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Jewish Journal

Jewish Leadership, Values and the Challenge to Inspire Hope

by Bernie Steinberg

May 22, 2013 | 4:17 pm

Israel faces grave, unprecedented physical dangers: a nuclear Iran, jihadists on her borders and chaotic upheavals shaking the foundations of the Arab world. On top of all this, Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state is increasingly on the line, not only attacked in the global propaganda of our enemies but debated in the respectable forum of the academy. And while a majority of Israelis supports a two-state solution, a majority of Israelis distrusts the intentions and capacity of Palestinians to make peace.

It is not surprising that top Jewish leaders, here and in Israel, especially, the prime minister, so consistently and passionately underscore the immediate dangers pressing Israel, while remaining lukewarm or mute about future possibilities for peace. The status quo appears frozen; the present moment does not inspire hope.

Yet Jewish leaders fail when they limit their strategic horizon to security concerns, rather than galvanize by articulating value-driven aspirations and hopeful visions. The time may or may not be ripe to sit down with legal pads and tea at the negotiating table, but the need to argue with passion and eloquence for the necessity of a two-state solution, official Israeli policy, is imperative. 

While it is true that many Israelis and American Jews are tired and frustrated about “talk that leads nowhere,” consider moral discourse “naive” and hope delusional, Jewish leaders fail when they mirror, or worse, contribute to the defeatism of their people rather than lead with energy and vision. In “The Call to Service,” Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Coles documents the “hazards” of leadership when dashed hopes “set the stage for cynicism.” And “when cynicism takes over, other emotions swiftly follow,” including “arrogance, anger, and bitterness.”

It is an ethical and practical challenge of Jewish leadership to inspire hope. Confronting brute facts of present reality does not entail repressing future aspirations for peace.

In his last book, “From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self,” philosopher David Hartman distinguishes between two kinds of hope: utopian, which is escapist, and realistic hope, a Jewish value, vital for leaders. Realistic hope is “the belief or conviction that present reality (what I see) does not exhaust the potentialities of the status quo.” Potentialities cannot be measured precisely or predicted with certainty. There is a danger that leaders, fearful of such uncertainties, will equate the improbable with the impossible, rather than envision the plausible. Plausible hope “liberates action for it provides a means to overcome the paralysis of dejection.” To act and speak as if the present exhausts what is possible becomes self-fulfilling. To Hartman, hope enables responsible action: “Hope is the courage to bear human responsibility … and accept the burden of living and building within contexts of uncertainty.”

What might be a model of Jewish leadership that enables plausible hope?

In his “Guide for the Perplexed,” Maimonides presents a model of the statesman, a visionary leader, who combines three mutually reinforcing qualities: knowledge, ethics and the “power to imagine.”

Knowledge, including critical thought, is vital, because plausibility demands attention to and analysis of facts. This is especially relevant to the brute facts that constitute the complex reality of the Middle East. This is a no-brainer.

What is less obvious is that factual analysis, the realm of knowledge and expertise, cannot be divorced from ethical values. As Hilary Putnam, professor of mathematical logic and preeminent philosopher puts it: “We live in a messy human world in which seeing reality with all its nuances … and making appropriate value judgments are simply not separable.”

We evaluate facts through the lens of values. We frame the present in light of future aspirations, which depend on a moral vision of the society we want to become. The leader therefore must combine knowledge and expertise with moral judgments and wisdom.

To Maimonides, the “power of the imagination” enables the statesman to close the gap between empirical reality and hope. The visionary statesman, grounded in knowledge and informed by values, imagines the future as it might become. The imaginative faculty also gives the statesman the ability to communicate effectively to the people at large through imaginative use of language — evocative metaphors and images that both simplify complex issues and inspire action.

This Jewish model of statesman was recently exemplified by an American president. Barack Obama’s Jerusalem speech in March, called by Yossi Klein Halevi “the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president,” challenged defeatist thinking and inspired plausible hope.

Whether one agrees or not with Obama’s politics or with this or that specific point in the speech, his words resonated deeply with the Israeli public, especially young people. His speech was not only Zionist in the obvious sense: He presented a sober analysis of the dangers Israel faces, the frustrations she has encountered in seeking peace, and expressed empathy and identification with this plight. 

On a deeper level, Obama reframed the Israeli crisis narrative of danger into a values narrative of hope, underscoring the values that brought the state into existence, as well as the values that define the kind of society Israel aspires to be. 

In this values narrative he challenged young Israelis in two ways: First, to visualize in concrete terms the pain that Palestinians suffer daily under Israeli occupation, to empathize with them as well as to grasp the moral and political consequences of this status quo. Maimonides, too, underlines “compassion” as the most important moral value. Second, Obama challenges his young audience to persist in and actively pursue the hope for a two-state solution.

While some would call this “kumbaya thinking” (a cynical term of art meant to devalue values discourse), it is significant to note that young Israelis gave Obama an ovation for his moral critique and challenge, just as they had when he said: “Atem lo-lavad,” you are not alone. Defense from danger and dreams of peace go together.

If the present gridlock is to be broken, it will take time and, most important, it will depend on the energy and courage of the next generation to engage in a politics of moral discourse, to muster the courage to dream with their eyes open, and the tenacity to combine sober realism with passionate hope.

Bernie Steinberg, vice president of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, represents the Hartman Institute on the West Coast.

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