What is Jewish hope?

Angel of the Waters, Central Park | Francisco Diez | CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10952560

What is Jewish hope?

By Adam Sutcliffe

How, in a global pandemic, can we look forward to the future with hope? The economic and political landscape that COVID-19 will leave in its wake is alarmingly uncertain. We may have to adjust to unwelcome and awkward changes in how we experience some of our most cherished pleasures, such as travel, teaching and learning, and the forging of intimacy. Nurturing hopes for the future, beyond the most basic horizons of survival and damage limitation, might well in these times seem a naïve indulgence.

Without hope, though, we also lose the frameworks of meaning and purpose that give structure to our lives. In the Western tradition, keeping faith in a better future lies at the heart of the Bible, in God’s covenant with the children of Israel. The Jewish people are destined for great things, God repeatedly tells them, as long as as they sustain their commitment to this mysteriously inescapable bond. Talmudic sages and medieval rabbis interpreted the covenant as a divine promise of a future messianic age, when Jews would in some way lead the world into a transformed state of harmony and peace. In Christianity, belief in the ultimate arrival of the messianic era has been an equally important wellspring of hope. Christians have traditionally anticipated the eventual conversion of all Jews to Christianity as the future transformation that will herald the advent of Utopian unity on earth. This sharply double-edged doctrine is undoubtedly implicated in the history of anti-Jewish hostility and hatred. It has also, though, played a very important role in extending beyond Judaism the tenacious idea that Jews have a special role to play in the unfolding of the deepest hopes of humanity.

Secular thinkers have repeatedly sought to topple this messianic faith in the future. The betterment of the world, innumerable philosophers since the Enlightenment have argued, cannot be entrusted to faith, but must be achieved through the determined marshaling of our own human capabilities. Even while challenging and often ridiculing religious faith, though, these thinkers often recreated their own surprisingly similar dogmas of futurological optimism. Enlightened reason, moral improvement, industrial progress, capitalism, communism, nationalism: apostles of all these worldviews have promised the eventual emergence, after much bitter struggle against the misguided opponents of the true cause, of a finally healed and happy world.

Jews have been ascribed particular importance in many of these modern ideologies of positive transformation. The extension of political rights to European Jews in the wake of the French Revolution inspired uniquely intense controversies and passions. Jews have been both effusively praised and venomously castigated for their supposed prominence in the history of capitalism, and also in the left-wing political movements opposed to capitalism. And no nation state—or at least certainly not one of comparable size—has been so freighted with special hopes as Israel. Both Jewish and non-Jewish Zionists have often imagined the Jewish state, in the words of the prophet Isaiah on the biblical covenant, as ‘a light unto the nations’.

Why have Jews and Judaism figured so prominently in Western thinking about the future? Our vistas of hope, and our reflections on how we can collectively contribute to realizing those hopes, repeatedly return to the Jewish case. As the first and most prominent pan-European minority group, historical debates over the status and role of Jews brought into particular focus the wider issues posed by religious and ethnic diversity. In the nineteenth century these controversies were often vaguely labelled as ‘the Jewish question’. Beneath these theological and political arguments, though, there lay a more profound, wide-ranging and multi-layered cultural conversation on what we might usefully call ‘the Jewish purpose question’. This question, although it is very seldom identified as such, continues today to hold an important place in the mental architecture of hope of both Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Jewish case provides a uniquely rich and intricate repository of reflection on the contribution of a particular group to bringing about a better world for everybody.

Due to their foundational place in Western thinking on what it means to be a people, the Jews have been a perennial reference point for other groups in their attempts to express and refine their sense of collective identity and purpose. It is above all through our shared affiliations and loyalties—of nation, religion, ethnicity, or other forms of core identity—that we give shape to our hopes for the future, and seek to play a role in bringing them to fruition. The Jewish case provides a uniquely rich and intricate repository of reflection on the contribution of a particular group to bringing about a better world for everybody. These reflections are a valuable resource for all of us as we seek to clarify and fortify our collective hopes for the future.

The mysterious power of hope is brilliantly staged in Tony Kushner’s two-part theatrical masterpiece Angels in America (1992), written in response to the last time New York was the epicenter of a pandemic. At the end of the first part of the drama, an angel appears to Prior, crashing into the apartment where he is bedridden with AIDS and sinking into despair. Prior is at first terrified. Musing later on the angel’s gnomic pronouncements to him, though, he wonders if he is now a prophet, having, along with so many others dying around him, ‘caught the virus of prophecy’. This is his turning point. Saved not so much by the angel as by the angel-like ministry of his African American ex-drag queen ex-lover and of his more recent ex-lover’s new lover’s Mormon mother, he rallies his spirits and his sense of forward-looking purpose. Five years later, at the very end of the drama, Prior is still alive, and still prophetic. Standing beneath the vast angel of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, he affirms his hungry and determined hope for more life and for a better world.

Kushner’s angel is inspired by Walter Benjamin’s famous ‘angel of history’, who flies backwards into the future, surveying the rubble and debris of the human past that increasingly comes into view below. Benjamin’s angel is an elliptic fusion of revolutionary Marxist and Jewish messianic hope. Only months after writing the essay in which he created this figure, Benjamin faced his personal loss of hope: in September 1940, he took his own life, believing that his attempt to flee from Nazi Europe had failed.

Our hopes today are sapped not only by medical and economic fears, but also by the circulation of prejudices and hatreds that bear some resemblance to those that raged in 1940. In the face of these challenges, we can all find strength in sources of hope that open out to everyone, and over which nobody has proprietorial ownership: Benjamin’s hopes were passionately universalist, while in Kushner’s drama neither Prior nor his two angel-like carers are Jewish. The historical lineage of thought on Jewish purpose and hope offers a rich repository for all of us as we look forward to the future.

Adam Sutcliffe is professor of European history at King’s College London. He is the author of What are Jews For?Judaism and Enlightenment and the coeditor, most recently, of Philosemitism in HistoryThe Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Modern World, and History, Memory and Public Life: The Past in the Present.