The Judaism of a Radical Optimist
Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt.
by Eric Gutkind.
Schuman. 312 pp. $4.00.
This is a paradoxical book. It displays considerable learning, but indulges in the most dubious generalizations. It abounds in deep insights, but also in claims which can only be called ridiculous. It is highly original and wholly unconventional—yet the central thesis is neither original nor unconventional: a religious and optimistic humanism based on Biblical teaching.
It is well to emphasize the valuable aspects of Choose Life, for the reader might quite understandably be frightened off before he has had a chance to discover them. The author’s eagerness to find salvation for modern man in the Jewish spirit induces him to make the most extravagant claims in its behalf. We are told that while mankind today is largely perverted by mass hypnosis, “the soul of Israel is incorruptible”; that “Israel is not merely the late result of a long evolution. It is an intrinsic part of reality, from the very beginning. Because it is a maximal possibility of evolution, it is the very principle of evolution.”
For Mr. Gutkind, the Jewish soul is perfect intellectually as well as spiritually: whatever is good in modern science is in conformity with it. The mathematicized Einsteinian universe is Jewish as well as progressive, because it is anti-mythological. “Emergent evolution” is Jewish because it refuses to reduce life to matter. And more of the same.
It is impossible to take this kind of thing seriously. One could argue at least as plausibly that the roots of the mathematicized universe are Platonic, those of “emergent evolution” romantic, and that both are contrary to the Jewish spirit, which, with its emphasis on the centrality of man, harmonizes better with a hierarchical, Aristotelian universe. But such an argument would be no more respectable than those of the author. The only correct procedure is to separate carefully scientific from religious questions, and to resist the temptation of joining together what the Lord has put asunder.
Nevertheless, the central message of this book is serious, and challenging. It challenges, because it adopts radically a view which the majority of our religious leaders adopt halfheartedly, though, certainly, this radicalism is directly responsible for at least some of the book’s egregious blunders. Mr. Gutkind is a rare phenomenon in the mid-twentieth century: a genuine—which is to say radical—optimist as regards the potentialities of human nature.
To be sure, religious humanism, with its “faith in man,” is a strong, if not the strongest trend in American religious life. But compared to Gutkind’s optimism the present faith in man is weak indeed, and “optimistic” only because the optimum has been reduced to very modest proportions. The religious quest is ultimate; hence any optimism which is to serve as the core of religious faith will have to be ultimate as well. Such was the optimism of the 19th-century religious humanist, but the religious humanist of the grim 20th century no longer has the heart for it. On the other hand, he is unwilling to concede that, ultimately, faith in man is not enough, and that man must turn for succor to a supernatural God. He prefers to forget about ultimates altogether, settling down to a reasonable kind of optimism which is nicely supported by sociology and psychology: an optimism which strives and hopes for no more than can reasonably be expected, “human nature being what it is.”
Choose Life refuses to view man as more or less dominated by natural needs, and has only contempt for religious pragmatism, whether couched in psychological (“peace of mind”) or sociological (“the needs of the community”) terms. Man is a potential rebel in the universe, capable of choosing the “vertical way,” toward a fulfilment transcending nature and inexpressible in naturalistic terms. In what is perhaps the profoundest observation of the book, man is described as an “open” being, open toward the divine, and capable of infinite self-transcendence in love and perfection. Man does indeed experience evil and self-destruction; he suffers from enslavement to natural needs. But his suffering is mostly self-inflicted; it is the result of the wrong choice. “The perfect world can be accomplished here.”
While the tragedies of our time are rarely mentioned, they are nevertheless reflected on every page of this book; yet it counters the brutal evidence of what man is with a stubborn and perhaps quixotic faith in what man can be. There is something essentially Jewish about this stubbornness, and Dr. Gutkind is quite justified in believing himself inspired by Biblical and traditional Jewish teaching. His interpretations of Jewish doctrines, customs, and festivals have almost invariably a degree of truth, and they are often provocative and perceptive.
If the merit of Gutkind’s book, as a piece of religious and ethical writing, lies in its radicalism, this very radicalism, as we have hinted, also serves as a reductio ad absurdum of the central thesis. It reveals as untenable every religious faith based solely on faith in man.
Since Gutkind believes seriously and literally that mankind could, without supernatural aid, bring about the Kingdom of God, he is compelled to attribute the melancholy failure of man through the ages to a conspiracy of truly gigantic proportions. The “stop-mankind movement” is at work everywhere, in politics, business, art, metaphysics. Its ranks include not only the universally recognized children of darkness, but also an astounding number of those whom we commonly regard as being among the children of light. Whoever betrays the slightest degree of “pessimistic contempt for Man”—the sole alternative to “optimistic faith in Man”—has wittingly or unwittingly a share in the conspiracy. This is a ludicrous oversimplification of reality; but it illustrates the straits into which a radical optimist may be driven.
For Dr. Gutkind, the genuine optimist does not merely believe that man can erect the Kingdom. of God on earth; he also believes that in the end he will do so. Since this faith in future realization is on very shaky ground unless there has been at least some realization in the past, Dr. Gutkind must look for a historical movement which has more or less continuously lived up to his ideals. This he finds in the Jewish tradition. Indeed, he often comes dangerously close to identifying the Jewish spirit with the pro-mankind spirit, and almost everything Gentile with the stop-mankind spirit. To be sure, nothing is further from his intention than a Jewish chauvinism, but he is, against his will, driven in this direction. On the one hand, he refuses to dissolve Judaism into a general humanism, insisting on its uniqueness. On the other hand, he refuses to regard Judaism as based on a supernatural revelation; such a concept he seems to regard as semi-superstitious, and betraying an insufficient faith in man. This combination of anti-supernaturalism with Jewish particularism makes a Jewish chauvinism in the end inescapable.
Choose Life, genuinely inspired by Jewish tradition, challenges a disillusioned generation to “prepare the world for the Kingdom of God.” But Jewish tradition also knew that man cannot wholly build the Kingdom, and that if God does not exist or does not act, man’s attempt to build or even prepare it leads to tragic questions to which there is no answer. Thus the call to action is essential and irreducible; but equally essential is the faith in Someone higher than man. And this faith in God is not merely a factor additional to the faith in man implicit in the call to action; it arises in answer to questions which “humanism” poses but cannot answer. Authentic Jewish faith is more “advanced” than modern humanism: it understood its logical and existential implications before humanism came into being.