Memory and Hope

Forgiveness, Healing, and Interfaith Relations

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Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Interreligious Reflections
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     174 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the aftermath of World War II, existential philosopher Hannah Arendt published an essay called “On Forgiveness” as part of her seminal book, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958). In this piece, Arendt—who had previously fled Nazi-occupied Europe as a German Jew—argues that forgiving others has just as much to do with regaining a sense of agency in one’s own life as it does with absolving those who have committed injustices. Forgiveness is the only unexpected response to instances of deep violence or oppression, she writes, and it is the only action that can break the vicious cycles of retribution that fuel ongoing hatred between groups. Whether or not we ultimately agree with her claim, Arendt’s essay addresses questions that still plague our contemporary world: How can individuals and communities alike confront difficult memories of the near and distant past? And, how might we negotiate a more viable path forward into the future?

The contributors to Memory and Hope bring these same questions to the forefront of their analysis of interfaith relations today. This book is the outcome of the authors’ shared conversations at the 2014 meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, an international and interfaith gathering that strives to foster peace between the world’s religions. Alon Goshen-Gottstein—the founder of the Elijah Interfaith Institute and editor of the present volume—summarizes the aim of this book as follows: it strives to highlight different strategies that religious traditions can offer for “purifying or transforming negative and painful memories” as a means of “reducing the violence [those memories] can generate and setting horizons of hope before religions” (vii).

This collection contains essays from scholars who draw from six faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and Buddhism. Although each author situates the themes of memory, healing, and hope in relationship to their own particular religious tradition, Goshen-Gottstein helpfully outlines two themes that broadly characterize the contributions as a whole. The first theme is that of the “fluidity and malleability of memory” (5), which relates to the papers by Meir Sendor and Florea Keshgegian. Part of Sendor’s aim is to show that even those collective traumas that were endured thousands of years ago, such as the subjugation of the Jews in Egypt prior to the Exodus, can be revisited through a new lens. His focus on “truthful memory” is particularly thought-provoking, as it encourages divided communities to make space for one another’s perspectives without necessarily losing their own. In the subsequent chapter, Keshgegian also stresses that remembering is an active process and subject to change over time, but her work centers around traumas that exceed the limitations of words. She argues that experiences which cannot be narrated may require new rituals that provide a space for a community to “hold” their experiences without necessarily forcing them to work toward forgiveness.

The remaining chapters in the collection center around the idea that attention to a religious tradition’s “higher spiritual memory” (5) can help communities revisit painful and conflicting memories in a more productive way. Anantanand Rambachan points to the importance of liberation within Hinduism, within which fundamental preconditions to attaining freedom are the purification of memory and the recognition of the true nature of reality. Through compassionate dialogue, individuals and communities alike can recognize the oneness of creation by coming to see themselves in the other. Turning to questions about Sikh ethics, Rahuldeep Gill frames his chapter through the lens of the Ardas, a prayer that first recites the historical memory of the Sikh community and then shifts to God. This trajectory serves as a reminder that God also remembers, and God does so by caring for creation. Gill goes on to argue that Sikhs are called to do the same: even in moments of deep hardship or pain, they are called to remember God (simran) by serving and caring for others. One of the many admirable aspects of this article, however, is Gill’s own attention to the fact that not all Sikhs share this perspective. In chapter six, Muhammad Suheyl Umar introduces questions about memory, hope, and the repairing of relationships by delving into two case studies: one concerning Jewish-Muslim relations in the Holy Land, and another about internal relations between Shia and Sunni. Both studies point to the idea that religious teachings need to be situated in their broader context and religious history in order to be fully understood.

The remaining chapters tie together many of the different threads at play in this project. In chapter 7, Michael von Brück and Maria Reis Habito argue that the flexibility of human memory resonates deeply with Buddhist notions of impermanence. From a Buddhist perspective, memory is both a blessing and a curse. For example, memory may help individuals recognize that their personal forms of suffering are a general condition shared by all but, at the same time, memory can bind individuals to particular identities or understandings of the past that inhibit their spiritual development. The chapter concludes by considering how Buddhism’s approach toward memory could prove helpful in conflict resolution, such as in the tensions between China and Tibet. Similarly, this book ends with a short case study that shows how the accumulated perspectives from previous chapters might be applied to imagine peace and reconciliation in Jerusalem, a city whose “memory is inextricably linked with pain” (151).

Though the authors share many common themes and strategies, their frameworks also stand at odds with one another at times. For example, Umar believes that lost memories can be retrieved—a position that differs from authors like Sendor and Keshgegian. Such differences in perspective are not problematic, though. Instead, they invite readers to continue conversations about memory, healing, and hope, and how these phenomena may take shape in various contexts.

Ultimately, Memory and Hope represents an important contribution to ongoing academic, interfaith, and public conversations about how religious communities can engage with painful memories of the past and attempt to negotiate more hopeful futures. This book could be effectively incorporated into graduate-level courses—and possibly upper-level undergraduate seminars—in disciplines such as religious studies, peace studies, sociology, psychology, and other areas. The voices in this collection would pair nicely with seminal works on collective memory (by thinkers such as Maurice Halbwachs and Paul Ricoeur) as well as more in-depth studies of religious responses to mass tragedy such as James Young’s The Texture of Memory (Yale University Press, 1993).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kate Yanina DeConinck is a lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. A noted scholar of Jewish studies, he has held academic posts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University and has served as director of the Center for the Study of Rabbinic Thought, Beit Morasha College, Jerusalem.



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