All religions and philosophies are, without a doubt, confronted with the question of how to relate to “existence.” Should one oppose “existence” and ideally opt for “non-existence,” or should one view “being” as good and “non-being” as the opposite?
Arthur Schopenhauer, a prominent nineteenth-century German philosopher, and author of The World as Will and Idea, could perhaps be regarded as Europe’s greatest pessimist. In his works, Schopenhauer has not one good word to say in favor of “existence.” From his younger days, he viewed the world as an ongoing disaster and lived in constant fear that things would only deteriorate. Danger is rampant, so he decides to sleep with a weapon under his pillow and refuses to have the barber shave him with a knife, lest he cut his throat. The only one he has faith in is his dog; as for Man, there is no one to trust. Life is an ongoing deceit, harsh and cruel.
How is it, then, that some people live joyfully and see everything in a sanguine light? Why are there optimists in this world, who deny the truth and ignore the fact that this life is really a catastrophe? Can they not see reality?
Well, argues Schopenhauer, the aggressively optimistic philosophers of the Western world have fallen prey to vulgar buoyancy that is rooted in the Jewish tradition! Jewish traditional optimism reflects a “self-congratulatory human egoism, which is blind to all except our [own] all too frail human goals and aspirations.” (Works, R.B. Haldane and J. Kemp trans., London, Kegan Paul, Trench: Trubner and Co., 1909, vol. III, pp. 305ff, 446ff)
Yes, believe it or not, Jews are guilty of bringing some optimism into the world.
Is it indeed true that Judaism is blind to the tragic? Nobody can deny that Judaism adopts an optimistic view of life, but is this optimism vulgar and self-destructive, and are we unable, as a result of this shortsightedness, to cope in the face of disaster?
Rabbi Shimon said: “In the hour that God was about to create Adam, the angels of service were divided. Some said, ‘Let him not be created.’ Others said, ‘Let him be created.’ Love said, ‘Let him be created, for he will do loving deeds.’ But Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will be all falsity.’ Righteousness said, ‘Let him be created, for he will do righteous deeds.’ Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, because he will be full of strife.’ What did the Holy One Blessed be He do? He seized hold of Truth and cast it to the earth [where it broke into pieces], as it says: ‘You cast truth to the ground.’ (Daniel 8:12)” (Bereshit Rabbah 18:5)
Virtually no midrash should be taken literally. Every midrash, however, should be taken seriously. When midrashim speak about the origin of Man, they are trying to give us insight into the human condition. No doubt this is the case with this midrash as well. It is, however, clearly disturbing because it makes the point that truth needs to be “thrown to the ground” before Man can be created. It appears that not even God can create Man unless there is a compromise made in which truth pays the price. There is no “all is well” attitude when Man comes on the scene. To create Man, one has to remove all romantically optimistic views about human existence. Not even the good Lord has the power, so to speak, to indiscriminately silence all opposition. To create Man is to take a risk, and the pessimists have a point.
Meshech Chochma (Bereishit I:31) explains that while all creatures were blessed with the pronouncement: “And God saw that it was good,” this is not so with Man. Not even God could “see” (in anthropomorphic terms) what Man would become, whether he would be good or bad. God’s “seeing,” says Meshech Chochma, implies determinism, i.e., that all creatures will follow their unchanging nature.
Only Man is endowed with free will. He is the great unknown. Hence, the absolute truth, reflected in the existence of God, will have to be compromised, since Man’s very purpose is to be a free agent with the ability to deny or ignore God. And so pessimism is born. Man may go wrong and indeed he may become a “disaster,” as posited by Schopenhauer. The midrash knows that truth is cast to the ground, and all devout Jews know that truth is difficult to bear. But what is the effect of this knowledge? Can it be anything other than despair as Schopenhauer would have it? There is only one possible response. It is as if the midrash has anticipated Schopenhauer: “Then the angels of service said to God, ‘Lord of the Universe, how can You despise Your seal [the truth]?’ And God responded, ‘Let Truth arise from the earth, as it says: “Truth springs from the earth.”‘ (Tehillim 85:12)”
Certainly, the truth will have to rise from the earth in “broken pieces,” but there is a purpose: so that Man will labor to rediscover it, fragment by fragment, without ever seeing the full picture. The truth will not be truth for Man unless he discovers it by way of his own effort. Paradoxically, it is Man’s potential to stray that creates a realistic optimism. The Jew clings to life, despite Schopenhauer, because he knows that since God was prepared to cast the truth to the ground, there must be a Divine plan beyond Man’s comprehension. That is the foundation of balanced optimism as taught by Jewish tradition.
This, then, is the underlying motive of Yom Kippur. It is a protest against Schopenhauer and all dedicated pessimists. It is a warning not to yield to total pessimism as long as the truth springs from the ground. It is an admonition to endure truth and to choose life. Yom Kippur, more than any other day of the Jewish year, would seem to carry the seed for Schopenhauer’s approach. Yet, aside from being a most serious day of fasting, Yom Kippur is a festival of joyous life; it is a plea to endure, for it is only defiant endurance that reveals the fact that truth, however broken, remains the seal of God: “Avinu Malkenu, seal us in the book of life.”
Tizku leshanim rabot!
(This essay appears in my Thoughts to Ponder, Volume One, Urim Publications, Jerusalem and NY, 2002, Chapter 34).