher comes from the Talmud which employs the term legally by saying, “There may be no proof for such and such a proposition, but there is a zekher for it.” Zecher Can hardly mean “remembrance” here. It is better translated as,” pointer.”
Now we understand ritual remembrance. It is a pointer that fastens our attention across time, space, and even logic. It attaches where we are to somewhere else we wish to be. It rivets our consciousness on our inherent connectivity to something that might otherwise be lost among the disparate sense perceptions that constantly assail us, as if to say that regardless of how our lives may change, this particular pathway of attentiveness must never be lost. We move on with our lives when the moment of remembrance ends, but the connecting tissue to the event being memorialized attends us wherever we go, deepening our sense of what matters and committing ourselves to the lessons that flow from it.