Hope at a Time of Hopelessness
Hope is not dead, but a considerable part of it died on October 7th. Here's how we can restore and revitalize it.
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A few weeks ago, I received a comment on one of our essays:
“When you’re able, give your readers some hope, too.”
I can totally understand how so many of us want to feel some sense of hope, even if it’s based on nothing more than escapism or fiction.
Ironically, Israel’s national anthem is called “The Hope.” It was originally a poem written in 1878 by Naftali Herz Imber, a Jewish poet from Zolochiv, Poland, a city nicknamed “The City of Poets.”
So, hope is very much a part of Jewish history, the Jewish People, and Israel, and I have no doubt that we will see better days at some point in the future.
But right now the Jewish world is in a dark place. While hope is not dead, a considerable part of it died on October 7th. To restore and revitalize our hope is to embrace this dark place. Not to run from it, not to distract ourselves from it, not to overlook or underplay it. To wholeheartedly tap into and wrap our arms around it.
“Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better,” the late, great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said. “Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.”1
The implication is that hope is an action; the deeper the despair, the more action needed. Indeed, just as peace comes after war, hope comes after action.
In the 1990s, Brad Isaac was a young comedian starting out on the comedy circuit. One fateful night, he found himself in a club where Jerry Seinfeld was performing. In an interview on the website Lifehacker, Brad shared what happened when he caught Seinfeld backstage and asked if he had “any tips for a young comic.”
Here’s how Brad described the interaction with Seinfeld:
“He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall.”
“The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. ‘After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.’”
Take notice that Seinfeld didn’t say a single thing about results. He didn’t say a single thing that about motivation. He didn’t say that it matters to only write jokes that are great, or even good enough, to make it on stage. And he didn’t say how long the activity of writing jokes ought to last.
All that mattered, Seinfeld said, was to “not break the chain.” And that’s one of the simple secrets behind Seinfeld’s remarkable success: remarkable consistency.
Now, what would our Jewish world look like if each of us applied the “Seinfeld strategy” in our Jewish day-to-day lives? What would our Jewish world look like if we did this, in part, by honoring those Jews who came before us? In part, for ourselves, because we must find ourselves in Judaism in order to deepen our relationship with it? And in part, for Jews of the future, so they too can receive, carry, and pass on the Jewish baton?
In the early days of Judaism, we Jews were laser-focused on making things better. After all, this is the original point of Judaism: to be God’s partners in incessantly improving the human condition and our world. God repeatedly told us, the Jewish People, that we are destined for greatness — as long as we remain committed to our covenant with God.
With this culture of improvement, it is no coincidence that so many Jews became economists improving welfare, doctors fighting disease, lawyers pursuing justice, social activists undoing inequalities, and technologists driving innovation — in all cases, refusing to accept these worlds in their present condition.
It is no accident that, after the Holocaust, Jews did not call it “The Naqba,” nursing resentment and revenge, but instead looked toward the future, building a nation in our indigenous homeland. And it is not by chance that Israel today features the only real semblance of democratic values in the Middle East.
This is Judaism’s great contribution to humanity: to show that one can be other and still human, still a loyal and active citizen, still make contributions to every field of human endeavor, and still be Jewish — in deeds, in actions. Judaism is a detailed culture of doing, but we miss the point if we do not continue these cultural traditions with some level of peculiarity, proactiveness, and consistency.
In 1897, Zionist leader Max Nordau said that the “emancipated Jew” Jew in the West has abandoned their “specifically Jewish character, yet the nations do not accept him as part of their national communities. He flees from his Jewish fellows, because antisemitism has taught him, too, to be contemptuous of them, but his Gentile compatriots repulse him as he attempts to associate with them. He has lost his home in the ghetto, yet the land of his birth is denied to him as his home.”
Much has changed since those words were spoken, but we still live with their consequences. The Enlightenment presented Western Jews with a secular promise and rational order in which anti-Jewish prejudice would be overcome and Jewish civil disabilities abolished.
“The reality was that the more Jews became like everyone else, the more irrational and absolute became the prejudice against them: they were capitalists, they were communists, they were too provincial and parochial, they were too rootless and cosmopolitan, they kept to themselves, they got everywhere, they were disloyal, they were suspiciously over-loyal. The more assimilated they became, the more antisemitism grew,” wrote Rabbi Sacks.2
The history of 19th-century Jewry is the tale of a dozen different attempts to find a way out of this trap from which there was no way out. The extreme response was a flight from Jewish identity through intermarriage, conversion, or religionless.
In general, there were two Jewish camps: Jews who decided in favor of Judaism as religion-without-peoplehood, those in favor of Jewry as peoplehood-without-religion. Hence why a set of entirely new constructions of Jewish identity emerged in the 19th century: across the West, Reform and Conservative Judaism; and across the East, movements for Jewish culture.
As these failed in their aims of normalizing Jewish existence, there emerged perhaps the greatest revolution in modern Jewish life, the Zionist movement, a collection of at times conflicting ideologies — some secular, some religious, some political, some cultural, some socioeconomic, some ancient and traditional, others desiring to escape them completely and construct a totally new kind of Jew.
In much of the Diaspora, “a commitment to social equality” increasingly ranked higher in how Jews define themselves compared to, say, “religious observance.”
“Nothing could be more striking than the fact that a people whose very reason for being in the past was to be different, chosen, particular, should today define itself in purely universalist terms, forgetting — surely not accidentally — that it is precisely in our particularity that we enter and express the universal human condition,” wrote Rabbi Sacks.
After a lifetime of visiting American campuses, the late Shlomo Carlebach remarked:
“I ask students what they are. If someone gets up and says, I’m a Catholic, I know that’s a Catholic. If someone says, I’m a Protestant, I know that’s a Protestant. If someone gets up and says, I’m just a human being, I know that’s a Jew.”
Across much of the Jewish world, the seminal Jewish experience for the past two centuries has been a flight from particularity. In Israel, it involved the pursuit of a new identity “like all the nations.” In the Diaspora, it has involved lessening the ritual content of Jewish life toward a path where traditional differences no longer make a difference. Hence the essentially anti-religious liberalism that runs amok through many Jewish communities.
But there are still reasons to be full of hope. A new generation of Jews is emerging, for the first time in many generations, with an undamaged, uncomplicated sense of Jewish identity. They recognize Judaism’s spiritual power and moral grandeur. They are searching for personal meaning, moral guidance, and stability and structure in their lives. They have been touched by the outreach movements, and they are reconnecting with Jewish observance and the study of Jewish texts.
This new generation is far less interested in waging war with other streams of Judaism. It is more secure, less easily threatened, more interested in opening the source of Judaism to everyone than in building exclusive walls.
It is also moving beyond the secondary sources of Jewish identity — antisemitism, the Holocaust, and Zionism — toward a genuine personal encounter with the elements of Judaism that made it a source of inspiration for thousands of years: the love of family, community, education, and philanthropy, its way of translating abstract ideals into simple daily practices, like kosher, Shabbat, and the sanctity of Jewish holiness and difference.
The idea that nearly destroyed us as a faith in the 19th century was that Jews could solve the problem of antisemitism. The truth is that only antisemites can solve the problem of antisemitism. We can be vigilant against it, but we must never internalize it and let it affect our self-identity, and we ought to stop defining ourselves as a people despised by others.
“The Holocaust and the birth of Israel, the two most significant Jewish events of the twentieth century, both had their origins in a single concept — the nation-state,” wrote Rabbi Sacks. “It was the nation-state that gave rise to the ‘Jewish question,’ and it was the nation-state that gave rise to the most powerful Jewish answer, namely, that Jews must have a state of their own.”
If the focus of the 20th century was a Jewish state, in the 21st century it will be the Jewish People. We are a time-tested people, twice as old as Christianity, three times as old as Islam. And if history teaches us anything, it is that Judaism survives not by numbers, but by the quality and strength of Jewish faith — driven by peculiarity, proactiveness, and consistency of action.
It’s not that we must repel secularization. It’s that secularization promised an end to religion, and therefore to religious persecution — but persecution persisted, only now without the confines of religion. Many Jews have been living for some time in a condition of ambivalence and trauma, ambivalence about our history and traditions, trauma about our relationship with the world.
“To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation, or the blind acceptance of fate,” wrote Rabbi Sacks.3
Judaism is, therefore, a forever-enduring struggle against a world that is, in the name of a world that could be, should be, but is not yet. It is the ultimate task, equally challenging as it is rewarding.
Throughout history, when people have sought hope, they almost always find it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the culture, and Israel the capital, of hope.
“Courage to Hope.” Loreto College.
“Love, Hate, and Jewish Identity.” First Things.
“Future Tense: How The Jews Invented Hope.” The Rabbi Sacks Legacy.