All posts by davidpruwer

Extraordinary People: Parashat Pinchas and Heroism

Thomas Carlyle, the great Scottish historian, once said: “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History the Great Men who have worked here.” Carlyle believed that the driving force behind history is its heroes, those unique individuals who rose above ordinary expectations to push mankind forward. Carlyle felt that heroism could be found in poets and politicians alike. There is no single model for heroism.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) delivered these famous lectures 'On Heroes and Hero Worship' in 1840.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) delivered these famous lectures ‘On Heroes and Hero Worship’ in 1840.

Importantly, Carlyle believed that heroism did not require perfection. All human beings have their many flaws and imperfections. And yet, the heroic figures in our ranks manage to channel their energies to seize the moments that shift our paradigms, truly moving history and society forwards. They overcome their human flaws, sometimes surprising even themselves, to alter the world in which they live.

In many ways, the theme which endures throughout this week’s parasha is the idea that extraordinary people can indeed transcend probability and change the world around them. This parasha begins with the story of Pinchas, a figure who went beyond all societal expectations, perhaps even beyond the letter of the law, to fatally punish an insubordinate leader who jeopardised the very integrity of the nation. The Torah describes how the entirety of society, Moses included, simply wept by the sanctuary in despair at the sight of their prince publicly succumbing to temptation.

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) Moses, Israel’s greatest leader,  simply forgot the relevant laws and thus had no response to this calamity. The man who confronted Pharaoh and shattered God’s tablets was caught in a moment of personal turbulence, leaving a momentary harrowing void of leadership. In the midst of all this havoc, it was only Pinchas who understood what needed to be done, and acted. “Pinchas the son of Elazar , the son of Aharon, saw, and arose from within the congregation…” Pinchas had both the vision to see what was wrong and the audacity to arise from the among of the masses.

No one else expected Pinchas to take such a drastic course of action. Interestingly, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) explains that had Pinchas asked the court what to do, “they would never have said to do such a thing.” Had Pinchas asked for legal counsel, the course of action he ultimately took would have been rejected. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) states that the court even considered excommunicating Pinchas had Prophecy not suddenly come to vindicate him.

A few verses later, a similarly extraordinary act is undertaken by the daughters of Zelaphchad.  Zelaphchad’s five daughters raised the right and obligation of women to inherit property in the absence of a male heir. Void of any male offspring, the inheritance laws dictated that Zelafchad’s legacy would be lost. In a moment of extraordinary courage, the daughters of Zelaphchad bring their plight to Moses and question the unfair treatment of their father. After the daughters of Zelaphchad issue their complaint, Moses conveys their cause to God.

In a remarkable parallel to the case of Pinchas, Chazal note that Moses also did not know what to answer the daughter’s of Zelaphchad. The leader of Israel once again had suddenly forgotten the particular laws in question. Ultimately, it is only the word of God that tells us that both Pinchas and Zelaphchad’s daughters acted properly: “And God told Moses: The daughters of Zelafchad speak correctly…” and “And therefore I will give him [Pinchas] a covenant of peace.”

Acts of heroism, which  shatter the expectations and paradigms of wider society, often appear inexplicable to onlookers. The power of societal norms and of deeply entrenched cultural habits are often difficult to transcend. Sometimes moments of crisis leave all in a crippling state of paralysis. What is clear is that both Pinchas and the daughter’s of Zelaphchad were unwilling to succumb to the norm, to mundane predictable prospects. They sensed that a critical moment was glaring right at them and rose to the occasion.

One problem with Carlyle’s writings is that he viewed heroes as objects of worship. Carlyle’s approach leaves one marveling at the splendid heroism of history’s great men, whilst expecting little or no heroism from oneself. Indeed, extreme admiration of others often leads to a sense of personal inferiority. Heroism becomes an innate quality rather than something attained through struggle. The message the Torah seeks to awaken within us is that we all have heroic potential. We certainly ought to admire and appreciate the extraordinary people that have graced the world. Yet, they should also serve as a reminder as to what energies lie latent within us too.

Wishing a Shabbat shalom to all.

May Shabbat bring peace and safety to all those in Israel and the extraordinary soldiers who risk their lives to protect it.

 

Private Chats and Public Debates

In the 18th Century, the coffee house was where ideas were publicly debated. Philosophers, politicians, scientists and thinkers would visit the Parisian salons, the London coffeehouses or the Berlin ‘table societies’ to freely express their thoughts and debate the pressing issues of the day. Your average Starbucks might not boast such high-brow public discussion, yet our modern age still treasures the idea of a public space, both virtual and physical, where ideas can be freely voiced to all. Whether in the field of science, business or social media, modern society values the ability to openly share information for the greater public good.

Varnhagen-Rahel
Many of the 18th Century salons in Berlin were run by Jewish women. One of the most famous was that of Rachel Levin Varnhagen.

The thinker who is perhaps most well-known for his study on the history and philosophy of the public sphere is the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Habermas argued that the formation of the public sphere was a vital step in the move towards democracy, as it provided a space free from state intrusion, where everyone could criticise the acts of government. Habermas believed firmly that once ideas became public they could be discussed and further refined, ultimately arriving at a purer and more accurate notion of truth.

Whilst it may be anachronistic to speak of a public sphere as such in ancient Judaism, it is clear that the Talmud places a high value in forming a space where all voices can be heard. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (Chapter 4) states that when the High Court dealt with capital crimes, the less senior judges would voice their verdicts first. The Mishnah was concerned that if the most senior judges opened the debate with their own opinions, the junior judges would hold back their own thoughts and simply submit to their elders out of respect or fear. The Talmud (Sanhederin 36b) then states that Rabbi Judah Hanasi practised this etiquette in all legal areas, valuing the opinion of all his judges irrespective of rank or profile.

The Talmud also encouraged the many students who were in attendance at all court hearings to speak up if they felt that the judges were erring in their decision, citing the verse: “do not be afraid of man.” (Devarim 1:17) Evidently, the Sanhedrin was constructed as a place where all opinions could be heard, in the belief that truth would ultimately be better served by opening it up to challenges from all. Even the Sanhedrin’s architecture, Levinas writes, was elegantly designed as an open circle to expose itself to the rest of the wider world.

However, the Talmud also felt that the public arena is not the place for all conversations. In a rather curious passage in Chagiga, the Mishnah states that matters concerning the creation of the world ought not be discussed by more than two people at once, that illicit sexual relationships should not to be expounded in a group greater than three and that the Work of the Chariot –Ma’aseh Merkavah– can never be discussed “unless you are particularly wise and understands his own thoughts.” Some conversations, it seems, are better had in private.

In his commentary to this Mishnah, Maimonides writes that topics such as the world’s creation and sexual intimacy happen to be particularly complex and sensitive issues. Indeed, he writes that they touch to the very core of our existence and the nature of the world. Such matters, Maimonides writes, ought only to be discussed “between one man and another.” Maimonides feared that public discussions cannot address all individual private concerns and would thus leave people with half-truths and unbaked theories. Maimonides did not feel that certain people needed to be shielded from these issues, far from it. Rather, he thought that the appropriate format for such discussions was the personal and intimate conversation among a few rather than a public colloquium.

In a recent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argued that the culture of public debate and of extrovert brainstorming often hinders the original ideas that arise in individuals. Cain’s theory argues that when in public, individuals naturally mirror each other and mould their views to fit in with the ideals of the crowd. Judaism too, is no stranger to the notion that crowds and society shape one’s thoughts and actions. Cain thus argues for the world to make more space for individual and introvert thinking, ultimately benefiting the rest of society.

The public arena certainly is a vital and vibrant part of life in modern democracies. And yet, Judaism balanced this emphasis on the public sphere with the importance of the personal face-to-face chat. Public speeches and writings might be good for raising awareness of pressing issues, yet they often cannot address all the private concerns of the individual.  When it comes to the most basic issues of life, the Talmud wanted to ensure that we all have the chance to fully work through all our own unique concerns and thoughts. Sometimes the most profound ideas and thoughts germinate in private and only then influence the wider world.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Jewish Views on Optimism

History has certainly had its fair share of optimists, those who invariably view the world in a positive light and who anticipate a better and brighter future. The 18th Century had Leibniz, the German philosopher who confidently declared this world “the best of all possible worlds.” The 19th Century had its own proponents of optimism; perhaps most prominently Hegel who believed that the world was striding towards a more enlightened, free and prosperous future. There have always been figures who see the glass half full.

However, the past few decades have witnessed an unparalleled flood of literature emphasising the importance of optimism for the modern age. Martin Seligman’s now classic work from 1990, Learned Optimism, opened the gateway to a new field of positive psychology focusing on the manifold benefits of an optimistic outlook on life. Seligman’s work drew on research indicating that optimists were generally better at overcoming misfortunes in life and gave up less easily when confronted with challenges. Since Seligman’s work, numerous psychological studies have been conducted illustrating that optimistic personalities are often linked with better health, longer-lasting friendships, successful marriages and even career triumph. In short, those who look on the brighter side of life actually seem to end up getting more sun.

Recent years have seen this trend gain further momentum with a snowballing of publications on the topic, including Elaine Fox’s Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism (2013), Tali Sharot’s The Optimism Bias (2012), Mark Stevenson’s The Optimist’s Guide to the Future (2012), Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2011) and Tal Ben-Shahar’s Being Happy (2010) to name only but a few. Whether society craves the comfort of such literature out of anxiety or whether our generation is indeed already supremely optimistic remains a question for the sociologists. What seems clear, however, is that modern society appears to have cultivated a fixation around optimism.

Interestingly, this is not the first time in history that a group of thinkers has been preoccupied with the question of optimism. Almost one hundred years ago to the date, Orthodox rabbis at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary founded by Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer devoted their intellectual energies to answering the question as to whether Judaism is an optimistic religion or not. Does Judaism believe the future will be better? Indeed, does Judaism encourage an optimistic attitude to life, believing that redemption, both personal and national, is guaranteed?

Two of the most well-known rabbis to contribute to this debate were Rabbi Isak Unna and Rabbi Joseph Carlebach. Both these figures were rabbinic graduates of the Hildesheimer Seminary and armed with PhDs from the top German universities. Unna wrote his doctorate on the thought of Philo whilst Carlebach inclined towards the sciences, making a name for himself in academic circles for his research into Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Both Unna and Carlebach were deeply concerned with the well-being of Judaism and harnessed the breadth of their education to tackle the central problems confronting Judaism in the modern era. In a period ravaged by war, suffering and widespread despair, it was vital for these rabbis to revisit the principle which held the keys to a brighter future. Both rabbis thus penned works dedicated to the question of optimism in Jewish thought.

Rabbi Joseph Carlebach with his youngest son, Solomon
Rabbi Joseph Carlebach with his youngest son, Solomon

In a fascinating article from 1915, Rabbi Unna identified the fundamental difference between pessimists and optimists. Unna argued that the key contrast lay in how one understands the role of man in the world. At their core, pessimists see themselves as passive recipients of fate, helplessly blown around by the tempest of history. The pessimist is static, either fortunately receiving or being fatefully deprived of worldly happiness. In short, pessimism understands that man has no real control over his life. Thus, when faced with adversity, the pessimist will simply accept the world as it is, rather than seeing how the world ought to be. Rabbi Carlebach similarly argued that pessimists tended to view obstacles in life as beyond their control and thus insurmountable. For Carlebach, pessimism was linked closely with deterministic philosophies, like that of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), which viewed man as fundamentally un-free and bound by the causes and effects of nature.

Both Unna and Carlebach believed that Judaism thoroughly rejected this pessimist worldview and felt a need to respond to Schopenhauer. These rabbis emphasised the true freedom which Judaism endowed upon man. Rather than seeing the world as a series of permanent and unalterable obstructions, closed doors, Judaism viewed setbacks as opportunities for growth and as springboards to inspire achievement. Whilst misfortunes are certainly painful and ought not to be ignored, they also present man with the prospect of progress and growth. The world is not a stagnant fixed conclusion, but an occasion brimming with infinite possibilities.

What is perhaps most interesting about these early theories of optimism is that neither Unna nor Carlebach opted for a blind optimism which unconditionally guaranteed utopia. The bright future would only be attained through hard work and by surmounting the considerable barriers that lay in wait. Unna and Carlebach firmly placed responsibility upon the shoulders of man to locate meaning in the world and to strive towards that meaning. Like the recent positive psychologists, both rabbis strongly believed that optimism itself made that successful future all the more attainable. They drew on the Talmud’s (Shabbat 31a) axiom requiring of man to anticipate the redemption. Once the foundation of hope was in place, all was possible.

Interestingly, both these rabbis also looked to the figure of Rabbi Akiva as the paragon of Jewish optimism. The Talmud (Makot 24b) recounts the reaction that various rabbinic sages expressed in response to the destruction of the Temple. Whereas the host of other rabbis cried in despair upon witnessing the destruction, Rabbi Akiva responded with laughter. It was Rabbi Akiva’s optimism that gave the surrounding sages the hope they needed to endure Roman rule and to perpetuate Judaism for future generations. Avot de Rabbi Natan, the Geonic commentary to Pirkei Avot, also tells of Rabbi Akiva’s optimism in his personal life, which allowed him to overcome numerous setbacks to attain his unmatched level of scholarship.

Both Unna and Carlebach appreciated the value of optimism and positivity almost a century before such phrases became the buzzwords of today’s era. Many of the psychological and philosophical ideas they debated recur in contemporary optimism and positive psychology literature. They believed that the deeply entrenched optimism latent within Judaism gifted it the power to surmount the incalculable suffering endured throughout history. Had Judaism resigned itself to fate, Unna stated, it would simply have ceased to exist. Belief in a better future itself made the possibility of that future all the more probable. 2014 is hopefully not 1914, yet the idea of optimism is still just as vital.