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The Rabbi Writes – The New Year

Volume 14, No. 1, September 1976

The traditional Rosh Hashanah was a frightening day. It was the Day of Judgment when the insignificance of man confronted the power of God. Helplessness, dependence and reverent awe were the moods of the season.

Everyone felt unworthy to be saved and pleaded to his sins. Feeling worthy was, in itself in the act of arrogance, in inappropriate hutspa, which was ironically self-destructive. God punished those who lacked humility.

The Rosh Hashanah game was amusing Lee sick. You had to look like a loser in order to be a winner.

A humanist Rosh Hashanah is a rejection of this mood. It refuses the posture of weak people who are trying to appease the strong. It resists the theater of dependency where helpless beggars plead for divine crumbs.

A humanist Rosh Hashanah affirms human dignity. It affirms human power. It regards human arrogance and Promethean hutspa as less dangerous than pious resignation and humble confessions of inadequacy.

This distinction is not trivial.

The old theology is not offensive. Theological beliefs are usually only the intellectual frosting on an emotional cake.

The old emotion is offensive. A sense of powerlessness can be justified in many ways. If you do not like Jewish, Christian or Muslim theology, you can try Buddhist mysticism. If Buddhism bothers you, astrology may please you. If astrology seems intellectually thin, then Marxist destiny may give your mood a sense of respectability.

What is disturbing about our present world is not the presence of silly theologies and simplistic sociologues. Weariness is a mood that intellectuals are paid to justify.

All observation is selective. Pessimists are especially adept at noticing pollution, war crime and hatred. They have great difficulty in viewing things in the long run. They romanticize the past. They enjoy their melancholy nostalgia.

The truth is that human beings are not helpless, bumbling victims of their own fates. They are also the conscious creators of happiness and beauty.

The truth is that, for most of the people of the world, the last century, despite all its horrors, is a vast improvement over any the preceded.

Optimism maybe less fashionable than being disbanded. It may even sound maudlin in poetry. But it sure is more attractive than guilt-ridden timid admissions of boredom.

Jews, if anybody, have the skills for justifying pessimism.

But we ought to avoid it. It doesn’t look good. And it’s bad for our health.

The Rabbi Writes – Dignity and Self-Esteem

Volume 20, No. 2, September 1982

The Jewish New Year is it time for reflection on what we want out of life.

Present hard times make us aware of our need to choose among alternatives, since we cannot have everything we want. Economic restrictions often force us to consider all the other limitations on the satisfaction of our desires. They also enable us to focus on those areas of our lives where we still enjoy freedom and power.

What are the goals which a good humanist strives to achieve?

There are three general values which reflect our basic human needs. The first is security, a desire for safety and freedom from want and danger. The second is pleasure, the positive pursuit of sensual gratification. The third is dignity and self-esteem, the experience of inner mastery and control.

These three values are not always mutually compatible. If security is uppermost in our mind we may forego both pleasure and dignity. If pleasure is primary, we may sacrifice safety and self-esteem. and if dignity is first, we may risk our lives and endure pain.

Human philosophers, on the whole, preferred dignity as their first value. Much of modern existentialism is an explanation of this choice.

What is dignity?

Self-esteem is both an inner and an outer experience. As an inner experience, it is a sense of being in charge of one’s own life. As an outer behavior, it is the refusal to allow other people to treat ‘me’ as a child, A servant, or a defective. Or, to put it more positively, ‘I’ discover that others regard ‘me’ as perfectly capable of making my own choices and allow me to do so.

A person who has dignity is willing to do the following things.

He is willing to assume responsibility for all his actions, Even when he feels victimized or abused. He refuses all excuses.

He avoids complaining about situations that cannot be changed. People who engage in useless complaining or seeking appeasement rather than self-esteem. They want to arouse pity and to avert anger. Since we learn appeasement as children, it is more familiar to us than dignity.

He is willing to take risks. Self-esteem is incompatible with total security. Meeting new friends, training for new jobs, investing in new businesses – all of these ventures reinforce dignity. Insisting on guarantees of success is in bad taste, a sign of paralyzing fear. Adventure and mastery go together.

He is generous. Stingy people are obsessed with their weakness and vulnerability. They imagine that every gift diminishes them. Self-esteeming people feel stronger because they’re able to share. They feel more powerful because they’re able to give, without asking for something in return.

He enjoys privacy. He sees himself as a distinct individual with his own space. While he needs other people, he does not need them all the time. He is willing to confront uninvited intruders.

He is concerned about the consequences of his actions. He does not dump his ‘garbage’ and expect other people to pick it up.

He makes a distinction between pleasure and happiness. He knows that, even when there is long-run pain, A striving for independence is more satisfying than momentary gratification.

He chooses to be hopeful. Pessimism is the privilege of servants. Leaders – especially masters of their own lives – need to mobilize their energies. They recognize that optimism is a style, not a view of the future.

It’s not run away from reality. If death is real, he will except it and defy it. The quality of life will always be more important than its quantity.

In hard times, it may be difficult to guarantee security or to find pleasure. But it is always possible to strive for dignity and self-esteem.