The Jar is One Eighth Full: The Case for Jewish Optimism
I’m an Orthodox Rabbi, and I’m an optimist.
Optimism is out of place in the Jewish community. Every year, Jews are chronologically further removed from the events that founded the Jewish tradition, and there’s a foreboding sense that as time goes on, Jews are becoming progressively removed from their spiritual traditions as well. Indeed, one could say that contemporary assimilation is predicted by the theological concept of “Yeridat Hadorot”, “The Decline of Generations”, which affirms that every generation is spiritually inferior to the previous one. Jewish law assumes that contemporary Jews cannot understand religious texts as profoundly as previous generations, and even the ability to concentrate during prayer has been lost. Yeridat Hadorot can leave Orthodox Jews in particular with the melancholy feeling that we have missed the boat historically, that the golden age of Judaism occurred generations ago.
Historically, the 20th century was a challenging time for Jews. The enormous destruction caused by the Holocaust has left many Jews feeling like orphans in history, torn away from a culture that embodied authentic Jewish practice. And the unprecedented tranquility that Jews have experienced in the last 60 years has ironically had an unexpected negative impact. Jews were always prepared for the challenges of discrimination and anti-Semitism; but we have been woefully unprepared for the challenges of prosperity. Affluence has brought with it a soul numbing materialism that leaves many people uninterested in religious values and spiritual depth. Acceptance into mainstream society has enabled Jews to comfortably work with, live with, and marry with non-Jews. Jews are well accepted into all strata of American society, to the point that the engagement of President Clinton’s daughter to a Jew went unremarked in the national press. Considering the powerful forces for assimilation, it’s easy to imagine the gradual disappearance of the Jewish people. Indeed, in one lecture, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik related that worries about assimilation literally kept him up at night. Jewish optimism seems impossible; there are just too many things for a Jew to worry about.
But Jewish pessimism is costly; worrying too much leads to anger, distrust and paranoia. Paranoia makes it impossible to see the world clearly; concerns about anti-Semitism become inflated, and a President who is less supportive of Israel than his predecessor is immediately branded an anti-Zionist, and his Jewish aides branded self-hating Jews. In this culture of pessimism, disagreements between Jews become exaggerated, and political and ideological rivals are no longer opponents, but rather enemies. (Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination is the prime example of this, but the needless hatred that led to his assassination can still be found today in many groups on both the left and the right). In the religious realm, every choice is endowed with excessive significance, to the point that Jews who agree 98 percent of the time with each other consider each other irreconcilable foes, all because of an ideological nuance. Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin astutely predicted that healthy criticism can morph into unhealthy condemnation, and create a paranoid atmosphere where anyone to one’s right or left is hated for their fanaticism or heterodoxy.
What we all need to remember is that the most critical message of Chanukah is optimism. The iconic ritual of the Menorah reminds us that we must consider the possibilities even one measly jar of oil holds; miracles are possible, if you make the effort. And we light the Menorah on the darkest, coldest nights of the year to show that even one candle can shine bright with the spirit of redemption, and to symbolize that even a few ill prepared people can take on a powerful army and change the course of Jewish history.
There many areas that Jews can be optimistic about today. The State of Israel remains a miracle 61 years later, and some of her most devoted supporters are non-Jews. Young Jews still exhibit remarkable idealism and devotion to higher ideals; and many Jewish communities are thriving, and filled with passion. And today, Jews have remarkable economic resources, and Jewish philanthropies raise billions of dollars a year. The Jewish people have come a long way in the last sixty years.
On Chanukah, it’s time for some Jewish optimism. It’s time for Jews to stop looking for the worst in their fellow Jews. And it’s time to celebrate the possibilities of the Jewish future, because when it comes to Jewish destiny, the jar is never seven eighths empty, it’s always one eighth full.