Journal Watch
Tue, 10/04/2011
Special To The Jewish Week

In discussing optimism, the well-established metaphor of “lemons and lemonade” is invoked: the optimist has the tendency to view the lemon as the source for the lemonade — and not only is it lemonade, but the glass is half-full, rather than half-empty, of the yummy drink.

Lemons or lemonade? Recent articles on Journal Watcher’s desk ponder optimistic analyses of Jewish history, religious affairs, culture and politics. We begin with the Hebrew University’s Israel Bartal, who engages in a historiographical analysis of 19th-century Jewish optimism in responding to “modernity,” which the author claims set the stage for today’s haredi traditionalist reaction to modernity and to moderate Religious Zionism. There were numerous Jewish responses in the 19th century to modernity — Reform Judaism, chasidism, Zionism, German Neo-Orthodoxy, the literary Haskalah, socialist Bundism, scholarly Wissenschaft — many of which suggested an optimistic take on the unfolding of history. In “Messianism and Nationalism: Liberal Optimism vs. Orthodox Anxiety” (Jewish History, 2006), Bartal maintains that the turning point was the Jewish year 5600 — 1840; he notes that historians offered numerous interpretations of the Jewish century that began in that year. One view, that of 19th-century Wissenschaft, critical Jewish scholarship: “The gospel of emancipation and the winds of cultural openness in Western Europe” presaged an era of progress for Jews. Not so, warned Orthodox Jewish historians; at best these changes “would usher in a period of twilight.” 

But there was a third, relatively minor, group — nationalist messianist interpreters — who saw the year 5600 as marking the start of the age of redemption of Israel in its land. Whence the redemption? Was this new era heralded by the nascent Jewish national movement? Or was it that contemporary events were to be identified with messianic redemption in its traditional sense? Rabbinic leader and proto-Zionist Rabbi Judah Alkalai made an effort to square the circle: he sought to link traditional messianism with an optimistic interpretation of current events. Alkali viewed the varied Jewish responses to modernity — Haskalah, Zionism — as positive signs, and he excoriated procrustean traditionalist rabbinic leaders as rejectionists who were delaying redemption.

Fast forward to 5771, in America and Israel. Sounds familiar? Israel Bartal’s insightful historiographical analysis sets the stage for a curious but cogent article by Yeshiva University’s Daniel Stein. Stein tackles the Jewish religious concept of bitachon — the preferred translation is “trust in God,” although in modern Israeli Hebrew it means “security” — which is the concrete Jewish traditional expression of optimism. “The Limits of Jewish Optimism: The Hazon Ish and the Alter of Novardok on Bittahon” (Tradition, 2010) examines the idea and the reality of optimism in traditional Judaism via a debate between two major rabbinic leaders: Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, known as the “Hazon Ish,” who was one of the major religious figures in the Palestinian Yishuv; and Rabbi Yosef Y. Horwitz, the “Alter of Novardok,” a turn-of-the-century Russian rabbinic innovator.

To the Alter of Novardok, the person believing in a good outcome for an undecided future is a person with bitachon; if he is doubtful, he is lacking in bitachon. The Hazon Ish’s view (rooted in medieval Jewish philosophy) was that bitachon is an elaboration of omniscience and omnipotence: in the words of the Hazon Ish, “nothing happens by chance; everything that occurs is the result of a decree of God.”

Daniel Stein notes that the distinction between the two views has implications in terms of historical, religious and psychological analysis. To the Hazon Ish, the future is never certain:  if calamity strikes, it is the hand of God, directly — never happenstance. Contemporary Jews will find this view challenging because of the related question of human intervention as a means of evading misfortune — a question most salient in the destruction of European Jewry. No answer to this dilemma, but Stein’s article valuable article maps out this rocky terrain.

Baruch College’s Jessica Lang addresses from a literary perspective the obverse side of the “optimism” coin — violence — and looks at individuals in literature whose characters come out of the Holocaust experience. Lang’s literary vehicle in “Violence, Redemption, and the Shoah” (Studies in American Jewish Literature, 2008) is Chaim Potok, and Lang skillfully explores the mechanisms by which violence — actual and imaginary — in Potok’s novels “The Chosen” and “The Promise” can be redeemed. But the violence in Potok’s fiction is minimal; indeed, it is often implicit. Chaim Potok’s claim is, in effect, that art has a unique redemptive power, and that the artist “redeems” historical horror (such as the Holocaust) through the power of his or her art. This works well for war and physical violence, described — and redeemed — in Potok’s narratives.

Lang cannily notes that in Potok’s novels the Holocaust is deliberately placed in a subordinate position in the narrative; it is subject to the storytelling. It “no longer stands simply for itself, and needs to be balanced with the larger message of the novel.” If this be the case, suggests Lang, “what Potok takes to be the unspeakable nature of the Holocaust places it outside art altogether, and, consequently, outside its optimistic redemptive power as well.
All of which leads Journal Watcher to the State of Israel and its problems with peace, and we change direction and look at the negative side of the “optimism” ledger — why optimism sometimes does not work — with former Princeton professor Richard Falk. Falk, notorious for his harshly unbalanced criticism of Israel, analyzes in a review-essay of seven books on the Arab-Israeli peace process (“Camp David II:  Looking Back, Looking Forward,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 2007) the failures of Camp David, the July 2000 unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a “final status settlement.”  Falk predictably plants his flag firmly in the soil of Palestinian rights, with scant attention paid to Israeli concerns and needs — no surprise there from Israel-basher Falk. But of interest is Falk’s geopolitical analysis of the failures of summits to live up to optimistic expectations. Chief among the reasons offered by Falk for the failure of Camp David II is that of false hopes, unrealistic optimism, nurtured by domestic political pressures unrelated to the conflict at hand — clearly the case in 2000 with peace-broker Bill Clinton at Camp David. Israeli — and American — policy-makers, take note!

Not to end an article on optimism on a grim note, but what about optimism in America? According to Gallup, the most “optimistic” place in the country is — you guessed it! — North Dakota.

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs  and organizations. Forthcoming is “The Future of American Judaism,”  a volume in the “Future of American Religion” series (Trinity/Columbia University Press).