HOW TO RAISE THE RAZED FOUNDATIONS
THE TEMPLE-TIFERETH ISRAEL
RABBI ROGER C. KLEIN
I am guessing that you will not find the following to be an exaggeration: we are living in times beset by chaos, disorder, divisiveness and disorientation. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it with characteristic penetration and with prophetic flair almost 150 years ago: “we now live in a world where there is no longer left or right, up or down” (The Gay Science). In other words, we have lost our bearings; and distinctions of right and wrong, good and bad, are now matters of taste and up for grabs.
How have we arrived at this point where justice often relies on injustice, where compassion is selectively applied, where anger, resentment and divisiveness are the order of the day, and where truth goes begging in the marketplace? As the poet William Butler Yeats predicted precisely 100 years ago:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
(from The Second Coming)
From what origins have we arrived at this point? Perhaps the Enlightenment Movement of Voltaire and Kant shares the blame by promising too much, by naively entrusting the power of reason to solve all our problems. Perhaps the Romantic Movement’s hostile reaction to the Enlightenment’s overreach is partly to blame by lionizing emotion over reason, by emphasizing the particularity of my land, my people and my nation over our common and interconnected humanity. Irrationalism and an inward-looking nationalism gained momentum late in the 19th century as anti-Semitism, xenophobia and warmongering eventuated, first, in regional wars and then to the bloody and vengeance-soaked carnage of two world wars … and the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide and Vietnam and Rwanda And so, perhaps paradoxically, for all the advances in science and technology in the last 150 years, the 20th century goes down as the bloodiest in history … millions upon millions slaughtered … and for what?
And so, we have sown many winds and we are now reaping a mighty world-wide whirlwind. Chaos now looms as traditional values and millennial virtues are tossed aside or strenuously mocked, replaced by mere assertion or shameless strutting, at home or abroad. “There are no facts,” Nietzsche trumpeted, “only interpretations” (The Will to Power). A rampant relativism rules the day. We are no longer inclined to turn to our classics for guidance, reviled as they so often are as flagrant or subtle expressions, not of universal truths, but of privilege and class and a taste for domination. Our vaunted newspapers and magazines, whether on the left or on the right, are seen by millions as nothing but “fake news” when the news they bring or the facts they reveal are unwelcome. And people clap and cheer. And the pervasive declarations that all is opinion and nothing is knowledge, that every assertion is merely a disguised bias and that claims to truth are only naïve and wishful thinking … who of us has not fallen victim, at one time or another, to such poison.
And so, perhaps Nietzsche was right when he said, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way … that does not exist” (Thus Spake Zarathustra). And so, sadly, this is the situation we now find ourselves in, a situation that has deep roots in the thoughtless excesses and tragic failures of our society and of our culture. Most worrisome is this: we have not only lost faith in our traditional truths and values like justice and responsibility and compassion, we have grown skeptical of the very foundations of those truths and values … foundations which include trust, solidarity, self-confidence and tolerance. And when the foundations rot, the decay of everything that rests on them is not far behind. And so, we look with amazement at how rapidly these foundations have decayed, how thin the veneer of their stability, how easily these foundations are challenged, how quickly they crumble. But should we be amazed? Shouldn’t we have always known how fragile the foundations are? All we had to do to know was to have read some of the great foundational literature of our civilization … the great myths and stories that dramatize eternal truths. All we had to do to know was to have absorbed, as our inheritance, the stories that last because they convey the lasting truths of the human condition. Truths both comfortable and uncomfortable. So, let me remind you of one of the stories, one of the truth-telling myths, that dramatize the fragility of our moral and spiritual foundations. It the story of the Greek god, Atlas.
Who is Atlas? Well, he is a Titan, one of the second generation of the gods, a titan who led a rebellion against the chief of the third generation, the Olympian Zeus. But the attempted overthrow failed. And because of his leading role, Atlas was punished and punished severely. His punishment? He was consigned to hold up the heavens, to bear the weight of the cosmos on his shoulders for all eternity. In ancient iconography, Atlas is portrayed as an enormous and bearded man, always slightly bent and in pain under the weight of the heavens. Now, holding up heavens, I think you will agree, is tough duty. And what seems to make it more excruciating still is that he is tottering at the very edges of the universe, subject perhaps to falling at any moment. Atlas is the foundation, the ultimate source of the stability of the world. Who holds him up? Who is the foundation of the foundation? Why, no one and nothing at all. And, in the one moment when Atlas might have escaped his task, he, witless and unresourceful, cannot come to his own aid. The foundation of the world, in other words, has no support from another and cannot even help himself.
Now, of course, this is not a deathless story because it describes the tragedy of one character alone. No, it is a perennial because it conveys truths about our world and society and culture … and in dramatic, memorable language. Our foundations, this story implies, are also without deeper underpinnings; our foundations also cannot support themselves. What holds up our social and culture world only seems durable and strong. Yet, when threatened, when under attack, they are stunningly weak.
The Greeks knew all this; and now we have come to know it, too. But, having diagnosed the problem, we might ask: is there a way out? Can we recover our sense of trust and conviction and confidence in ourselves and in our society? Is there a path back?
If the issue is securing the foundations of our common morality and our common culture, then the image of Atlas … standing forever in the void … can help us here, too. For we could help him either from below or from above … either by offering a foundation to the foundation; or by stabilizing him with supports from above. Now, philosophers from time immemorial have tried to support the foundations of society from below: Aristotle tried it by appealing to the foundational power of intuition, a kind of certitude deeper than rational argument. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke tried to tether societal foundations through some kind of primeval and imagined social contract. Immanuel Kant tried to provide the needed underpinnings through reason and logic. But none of these has gained universal acceptance and each is subject to the same vulnerability: that it cannot escape an infinite regress. For, when you ground a foundation on a deeper foundation, and that in a still deeper one, the process will go on forever unless there is lowest and deepest foundation that itself needs no foundation. And what would that be? As the philosophers say, it’s turtles all the way down!
But if we can’t nail the foundations down, maybe we can hold them up! This is what religions of revelation attempt to do … in the heaven-sent words and inspired deeds of Moses or Jesus or Mohammad. Yes, this is a powerful approach, except for one important thing. It works only for believers and it tends toward the dogmatic … hardly the right approach for a sprawling, diverse and significantly secular society such as ours.
And now it occurs to me that the Atlas image is, in one certain way, misleading. Misleading because it requires a foundation for the entire world. It requires truths that are universal and apply to all peoples at all times. This, it seems to me, is beyond possibility. What we can strive for, what we can attain, is a foundation broad enough to work for particular cultures and particular groups with the possibility of attaining what political philosopher John Rawls calls an “overlapping consensus” of disparate groups and cultures within a society. But still, the need is acute and even a modest solution may point the way.
So, here is what I propose. First, that we begin to reckon with the persuasive power of tales, of myths, of stories. And secondly, that we take on for ourselves the obligation to tell the stories, the foundational stories, if you will, of our culture and our society. The solution doesn’t begin with reason or with the search for underpinnings. It begins with an act of will, a decision, a recognition that we are the beginning of the solution to our despondency and despair. We must insist on representing our values and passing them on to our children and grandchildren the children of our community and to friends … passing these values on through stories of imaginative power and humane application. We must tell the master stories of our people … stories that go deeper than reason, that touch hearts and arouse passions, that fire the imagination, that create memories and nurture conviction. No Congress, no executive, no judiciary … no governmental agency will be able to accomplish this. It is up to each of us.
Let me illustrate what I mean with two brief examples, exemplary stories, stories that are foundational for the societies they engage. These stories were created by morally and spiritually alive individuals who were able to translate what they knew and what they felt into words that will never die.
The first story … and I can only relate a small part of it … tells us about the meaning of America … Lincoln’s Gettysburg address … a speech of only 280-plus words? Here are the first few sentences … which many of you know and which you may want to repeat along with me:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Just this is enough for now. What do we have here? A statement, rendered in poetic language, which paints a picture and enunciates ideals with confidence and conviction. America is something brand new … “brought forth,” “conceived,” “a new nation.” Moreover, the meaning of America is not essentially its land, its boundaries, its people or where those people came from. No, the essence of America is in its dedication to a proposition, to an idea, to a value, to an aspiration … “that all men are created equal.” What a story … and what a telling of that story. Is the story finished? No, and Lincoln say this. For, being a proposition, it of necessity will require constant expansion, constant re-visioning. From this “all men,” our country worked its way, not without struggle, not without setback, to seeing that “all men” must be broadened to “all people,” including African Americans and women and children; people from all lands and people who are unlike us but who come here to live securely. And there is still more to do. This is what a dynamic society does. America is an experiment and its aspirations drive us forward to new insight into the essential meaning of America.
Here’s the second story which, like the Gettysburg Address, is asserted with confidence and conviction. It too is a story of founding, of foundations. It’s a story that relates the essence of who we are as Jews. And it’s not for nothing, I think you will agree, that it’s a story the pilgrims who came to America at the beginning told as well. You know this story well … which I shall abbreviate:
A wandering Aramean was my father. He went down to Egypt few in number and sojourned there; but there he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard [our cries] … and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt … [and] He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits [in gratitude]. … [And I rejoice with others and I share my bounty with them].
What foundations for Jewish and American civilization does this story convey? We were wanderers, we were vulnerable, we suffered; but far from defeating us, our suffering made us stronger. And we cried out to God and God heard our cries. Our cries are heard! We gained our freedom, through our own efforts and through the help of God … and we came to a new land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am grateful. And I share my bounty and my joy with others.
Now please note that both these stories, powerful as they are, leave certain things out and take certain things for granted. Lincoln’s narrative omits what many historians point out, namely, the way in which the founders engaged in what some call “settler colonialism,” the attempted genocide of indigenous populations and the theft of their lands, basing the founding of America on the ideology of white supremacy and the widespread practice of African slavery.
The second story makes central the assumption of the role of G-d; and that liberation wouldn’t have happened were it not for the deity. Not everyone can accept this part of the story. So, what are we to do about these omissions in the Gettysburg Address and about this theological assertion in the biblical passage? My suggestion is this … and I feel quite strongly about what I am about to say: we cannot rebuild moral and spiritual foundations and convictions by starting with skepticism and criticism, by saying, upon the very first reading these stories, “Oh, but what about the Native Americans? What about inserting G-d into the picture?” I believe that there is time for skepticism and there is time to reckon with facts left out. Those conversations will be a part of our larger, ongoing communal and societal conversation. But first, we must create imaginative pictures that arouse wonder and dramatize the necessary moral foundations of our society. First, powerful plausibility and conviction and assent … then, skepticism and criticism. For both questioning and criticism are, of course, necessary for a “people on the way,” a “people on a journey”. But the story cannot be improved unless there is a story to begin with. Skepticism will undermine conviction unless there is strong conviction in the first place. And these are among the stories that fashioned once, and can fashion again, the foundations we need.
Now, imagine what it would be like if each of us began to tell these two stories … to ourselves and to others. And if we told them proudly and confidently and with unapologetic conviction. Stories that provide the values and the truths for which we stand. Stories that resist cynicism and relativism and nihilism; stories that distinguish between what is true and what is false, between what is right and what is wrong … and there are differences! And by telling stories like these, we have a chance to rebuild our societies on the sturdy foundations of trust, of cooperation, of tolerance and of humility.