The Dangers of Idealism

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 8, 2023 / 25 Kislev 5784

This column is the printed version of Rabbi Kosak’s comments from last Shabbat, which describes the difference between hope and idealism.

Reading Time: Fourteen minutes

The Dangers of Idealism

Carl Jung once said that “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.”

I want to argue against idealism by looking at Jacob’s homecoming. That’s a strange topic for a rabbi to take, isn’t it? Aren’t rabbis supposed to inspire us and provide us with hope? Yes, we are, but we must never confuse idealism and hope, for while there is overlap between the two concepts, their differences matter. Let’s see what the Torah has to say about this.

Have you ever wondered what Jacob was feeling as he returned home after he was forced to flee twenty years earlier to save his life? Most of us, after a long trip, look forward expectantly to the return home: a comfortable bed, a hot shower, and a return to the familiar. This was not Jacob’s experience.

In parshat Vayishlach, the Torah provides us slivers of insight, which highlight his tremendous fear that Esau’s desire to kill him had not abated in the intervening years. We see in this episode Jacob’s hard-won knowledge of how violence is tied to the persistence of memory and our difficulty in relinquishing the past in order to build a better present and future. Using the savvy he developed to survive in an often-hostile world, the Torah describes the multiple tracks he utilized to deal with Esau’s potential rage. There are bribes or reparations, depending on one’s perspective, that highlight both a diplomatic approach as well as one of appeasement. The Torah also indicates Jacob’s very realpolitik approach to power and threat in the way he divides his clan into units to ensure that if diplomacy with his brother failed, at least some of his kinship group would survive. Jacob, in other words, can’t afford to be an idealist. Yet by returning home, he is still demonstrating an enduring capacity for hope.

This past week, I have been pondering where Jewish tradition falls on the spectrum of idealism versus realism. It is clear that the majority of the prophets aligned with an idealistic trend, even as they clearly assessed the moral corruption of their respective eras. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once noted in his major work, The Prophets, these were individuals of such heightened sensitivity that even the slightest forms of injustice were unbearable to their own sensibilities.

The prophets operated over approximately 500 years, yet even during their period of greatest activity, they represented only one voice or approach for how to live in the world. Throughout most of Jewish history, including the prophetic period, it is possible to argue that Jews and Judaism have primarily focused their energies on a pragmatic approach to applying the moral insights of the Torah in a very messy world. In more than one location, the Talmud proposes “Tafasta merubah lo tafasta” (תפסת מרובה לא תפסת), which translates to “if you grasp too much, you end up grasping nothing.” In other words, an almost Kantian approach to ethics that doesn’t consider strategy or the uniqueness of a given situation risks any sort of ethical advance. In fact, it often produces immorality. Even in clear cut cases, such as whether a given chicken is kosher, our sages have interrogated the specifics of a family’s economic means, sometimes permitting a chicken to a poor family that under different circumstances they would have decreed to be treif, or forbidden, for consumption. If that is true of a chicken, how much more so in times of war! This pragmatic and situational approach to ethics is embedded within our tradition. It is why Jews often use the Yiddish word tachles, which refers to real and hard-baked facts rather than a more ethereal idealism.

When we scan the contemporary American Jewish world, and the particular ways in which we have applied tikkun olam, it becomes clear that many of us have neglected our commitment to tafasta m’rubah lo tafasta and its injunction to work for the proximate possible. It seems that part of our culture has allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good. For example, I have been at any number of rallies or protests in which Jews, along with the activist class, have declaimed that “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” This is, of course, a bastardization of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This rally chant is a beautiful sounding sentiment, but it fails in two ways. First, if it has validity as a logical construct of how morality operates in the world, we should also be able to say that “justice anywhere is the promise of justice everywhere.” That positive formulation, however, is rarely argued.

Second, this is a case of tafasta m’rubah, precisely because it is impossible to imagine a world without instances of injustice. This rally chant, when thus analyzed, actually is arguing that justice is impossible. Idealism, in other words, can undermine justice by leading us to take strategically naive and often damaging stances. The widespread popularity of the construct of settler-colonialism and its simplistic division of the world into two classes—the oppressed and the oppressors— to explain all injustice is another example of how moral purity quickly becomes misguided, introducing evil, chaos, and incoherence into our understanding of the world and its regional conflicts. Too many people have excused Hamas’ actions on October 7th because of this false construct of oppressed and oppressor. Their justification for Hamas’s evil is sickening and it is also intellectually inane. The rules of war were created precisely because the ends cannot and must not justify any means. When the ends are also highly unlikely to be achieved, such as the destruction of Israel (“from the river to the sea,”) the morality of the means employed becomes even more important because often they are the only achievable end. This is something Hamas clearly doesn’t care about. Unfortunately, they are not alone.

Why have so many of us American Jews gravitated to a prophetic standard of morality that chases after an unattainable purity, one that encourages or condones even the most despicable of actions? At least one answer is that in America, Jews are not responsible for self-governance. That has given us leeway to cling to the other-worldly stance of the prophets, which, let’s be honest, feels very satisfying.

Additionally, most of our Jewish educational institutions lack the time necessary to impart how Judaism’s rigorous case-by-case application of morals aims to achieve a workable moral code. Thinking clearly about how to act as morally as possible in a very messy world is difficult and ultimately unsatisfying work. Henry Kissinger, who died this past week, once responded to his critics by noting that “they did not face the world of bad choices he did.”[1][2]

Jacob did something similar. Faced with difficult decisions, he sometimes acted in a less than prophetic manner, such as when he stole the birthright. How many of us have not failed in similar ways? He was a flawed human still committed to pushing forward the national agenda of the Jewish people and living out God’s command. Yet on the scale of wrong-doing, theft of the birthright, a spiritual gift, is far different than rape, murder, and torture. Just because we can’t live as angels and must choose from a world of bad choices doesn’t make all choices equally moral.

In the end, Jacob and Esau enjoy a rapprochement in the parshah, hugging and kissing. It is a touching scene, so we could be forgiven for wondering if this is not an argument for idealism, as it indicates Jacob’s fears were misguided. From the narrative with which the Torah leaves us, it is unclear; we can’t be sure if Esau had let go of his past hurts, or if he was appeased by Jacob’s reparations. What we do know is that the next time the brothers see one another is at their father Isaac’s funeral. At best, the two brothers have a cold peace. Not an idealistic relationship!

Moreover, the parshah continues with the horrifying story of Dina’s rape, reminding us that the Torah is not an idealistic book, but one dedicated to depicting life as it occurs. This narrative possesses a grim power in the aftermath of October 7th, when countless Israeli women were raped, beaten, and burned. The entire episode of Dina’s rape and her brothers’ bloodthirsty response is deeply disturbing. Yet this year, our horror at their actions is tempered by the realization that the world seems indifferent to the sexual crimes against humanity that were inflicted on innocent Jewish Israeli women. In a binary world where people are either oppressed or oppressor, too many people condoned or even applauded what Hamas did.

H.L. Mencken, a 20th century cultural critic once said with his characteristic wit that, “It is not materialism that is the chief curse of the world, as pastors teach, but idealism. Men get into trouble by taking their visions and hallucinations too seriously.”

I think Mencken is correct. At the same time, it is forbidden for a Jew to despair, and I would hate for you to hear my remarks in a negative light. We are the people of Hatikvah, after all, the Hope. So what is the difference between idealism and hope?

First, it is worth noting that there is no word for idealism in either Biblical or Rabbinic Hebrew. The word in modern Hebrew is אידיאליזם, i-dee-ah-lizm, which should tell you it is a borrowed word, not native to Jewish thought.

The first idealist philosopher is Plato, followed by others, such as Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Berkeley, and Fichte. Each of them, in their own way, claimed ultimate reality was somewhere else, not in this world. Idealism is a mental construct that doesn’t care about the world as we find it. In fact, in certain ways, idealism is detached from and hostile to the real world, which is why it can create such false and simple binaries as oppressed/oppressor and indigenous/settler-colonialism.

Hope and faith, tikvah and emunah, are homegrown Jewish concepts. These are emotional categories, which explain how we Jews can remain optimistic despite a history of persecution and antisemitism. Hope is a positive stance to the value of life and possibility. It is about keeping our spirits up and treating life as the blessing it is.

When Jews do bend towards idealism, we find it in the messianic ideal, which is about a future that God will bring about. It’s not our business. As you know, while Judaism believes in an afterlife, we don’t talk about it much because, once again, there is something inherently dangerous in focusing on the otherworldly. Our task is in this world, the messy, tachles world, where we always are confronted with difficult choices. We do the best we can, we never give up, and like Jacob, we hedge our bets.

Choose hope. But leave idealism where it belongs—in some other world, far removed from ours!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

[1] “Henry Kissinger Is Dead at 100; Shaped Nation’s Cold War History,” New York Times, 11/29/2023

[2] Henry Kissinger, more than any Jewish figure of the 20th (and 21st) century, relinquished idealism entirely and focused on a sort of realpolitik that was sometimes Machiavellian and quite unsavory. At the same time, Kissinger’s legacy was how he extended the Pax Americana, in which the United States was the sole superpower. Now that the Pax Americana is behind us, and we live in a multi-polar world, we are already seeing more conflicts and chaos. We may not be fully able to determine the legacy and the acceptability of the bloody costs of Kissinger’s moral trade-offs until we see how dangerous our new multi-polar world is. It is this tension we all carry between the prophetic and the possible, however, which helps us explain why the most influential American Jew of our time is so polarizing. He did some pretty horrible things.

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