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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pessimistic Optimism, Optimistic Pessimism and Judaism

Sitting on the floor and mourning the fall of temples thousands of years gone, amid the plenty of an industrial empire has a whiff of perversity to it. "Why bother," some might ask, "Israel has been rebuilt and is home to the largest Jewish population in the world. If you want another temple, build it. With modern construction technology, it can be bigger and better than any before."

But the temple has never really been the point. The loss of the temples is not about buildings, just as 9/11 was not about the loss of two skyscrapers. It is about pessimism and optimism.

Pessimism and optimism are best deployed as perverse qualities. There is no use in being an optimist when things are good. It is simply redundant. Similarly being a pessimist when things are at their worst is equally useless. It is in the seemingly good times that we need to be pessimistic and in the bad times that we must be optimistic.

Judaism incorporates this into traditions that at times seem senseless. There were covert Passover Seders in concentration camps held by the inmates in celebration of the festival of freedom. It takes a perverse sort of optimism to be within a few hundred feet of the gas chamber and still whisper, "I was a slave in Egypt, now I am free."

And now in the middle of the world's greatest democracy, in a land overflowing with everything you can imagine, it takes a perverse sort of pessimism to sit on the floor, and mourn and weep as if you have lost everything.

But this is more than tradition, it is a survival strategy to never take things at face value. To never be comfortable. To be comfortable is to be a sitting duck because it means forgetting that things can change in an instant. That is a valuable lesson taken away from thousands of years of being refugees. The key to surviving that way of life is awareness.

It was not just technology and organization that made the Holocaust so unprecedentedly devastating, it was the forgetfulness of millions of Jews who had ceased to sit on the floor, who became comfortable and at ease. Who believed the liberal promise that the world was now a better place. It wasn't.

The pessimist knows that things can always get worse. And in the summer, when other people light up barbeques and shoot off fireworks, traditional Jews trudge off to remember a litany of tragedies that happened to a people who had become so comfortable that they had forgotten this basic lesson.

Things can always get worse. And when they do, you have to be optimistic. That is the other half to surviving for four thousand years. You won't do it without a sense of humor. Seeing the lighter side of even the most terrible things is a surprising survival method. Laugh at your worst enemies, it works surprisingly well.

Being that kind of optimist isn't about wearing rose colored glasses, it's about remembering that no evil is final. That the worst terror of the present day will pass. That all such things are flecks of dust in the face of the vastness of the universe, the breadth of history and above all of an Almighty G-d.

This is the long view. It is composed of equal parts pessimism and optimism, because how else can you view history, except with that mixture of absurd hopeful tragedy that defines Jewish character. Everything is doomed, but it will all turn out for the best.

We have been around long enough to know that nothing will endure and seen enough to appreciate the things that do. The lesson of history is the ephemerality of all human ambition. It is the message most famously rendered in Ecclesiastes. "The sun rises and the sun sets" (Kohelet 1:5)  and the next day we'll have to do it all over again.

The Jews in concentration camps could look back to slavery in Egypt, and with the perspective of the divine calendar, confidently proclaim that they would be redeemed. Their slavery was a temporary condition. They might not survive it, but that made it all the more temporary. Their freedom had been granted thousands of years ago. It could not be taken away by the Nazis or anyone else.

Those who held on to that kind of faith could dismiss the gas chamber with a shrug. It was a terrible thing, but like Babylon, Assyria and Rome-- it would pass.

But it is paradoxically easier to be optimistic in hard times, than to be pessimistic in good times. When the days are dark, hope is an escape, a thing that people turn to when there is nothing else. When times are good and everything is plentiful it takes a neurotic or religious mindset to remain doubtful. It is a difficult thing to do for most and it is why so few survive.

Civilization breeds us to be sitting targets, to assume that the laws and social mores are iron clad protective forces, rather than fragile expectations that can be broken with a moment's force. This permanence is the cage around the bird and the pen around the sheep. And it is a permanence that we remember to forget when sitting on the floor and recalling the past.

This was the failure that led to the exiles of the Jewish kingdoms, who forgot G-d in their time of plenty, but remembered Him only in their time of suffering. Who assumed that their present comfort was a permanent achievement, that their cities were eternal, their kingdoms unshakable and that there was no larger force that could change that.

9th of Av with its mourning and deprivation is a reminder that it is not in suffering that we forget Him but in plenty. And so in the midst of the feast, we fast. In the middle of a society where the average person lives better than in thousands of years or throughout most of the world, we sit on the floor and remember to mourn. Remember to forget the assumptions that supermarkets, mobile phones and all the security that living in the greatest nation in the world brings. To remember that it can all change.

The feast and the fast are both parts of the divine calendar and they allow traditional Jews to measure the present against the sweep of history. To be optimistic in the darkest times and pessimistic in the best of times. To take nothing for granted, but to know that G-d can change everything we have learned to count on in the blink of an eye.

The divine calendar cuts through modern assumptions like a knife. It demands that we see ourselves as free when enslaved, and as wandering refugees when surrounded by prosperity. It forces us to remember the message of the last king of the united kingdom of Israel in Ecclesiastes. That all under the sun will pass away.

This fragility carries with it a powerful perspective. Those who listen see a crisis coming before it arrives. Not because they are necessarily any better or wiser than the rest, but because their eyes are open. And those who do not listen, linger until it can be too late.

History is the revelation of impermanence. And Judaism is the revelation that this impermanence has a larger purpose. It is a religion of history, whose holy books encompass a history that carries with it its own meaning. Its holidays assemble its believers to remember and re-experience that history.  To stand again at the Red Sea reliving the exodus and to make the long walk out of Jerusalem in the shadow of a burning temple.

History is identity and identification. At its best it does more than tell you where you are, it also tells you why you are. In Judaism, G-d is the First Cause of our history and the guide and purpose behind our religious civilization. He is the permanence in the impermanence of history. The required point of stability in a history in which civilizations rise and fall, cities grow out of the mud and fall back into it, and nothing appears to endure but life itself.

The motion of a permanent force in the impermanence of history is reason for both optimism and pessimism. Both are present in the famous tale of the sages who beheld a fox scampering out of the ruin of the Temple. The three sages who wept on seeing a terrible prophecy fulfilled and Rabbi Akiva who laughed because the fulfillment of a dreadful prophecy meant that the prophecies of a final redemption would equally be fulfilled. Is that optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism? Call it survival.

17 comments:

Lemon said...

It is always one step closer to redemption.
Nice post.

Anonymous said...

James B from Canada - your comment that civilization makes us all targets is correct.

This is why the Incas left their hot cities and returned to the forest. The best example is the famous power outage in NY in 1965.

We are all in a technological trap much more than we realize.

Keliata said...

"But it is paradoxically easier to be optimistic in hard times, than to be pessimistic in good times. When the days are dark, hope is an escape, a thing that people turn to when there is nothing else. When times are good and everything is plentiful it takes a neurotic or religious mindset to remain doubtful. It is a difficult thing to do for most and it is why so few survive."

Neurotic or religious mindset...I think you just described me:) I'm both.


Just because Haman was defeated didn't mean Hitler wouldn't come along centuries later.

OT:Why no groggers for when it comes to Hitler's name?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. Very nice and a welcome break from politics! It got me thinking about how fast our holidays seem to come and go and how rich in meaning they are if we learn about them beforehand. I gained a welcomed perspective from reading this. In my book, you are now Rabbi Sultan Knish.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Keliata, because he's not worth it.

Anon, thank you. But I'm not Rav, greater than anyone else. Just another person.

silentnomore9 said...

Thank you, for this insightful and uplifting perspective. I love to read the stories of Judaism. I love to feel close to the God I love through the stories of the people chosen by God to survive until he returns to receive them unto himself. This one bears re-reading and remembering. I had a friend whose favorite bible quote was "and it came to pass" she said, no matter what came there was great comfort in remembering that it came to pass.

Anonymous said...

"He is the permanence in the impermanence of history",comforting in its optimism, opposite to the atheist's 'I'm the only one' which sounds very pessimistic and lonley.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. Very important concept for everyone and in every day life.
Fed.

Wheezer said...

Poetry. Great teaching for those who wish to think. I agree that Hitler is not worth the noise.

Reflector said...

Awesome!!!!

jlevyellow said...

Bet the number of comments is small; nonetheless it brought me to tears. That's what truth does nowadays.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

it's not the number that matters, it's the sincerity

Sammish said...

In an Americanized and globalized "make yourself look good and a winner" (even if one is a big loser) in order to survive and be on top by any mean necessary (mass media, or personal face to face communication) it is very hard for the average jewish person to contemplate what you have narrated.

I believe Israelis are "on average" much more aware of the impermanence of time and the dangers of nothingness then the typical out of nest American jewish population. Time will only tell if another lesson will have to be learned once again.

Raymond in DC said...

King Solomon is said to have worn a ring engraved with a simple message: "This too shall pass". In good times he would look upon it and be humbled; in trying times, he would look forward to better days.

Anonymous said...

Another piece that drew me in...I start reading, wondering, "Am I into this? Do I understand this?" The next thing I know, I'm hanging on every word and my mind is turning over many thoughts. The level of writing and thinking here is so exceptional and I feel so happy and grateful to have found this place!

Altalena said...

Beautiful post, thank you. However, it's not only optimism that keeps a person going in hard times, but the difference between external reality and internal freedom. Once a person has had a taste of mental and spiritual freedom, it's no longer possible to enslave him by physical means.

At the same time, physical freedom does not necessarily result in mental freedom. Israel was brought out of slavery from Egypt but that generation never surpassed mere physical freedom, they remained slaves in their hearts. It took a new generation to learn what true freedom is.

Even in good times, a wise person will be aware that he needs to nurture and maintain his spiritual freedom to resist evil, for evil will surely come around in one form or another.

1389 said...

This truly is food for thought, not only for Jews, but for all of us.

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