Pessimism Has its Place, But it Doesn’t Define the Jewish Condition

This piece is cross-posted from Eretz Acheret where it was published on 31 March 2011.

The great Jewish writer Shalom Aleichem (1859-1916) said: ‘April Fool is a joke—repeated 365 times a year.’ Does this encapsulate the uniqueness of Jewish pessimism? History has been so awful, so often, it’s like a cruel joke being continually visited upon us. It makes you realise why Shalom Aleichem also reportedly said: ‘God, I know we are your chosen people, but couldn’t you choose somebody else for a change?’

Perhaps I wasn’t brought up right. As a child and then a teenager, I very rarely associated being Jewish with pessimism. The closest I came to it was despairing that Sunday morning’s cheder Torah translation session or musaf (the additional service) on Shabbat would never end. Most of the time I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been born Jewish, to live in the Golders Green area of London, the best city in the world, in England, the best country in the world. Most of what was on offer to me as a Jew was enticing. Yes, there were restrictions, but they seemed a small price to pay for the pleasures and advantages of being a Jew.

Today, weighed down by the warnings of impending disaster and apocalypse about to befall the Jewish people, by a mood of deep pessimism about the future, I wonder whether, as a panglossian youth, I simply ignored the long and intense history of persecution I was also being taught. Or did our teachers and parents simply keep this from us in the post-war world to protect us from the traumatised state world Jewry found itself in after the Holocaust?

I was recently in debate with a prominent right-wing Jewish columnist who specialises in delivering icily coherent apocalyptic rants about Jews in Europe being overrun by fanatical, antisemitic Muslim hordes and Jews in Israel, ill-served by pusillanimous, appeasing leaders, on the verge of extinction by perfidious Arabs. But what bothered me more than her naked prejudice and unmediated pessimism was that most of the Jewish audience lapped it up, seemingly delighted by the idea that they were soon to be consumed by some imminent conflagration. It was as if they were finally having everything they had been taught about the ‘lachrymose’ nature of Jewish history validated by this latter-day prophet. Reflecting on this afterwards, as I tried to work out what I should have said in response, I soon concluded that her entire outlook was fundamentally un-Jewish, that apocalypse was alien to Jewish thought, that the Jewish masses—well, at least the majority of the 200 in the hall—were being led astray by a false messiah.

But it seems that there is ample evidence of pessimism being a beloved Jewish tradition. Morning prayers begin by praising God ‘who has not made me a gentile . . . a slave . . . a woman’. That is: things could have been worse. And they might very well be. ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow’, the Talmud says, ‘who knows what will befall you today?’ As Barbara Gitenstein writes in Apocalyptic Messianism and Contemporary Jewish-American Poetry: ‘the apocalyptic, associated from its inception with times of spiritual crisis of the Jewish people, has appeared most significantly at the periods of catastrophe for the Jewish people.’ Even in America, in an increasingly secular age, where the Jewish community was essentially protected from the Holocaust, ‘the contemporary literature of Jewish-Americans returns to apocalyptic patterns, theories, and devices.’

Here, though, we might take comfort from the fact that pessimism and notions of the apocalyptic are either necessary correctives to an overly-permissive, laissez-faire attitude to morality or a literary device employed largely by poets. In Jewish teaching, if Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks in his book Future Tense is to be believed, Judaism is all about having a sense of hope and purpose about the future. Yes, there is good reason to be pessimistic. Jews lost many battles. But they have never accepted defeat: ‘our story, our heritage, our task, [is] to be a source of hope against a world of despair.’

I may be miles apart from Lord Sacks on some issues, but this is a Judaism I recognize. And I suppose it makes perfect sense since in Judaism the future belongs to God and God will ultimately achieve his purposes. But whether you believe in God or not, maintaining Jewish identity by stressing everything terrible that Jews have experienced over the centuries and will experience in the years to come may appeal to a few, but most Jews will be put off—and rightly so.

When gloom is justified there’s no point in pretending that everything is hunky-dory. But even with all that plagues us today, there is still much to fortify the spirit. To be realistic about danger is not to abandon any vision of the future. On the contrary, our vision of what can be is surely made more realisable when a sober appreciation of risk is taken into account. A bit of pessimism will always have its place, as long as it’s tinged with irony. Einstein set a good example in this respect. ‘If my theory of relativity is proven successful’, he said, ‘Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.’

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