The Rise of Universal Hope

The Rise of Universal Hope

By Eugen Schoenfeld

The first part of this essay on hope can be found here.

There isn’t a more poignant expression of the loss and the hope of regaining of freedom than one written by Jeremiah.

Eugen Schoenfeld

Imagine the prophet standing on a high cliff and watching the first Jewish tragedy unfold. On the road below our people are being taken captive. Jeremiah seeks to bring comfort and hope and prophesizes: A voice is heard in Ramah (Rachel’s tomb). Rachel is crying for her children, and she refuses to be consoled. And the Lord speaks to her: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from shedding tears, there is reward for your labor. … They shall return from the enemy’s land, and there is hope for your future. … Your children will return to their country.”

Similarly, Isaiah loudly proclaims: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your G-d, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her sin is expiated.”

And of course Ezekiel in the prophecy in the valley of the dry bones declares G-d’s words: “O my people, I will bring you into the land of Israel.”

The words of these prophets never left my memory, even in the midst of the darkness in the concentration camps. They were in my consciousness in 1948 as I sat in my room in Germany, listening to the account of the United Nations’ vote for the establishment of Israel a scant three years after my liberation. As the nations voted, I was repeating Jeremiah: “Kol beRamah nishmah bechee tamrurim.

What a joyful end, for indeed Rachel’s cry was heard, and we were about to return to our land.

Tikvah, hope, is an essential entity that makes adjustment to life’s problems possible.

I still recite to myself the adage that my grandmother instilled in me and that upheld me in the many horrendous life situations in the concentration camps and with the difficult life conditions that I faced as I struggled to rebuild my life afterward. She taught me that money lost doesn’t matter, but when hope is lost, all is lost.

It is the opposite of the view of Dante, who proposed the following inscription on the gates of hell: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. To my grandmother, hell is perhaps the place where hope is most needed.

I wish to talk about our collective hope, not personal hope.

If hope is central to the Jewish worldview, why did the Orthodox, especially the Hassidim, intensely hate the Zionists? Why did the Munkacser rebbe encourage his disciples to attend the Russian schools rather than the Hebrew gymnasium?

To answer, I must begin by defining what I consider to be the nature of hope.

Hope is a feeling, a desire and an expectation for a certain condition to happen. It is important to understand that hope arises when conditions of life are bad and we want them improved. I must further propose that hope comes when it is assumed that the undesirable conditions cannot be altered by human beings but can be changed through the intervention of a transcendental entity.

For religious people in general, such intervention will come from G-d. Secularists and Zionists for the most part believe that change comes through human action.

For traditional Jews the departure from Egypt serves as the model of G-d’s action on behalf of his people, and it was He and He alone who actualized that hope. Notice that the Haggadah, the book we read on Passover, does not mention Moses. The rabbis wanted to ensure that G-d alone received credit for the Jews’ departure from Egypt.

Traditional Jews believe that the Jews’ suffering is the consequence of having sinned; that is, G-d punished Jews for their disregard of the commandments, especially for their attempt to become modern.

Many rabbis have proposed that the Holocaust was a punishment because Jews violated the laws and sinned and in so doing violated the covenant with G-d. This perspective is central in the holiday Mussaf service, which states: “And because of our sins we were exiled from our country and alienated from our land.”

In the past when a calamity fell on the Jews, it was taken for granted that it was G-d’s punishment, and they hoped through confession, prayer and above all teshuvah, a return to the proper way of life, to make the relationship with G-d whole and cease the alienation from G-d. Rabbinic teaching made us believe that if we do teshuvah, all our problems will be solved by G-d.

The rise of Zionism created a more secular form of Jewish identity. While Zionists and traditionalists disagreed on the nature of being Jewish, both shared a common history and hence a common national hope of returning to our own land.

Zionist ideals reflected a more secular, national Judaism and opposed the Orthodox view of a return to a theocracy. Moreover, Zionists didn’t subscribe to the view that Jews must be slaves to the concept of a punitive G-d, nor did their hopes in G-d extend to an agent who would actualize their hope and bring them back to the land through a messiah in his own good time.

Zionists believed in the hope that their achievement of independence would be based not on an anthropomorphic G-d, but on the powerful transcendental ideal of the moral-ethical principle of justice. This belief proposed that all people who share a common culture and history have the moral right to live in their own land.

Zionists didn’t believe in the legend of the coming of the messiah. Rather, they believed in the idea that nations subscribing to the moral-ethical principle of justice will inevitably follow an evolutionary path that will lead to a messianic period. This hope was shared by the many nations that believed in the creation of the United Nations.

As I see it, this Zionist view is not strange to Judaism; roots are firmly planted in the ancient aggadot and midrashim. When G-d gave the Israelites the Torah, we are told, He became like the Jews: bound to the principle of moral justice.

This idea is evident in the belief that Jews can demand that G-d follow the laws He himself crafted. In a number of legends we are told that G-d was brought to a beit din (Jewish court) as a defendant accused of violating his own moral laws. In a way, therefore, G-d is also subservient to a transcendent ideal: moral justice.

The early Zionists placed their hope in the same transcendent principle of universal justice. The future of human beings cannot exist by the rule of power; it will not reside in weaponry but in the subscription to justice and human rights. This was Herzl’s dream, which led me to hope that the world would grant Israel the same status as it granted Switzerland, with the right to live in peace and to become a spiritual country for Jews and everyone.

Early Zionism’s hope was based on the dreams of Isaiah, Micah and Joel, who believed that in the end of days people would turn swords into plowshares, nation would not teach other nations war, and everyone would live securely under a fig tree.

Our old hope has to some extent been realized, and now we need a new hope. Let it be the prophetic dream I mentioned before.

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