My Dear Rabbi Column for August: Can I make her forget my bad behavior?

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

I am generally a polite, well-mannered person. Yet I feel like my significant other keeps track of any lapse in my behavior when we are together, especially if something that I did embarrassed her in public. I was recently rude toward some noisy people when we were out in a restaurant. Now she reminds me about this occurrence whenever we go out. This makes me sad. What can I do to make her forget about this?

Memories in Mahwah

Dear Memories,

In the personal question that you pose you do raise one of the most complex issues of human culture. Does a person have the right to have acts that he or she commits to be forgotten? If you did something that you do not want remembered, can you get it erased from the record?

The answer to your direct query is there is nothing you can do to make your significant other forget your actions. Our biological memory banks are hardwired to preserve certain data in a special way. We have a prominent place in our psyches where we store information about people or events that we judge harmful to us or dangerous to our well being or survival.

That includes a wide spectrum of events and facts ranging from personal acts between people to more global events and intelligence data about dangerous threats, past and present.

The question you pose operates on an individual memory level. You want your significant other to suppress a particular act of yours from her memory-bank.

The question you pose also can be applied to collective as well as individual memory. Just how much should a people, a tribe, or a collective continue to recall the past?

Consider that religion in general serves in part as that element of our human nature that selects and preserves memories. We Jews as a collective have decided never to forget many accumulated past bad deeds that were threats to our survival. And we make the act of remembering those bad things into sacred acts.

The fast of Tisha B’Av, for instance, memorializes the destruction of our Temple 2000 years ago. The feast of Purim recalls the threats to our people by political foes in ancient Persia. Holocaust Remembrance Day concretizes the more recent memory of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah.

Zachor (remember) is the mitzvah to remember Amalek, the ancient enemy of Israel. And in the modern era in the ’60s and ’70s in NYC the militant JDL — the Jewish Defense League — coined a slogan to justify their activism against physical threats to Jews in Brooklyn: “Never Again.”

It’s in our DNA to remember. As a people, we evolved biologically and culturally to value the preservation of memories. We believe this helps to protect us from extinction by honing and perfecting our tribal memory of dangers and threats to our continued existence.

In light of all this, it seems to me that if you or others acted badly, you have no right for your acts to be forgotten and little chance that those acts can be erased from memory once they are recorded. Our human genetic makeup is programmed to retain bad memories so that we will survive. Our Jewish DNA — if I could argue that it is distinctive — is even more sensitive to the need for preserving such memory.

Intriguingly, the question you pose pertains by extension also to the modern digital memory maintained by Google in its massive databases.

In Europe, now people can petition Google to remove certain negative search results about them. That by no means removes the evidence of their bad deeds from the historical records. It just gives people the feeling that they have some power over Big Brother Google. The petitioners can get the search results about themselves filtered, and thereby they can can slow down the process by which the bad information about them can be found by everybody else on earth.

Google as a corporation has no actual biology or DNA. It has a business model and algorithms. Yet keep in mind that these factors were designed and programmed by human beings. It’s more than likely that basic drives for human preservation are embedded in the computer code that processes Google searches.

Even if you live in Europe and can get Google to “forget” you, the best you can hope for is that your negatives will not appear in the search results for your name. There will be other searches that do retrieve the bad information about you that remains in the databases.

Let me come back to answer your personal question. Memories may fade. They may over time get lower search-optimization in the consciousness of our partners, our community, and our cultures. But it’s unlikely that the bad deeds you do will be forgotten.

People die, and so eventually some privately shared memories of your restaurant bad behavior will die too (unless they are memorialized in a memoir or diary or letters). And sure, you can put distance between yourself and the bearers of troubling memories by ending your relationships.

Based on the principles I described here, what then is the bottom line? On a personal level my advice to you is: Don’t do any bad things in restaurants. She will never forget.

And my advice to the world at large is: Don’t do any bad things to us Jews. We will never forget.

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