Empathizing toward human unity

Faced with the ultimate choice between “the blessing and the curse,” we must “choose life.”

Hassidim praying 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hassidim praying 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
According to ancient Jewish tradition traced back to the time of Isaiah, the world rests upon thirty-six just men — the Lamed-Vav. For these men who have been chosen and must remain unknown even to themselves, the spectacle of the world is insufferable beyond description. Eternally inconsolable at the extent of human pain and woe, so goes the Hasidic tale, they can never even expect a single moment of real tranquility. From time to time, therefore, God himself, in an expansively sympathetic gesture designed to open their souls to Paradise, sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment, by exactly one minute.
There are several discernible meanings to this extraordinary tradition, one of which may offer some redemptive hope in relieving our sobering nearness to global catastrophe. Soon, we will have to create the unique conditions whereby each and every one of us is personally able to feel the excruciating anguish and dreadful portents of the Lamed-Vav. Then, we will be able to take the necessary steps back from defilement to sanctification. Faced with the ultimate choice between life and death, between “the blessing and the curse,” then shall we “choose life.”
How could we hope to endure, both as individuals and as nations, if we were to feel, with the same palpable pain and sorrow, the immeasurable distress of all others? Shall we imagine that the more-or-less consuming empathy we now display viscerally toward our closest relatives and friends could be extended, much more generally, to the very broadest possible radius of human affinities? Or perhaps, without the suffering Lamed-Vav as intermediaries, we couldn’t even begin to survive such a protracted torment.
There exists a pertinent dilemma, a most unenviable paradox. To survive as a species, we must first survive as individuals. But the most glaringly evident requirement of species survival – a sine qua non that calls for much deeper and wider expressions of human empathy — could simultaneously render each individual life unbearable.
Sometimes, truth emerges through paradox. To survive, must we all have to first experience the terrible dizziness of the existentially irremediable? How shall we respond?
In the end, meaningful redemption is the core expectation of all societies on earth. The Swiss psychologist, Carl G. Jung, once remarked that “Society is the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.” To redeem the whole world, he understood, we must unhesitatingly call forth certain indispensable metamorphoses. But, the “success” of these transformations would also place us squarely within a new and equally destructive trajectory of harms. It may be hard to understand that an imagined death can somehow sustain life. Still, all things move in the midst of death, and an individual life must always be recognized as an intended part of a larger whole.
It is unlikely that we may ever actually have to face up to this dilemma. After all, evidence abounds that the human capacity for empathy seems fixedly limited, and that for all practical purposes, we will need to construct our best global survival ideologies with substantially less ambitious assumptions in mind.
In the Jewish tradition, there are vital elements that appear to warn us against taking on too much of the suffering of others. Although Jews are certainly obligated to feel such suffering, to learn from, and be elevated by such torment, they must also guard against too much empathy. That is, strong feelings could occasion their own personal destruction. We may yet learn, from the instructive legend of the Lamed-Vav, not only that empathy is essential, but also that too much empathy is beyond human endurance.
Truth can emerge through paradox. It may also emerge from an awareness that, sometimes, reason alone is incapable of revealing to us what is most important. Such a keen awareness was deeply embedded in the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who, in the dreadfully serious matter now before us, would urge us to seek not “concepts of truth,” but “truth itself.” This is a strange, but still consequential, distinction.
In the fashion of his thoughtful Swiss colleague, Carl G. Jung, Sigmund Freud spoke frequently of “souls.” He understood that a mystery of eternity always hovers meaningfully above and beyond the temporal world. The deepest reality of human love and empathy, he already knew, whether or not as determinable manifestations of God’s love, can never be adequately elucidated through science, by rigorous analysis, or by consciously systematic thought. Rather, Freud argued, it may be discovered in virtually every element of our day-to-day reality, including even that which is manifestly impure.
To Rabbi Kook, a Divine redemption must finally be undertaken by and through the Jewish People. An integral part of such redemption must inevitably be a greater awareness of indispensable human unity. This therapeutic awareness, if undimmed, should ultimately give rise to the light of loving kindness, and ultimately, to forgiveness. In turn, a “lofty” soul is needed to first generate a greater awareness of human unity: “The loftier the soul, the more it feels the unity that there is in all.”
We may all learn from Rabbi Kook that empathy and hence justice can bring forth a vast healing, and that such feeling “flows directly from the holy depth of the wisdom of the Divine soul.” Rabbi Kook’s thinking doesn’t stand in any stark or self-conscious opposition to rational investigation, nor does it intend to oppose pure feeling to raw intellect. Instead, it identifies a usefully creative tension, between an abstract and too-formal intellectualism, and a distinctly promising form of reason, one that lies well beyond the normal limits of utterly abstract investigations.
Influenced and informed by Buddhism, Kook envisioned humankind with a natural evolutionary inclination to advance and perfect itself. The course of this human evolution, he surmised, must be directed toward a progressively increased spirituality. In the final analysis, he understood the Torah as a concrete manifestation of Divine Will here on earth.
In consequence, at some point, the people and State of Israel must play a cosmic and redemptive role in saving us all. This mending role, however, will be contingent upon first fulfilling many challenging expectations (mitzvot), fulfillments wherein the redemption of Israel can produce the redemption of all humanity. Here, Jewish nationalism is presented as much more than a highly-valued secular ideology. It is, rather, represented as a fully sacred phenomenon. This representation is worth bearing in mind by both Jews and gentiles, indeed, by all those who might intentionally be dismissive of Israel’s special place among the nations. As goes Israel, so shall go the world. The writer has published many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including some of the earliest scholarship on nuclear terrorism. His work has appeared in Special Warfare and Parameters, publications of the US Department of Defense,  International Security (Harvard), World Politics (Princeton), and in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence. In Israel, Professor Beres served as Chair of Project Daniel, a senior private commission on Israeli nuclear strategy. Professor Beres is the author of Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1980), and Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy  (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986). A copy of this article originally appeared in Oxford University Press' blog.