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.
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.