The Audacity of Irrational Hope

When idealists cry from the soapbox that they have the solutions to all the country’s problems, it’s hard not to give them a hearing.  Maybe they’re right.  Maybe we can fix our education system, our health care system, our political system, and our economy.  But when they insist that we can solve all the problems of the world through diplomacy — that all our differences with hostile nations and cultures stem from misunderstanding and can be reconciled through sensitivity and a meeting of minds — then we have to wonder whether their other solutions have any more grounding in reality than the Philosopher’s Stone or the Fountain of Youth.

As evidence of the superiority of diplomacy over aggression, they point to the failures in Iraq.  True, the US adventure there foundered badly.  But this was because of mismanagement and not because the plan was fundamentally unsound.  It’s easy to claim that, since results were not what we had hoped, we never should have gotten involved in the first place.  But we never know what might have been, and there is good reason to believe that inaction would have produced even worse results.

The late Alistair Cook, who witnessed the folly and tragedy of Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Adolph Hitler, saw the parallel even before American troops went into Iraq.  His observations should be required reading for every advocate of appeasement.

One can only imagine how the pacifists seventy years ago would have wailed and wrung their hands over every casualty and setback had the allies struck preemptively against the Third Reich.  But with the wisdom of hindsight, who would dispute how much human suffering might have been prevented?

It is not the threat from fanatics that poses the greatest danger to the world today.  A far greater danger comes from the Pollyanna fantasies of “visionaries” who believe we can make peace with the merchants of violence who seek our destruction.  The only possible approach to a culture of terrorism was addressed in Jewish philosophy 3300 years ago with the Torah’s response to the attack by the nation of Amoleik:  there can be no peace with radical extremists who eagerly die in the cause of sowing death.

During the autumnal Festival of Sukkos, traditional synagogues around the world read publicly the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a vast army called Gog and Magog, assembled from among all the nations of the earth to march forth against the people of Israel in the ultimate battle of mankind, the great war of the messianic era.

Over a century ago, the brilliant 19th century thinker Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explained that the essence of this confrontation is not an engagement of military powers but a cultural battle of ideas.  In Hebrew, the word “gog” means “roof.”  In the context of Ezekiel’s prediction, it represents the philosophy of secular progressivism, the ideology that man defines his own standards of right and wrong, of good and evil, of virtue and corruption.  It believes in the supremacy of human reason and human accomplishment, in an autocracy of intellectual elitism.  Above all, it rejects any concept of a higher authority, the sanctity of life, or personal responsibility.  It deifies convenience without commitment, moral equivalence without moral judgment, and personal autonomy without accountability.  It is, plain and simple, the philosophy of moral anarchy.

It is this ideology that the prophet tells us will rise up in the End of Days in an attempt to conquer the world.  Opposing it will be a very different ideology — the philosophy of Sukkah.

These little huts — sukkas — usually constructed of thin wooden panels and covered with branches of palm or bamboo, become home to the entire community of Torah observant Jews for seven days after the conclusion of the High Holidays.  With only the most insubstantial shelther, the Jew is forced to recall that even the most solid structures of human design cannot guarantee security or protection.  Every force of nature hastens to perform the Divine Will, and there is no place secure enough to hide from its power … as the victims of hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes would testify.  Only by living lives of virtue according to the absolute standards of good and evil can we reasonably hope to merit safety and redemption — at least in the next world, if not always here on earth.

The danger of well-intentioned irrationalism flourishes, ironically, in proportion not only to the imminent danger from extremist movements, but also in proportion to economic and social chaos.  The collapse of financial institutions ruined by their own irrational exuberance and the decay of inner city communities pulled down by their own abandonment of basic family structure would seem to cry out for measured responses and the wisdom of experience.  Instead, powered by unshakable faith in a brave new world of hope and change, rhetoric conquers qualification, charisma conquers character, and form conquers substance as grand schemes of breathtaking impracticality gain traction day by day.  The foundations of civilized society are increasingly eroded by fanciful notions of utopian universalism.

Sadly, the outcome of unfounded hope is usually prolonged and exacerbated hopelessness.

The respect for life, charity tempered by accountability, social consience that sprouts forth from traditional values — these are the characteristics that will come increasingly under attack as human beings allow themselves to be seduced by their own cleverness and their own moral judgment.  We needn’t look too far to conclude that the signposts of the messianic era have already appeared before us.  And we needn’t look too far or think too deeply to recognize which qualities of leadership are necessary to prepare us for the approaching storm.

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  1. #1 by Tal Abrams on February 6, 2009 - 9:40 am

    This is a truly great essay. Thank you for sharing your insight. Tal Abrams

  1. Freedom to Think « Torah Ideals

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