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To Learn From The Jews: President Barack Obama and The Lamed-Vav


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Human interdependence and generalized compassion, integral to a universalized Judaism, are indispensable to species survival. In this respect, President Barack Obama seemingly understands something very Jewish: The state of our now-tormented American union is intimately intertwined with the state of our whole world.

Although the idea has yet to take root, our fate as Americans will soon depend upon our willingness to identify more broadly and openly as citizens of the entire planet. Reciprocally, the fate of all others on this imperiled earth will be impacted by what now happens in American politics and economics.

To help rescue a planet on the brink, Mr. Obama knows that he will have to look far beyond the usual authoritative orthodoxies. He already understands that our always troubled and too-often exterminatory species still contains within itself the sources of its own periodic eradications through war, terror and genocide.

Crimes against humanity are never remediable through law, politics or diplomacy. They can be effectively stopped only at their authentic source. This means that such crimes can be understood and curbed only by a ubiquitous prior awareness of our most basic human needs, passions and expectations.

Now there is precious little for the new president to learn from political science or jurisprudence. After all, at their core, crimes against humanity are not the product of politics or law gone awry. They stem instead from the persistently unbearable loneliness of individual human beings. “Normally” unable to find meaning and security outside of groups, literally billions of individuals will often stop at nothing to acquire membership in a crowd. Whether it is a nation, a social organization, or a terrorist band, this “crowd” (Freud would call it the “primal horde”) offers everyone a corruptible communion. Moreover, it is the frantic search to belong, and thereby to overcome individual loneliness, that best defines what we like to call “history.”

Real history, President Obama should observe, is pretty much the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption. Tangible expressions of the incessant human search for redemption in groups can be found in the enduring jurisprudence of sovereignty and self-determination. But the “self” in these legal principles refers to entire peoples, never to individuals. The ironic result is sometimes a measureless orgy of mass killing that sanitizing scholars cleanly describe as “power politics.”

Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost 200 of which are now called nation-states, too many human beings still find it easy to slay “others.” As for empathy, it is typically reserved almost exclusively for those who live within one’s own tribe. It follows that an expansion of empathy to include all outsiders is a basic condition of authentic peace and global union, and that without such expansion our entire species will remain dedicated to its own incremental debasement and disappearance.

What must our new president now do to encourage wider empathy, and to foster deeply caring feelings between, as well as, within tribes? How can he improve the state of our world so as to ensure a viable and prosperous state for our own American union? And what can he learn, specifically from us, from the Jews?

To be sure, Mr. Obama can learn much from our Jewish traditions. For example, according to ancient Jewish thought, the world rests upon 36 just men – the Lamed-Vav. Only because of their own unimaginably “heavy lifting,” only because of their own unique suffering, can the rest of us put our feet on the floor each morning.

There are many meanings to this particular Jewish tradition, but one is surely primary. A whole world of just men (and women) is impossible. It is, then, because we ordinary mortals simply cannot bear the torments of so many others, that G-d has created the Lamed-Vov.

How shall President Obama now deal with a requirement for global civilization that is both essential and unbearable? Newly informed that empathy for the many is a precondition of a decent world union, what can create such empathy without producing intolerable emotional pain? How can he deal meaningfully with the still ongoing and multiplying expressions of war, terrorism and genocide?

The answer, Mr. Obama knows, cannot be found in ordinary political speeches and programs, not even in thoughtful stimulus packages or careful packages of wisdom. It can lie only in a resolute detachment of individuals from certain lethally competitive tribes and other collective “selves.” A more perfect union, both national and international, must lie in a determined replacement of “civilization” with “planetization.” In turn, this politically problematic replacement will depend upon prior affirmations of true human Self, upon a steadily expanding acceptance of the sacredness of every individual. These affirmations would express tenets basic to all forms of Judaism.

Mr. Obama already understands that the state of our union can never be better than the state of our whole world. He also realizes that the state of our world will depend substantially on what now happens inside the United States. In acknowledging this overwhelmingly significant mutuality, the common factor of enquiry must remain the individual human being who steadily follows an immutable and universal trajectory of birth, gratification, suffering and death.

From us – from the Jews – all may already understand that memory is the beginning of redemption. But how shall our new president recall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome – ground to dust and burned into oblivion. Is this still our collective fate, or can Mr. Obama draw, somehow, upon the idea of the Lamed-Vav for rescue? The French philosophers of the 18th century Age of Reason liked to speak of a siecle des lumieres, a century of light, but most nations in the early 21st century remain altogether mired in the bruising darkness.

The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Who Is Man (1965) lamented that, “The emancipated man is yet to emerge.” Heschel then asked all human beings to insistently raise the following question: “What is expected of me?” “What is demanded of me?” In response, President Barack Obama, drawing upon certain pertinent strands of Jewish insight and tradition, should now answer confidently: “We must all face an overwhelming human future without flinching, but we must also face it with relentless honesty, deep compassion and a true commitment to universal compassion and interdependence.

Copyright © The Jewish Press, May 8, 2009. All rights reserved

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D. Princeton 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with philosophy, international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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