Thoughts to Ponder, Number 14
3 Tishrei, 5760; 13 September, 1999

Yom Kippur and Arthur Schopenhauer

Without any doubt all religions and philosophies are confronted with the question how to relate to "existence." Should one oppose "existence" and ideally opt for "non-existence" or should one see "being" as good and "non- being" as the opposite.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), one of Germany's major philosophers and author of "The World as Will and Idea" could perhaps be seen as Europe's greatest pessimist. In his works, Schopenhauer has no good word for "existence." From his youngest days on, he sees the world as an ongoing disaster, and Shopenhauer therefore lives in constant fear that things will only get worse. Danger is everywhere, and therefore 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 trusts is his dog, but as for man, there is no one to have faith in. Life is an ongoing deceit, harsh and cruel.

Why, then, are there optimists in this world? How, then, is it that some people live in joy and see everything in a sanguine light? How is it that these people deny the truth and ignore the fact that this life is really a catastrophe? Why will they not see the truth? Well, argues Schopenhauer, the aggressively optimistic philosophers of the Western World have fallen victim to a vulgar buoyancy which 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" translated R.B. Haldane and J Kemp, London, Kegan Paul, Trench: Trubner and Co., 1909, vol. 111, 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 will deny that Judaism teaches an optimistic view of life, but does that mean that its optimism is vulgar and self destructive, because it is shortsighted and, therefore, unable to cope when confronted with 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, then, did the Holy One Blessed be He do? He seized hold of the truth and cast it to the earth [where it broke into pieces] as it says, 'You cast truth to the ground' (Daniel 8:12)." (Bereshith Rabbah, 18:5)

Nearly no midrash wants to be taken literally. Every midrash wants to be taken seriously. When it speaks about the origin of man, it is trying to tell us something about the human condition. This midrash is clearly "disturbing" because it makes the point that truth needs to be thrown to the ground before the creation of man can take place. 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 appears. To create man one has to remove all romantically "optimistic" views about human existence. Not even the good Lord, so to speak, has the power to indiscriminately silence all opposition: To create man is taking a risk, and the pessimists have a point.

Meshech Chochma (Bereshith 1.31) explains that while all creatures were blessed with: "And God saw that it was good," this is not so with man. Not even God could "see" what man will become, whether he will be good or bad. For God to "see" 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, and 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.

So pessimism is born: Man may go wrong and indeed he may become a "Schopenhauer disaster." The midrash knows that truth is cast to the ground, and so 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 the German philosopher would have it?

There is only one response possible. It is as if the earlier mentioned midrash has anticipated Schopenhauer: "Then the angels of service said to God, 'Lord of the Universe, how can Thou despise Your seal (the truth?)' And God responded, 'Let Truth arise from the earth, as it says: "Truth springs from the earth." (Tehilim: 85:12)'" True, the truth will have to rise from the earth in "broken pieces," but there is a purpose; so that man will be able to 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 go wrong 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 is the underlying motive of Yom Kippur. It is a protest against Schopenhauer and all dedicated pessimists. It gives testimony and is a warning not to yield to death 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 it is a festival of joyous life: It is a plea to endure, for it is only defiant endurance which reveals the fact that truth, however broken, remains the seal of God: "Avinu Malkenu, seal us in the book of life."

Gemar chatima tova.

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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