The course of human civilization, if one can use that term, has progressed and continues to, in a series of slow cycles. The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) introduced the now well-known process of change. A thesis, a positive step forward in human affairs that always provokes an antithesis, a reaction, a step backward. Then comes a synthesis, the fusion of the two that leads forward to a higher and better level.
There are always regressions, catastrophes, disasters along the road, but it does seem that overall, we are improving even if there are catastrophic regressions and plenty of evidence of human venality. More people have been lifted out of poverty and slavery in our time than at any other stage in human history. We are seeing how many governments have marshaled their resources and financial power to help mitigate a pandemic faster than any time before. How quickly we have responded with medical and financial tools. Of course, the usual pathetic politicians continue to play the blame game to bolster their egos. But if one can take a step backward I believe we will come to see this era as one of remarkable human achievement. And it has come about because of that human spirit that looks forward.
This positive reaction of humanity is what the idea of Messianism, that we Jews introduced to the world, really means. Life is tough, as the schools of Hillel and Shammai finally agreed, thousands of years ago, after debating the issue for two years. “ It would have been better had a person not been born. But having been born, one must just examine one’s ways.” Get on with it.
If we often do not see progress or the sort of progress we approve of, it is just that we tend to see things in terms of our own short life and attention spans. If we do not see immediate and complete change, we assume that nothing is happening. But in fact, it often does, before our very eyes. Humanity exists on a time scale of billions of years, not just one lifespan.
No one would have foreseen seventy years ago that we would see an Israel for all its many faults, as strong, thriving, and confident as it is today. Despite being divided and surrounded by enemies determined to snuff it out. Or that it would become one of the most successful countries and economies on earth. Or that the Jewish religion would increase in intensity and produce so much scholarship and learning despite the internal conflicts and the depressing number of Jews who assimilate and disappear off the Jewish map. I don’t think we have been stronger in our history.
Other peoples have suffered horrors and oppression. But no other has been so universally detested. For nearly two thousand years the Christian and Muslim world has lied about us, tried to convince, torture, and humiliate us into giving up our tradition. For years religions killed people if they did not agree with their version of peace on Earth. Protestantism challenged Catholicism and both sides went to war against each other. Armies of Sunni and Shiite Islam killed each other over doctrinal differences. It is only in the last one hundred years that many countries have freed themselves from religious oppression and obscurantism while others are reverting further back into the Dark Ages. Except that it is not just religion, but now it is anti-religion that is waging war. Thank goodness throughout the darkness there has always been a small glimmer of hope, a few enlightened souls who have realized there has to be a better way.
I have just read “1848: The Year of Revolution” by Mike Rapport about the second tide of revolutions that tried to push for change in Europe a hundred and fifty years ago. Crowds of working-class radicals and middle-class liberals in Berlin, Budapest, Frankfurt, Krakow, Milan, Munich, Paris, Prague, and Venice challenged, and almost toppled the old conservative, aristocratic regimes in pursuit of a new and fairer order. Nothing between the French Revolution of 1789 and the fall of the Soviet Occupation in 1989 would have such a transformative impact on European politics. And this same process of arrested change instead of hoped-for progress happened in the USA in the aftermath of the Civil War.
What started so hopefully soon receded as the old guard fought back. Their grip took a long time to loosen. But along with their desire for change, for equality of men, women, and refugees came the explosion of divisive, xenophobic nationalism. When the First World War ended, the Treaty of Versailles, instead of completing the process of progress sent it flying backward as its well-intentioned but flawed encouragement of Nationalism almost destroyed European democracy altogether.
The fight for change has often had unforeseen consequences. And ironically it is almost always a rise in anti-Semitism that is the canary in the mine. Wherever it has erupted it has poisoned its perpetrators, undermined them financially, politically, and mentally. It cripples the victims too. Because in having to react to protect and defend themselves they too turn inward instead of outward. Every action has a reaction. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Hatred begets hatred. Violence begets violence. And as we look around us now, we see the same forces at work. Progress, anti-progress, and hopefully resolution.
The rabbis two thousand years ago warned us not to try to predict when the Messiah will come. “ A curse on those who try to predict when the messiah will come,” says the Talmud in Sanhedrin. “Because if you do and then no one turns up, people will become disillusioned and lose faith.” Many Jews blithely ignore the warning. But we need to encourage the idea of hope ( if not the image of the Messiah riding in on a donkey). We need a messianic vision to help us rise above the pettiness and antagonism. This is why Purim, which celebrates survival is followed by Pesah which celebrates freedom, from oppression, to be who we want to be and to see the good instead of only the bad.