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Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?

What the High Holy Days teach us in a season of change

by Marty Kaplan

September 25, 2008 | 3:19 am

A full size version of this photoillustration<br />
by Dan Kacvinski is on page four of this story.

A full size version of this photoillustration
by Dan Kacvinski is on page four of this story.

These are nervous-making times.

No, I'm not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or -- at my temple, anyway -- whether you'll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it's a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: "Change You Can Believe In," "The Change We Need. "From John McCain: "The Change You Deserve," "Change Is Coming."

Clearly it's a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader -- whether Obama or McCain -- really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I'm not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation's place in the world. The issue I'm trying to get at -- and I'll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable -- is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain -- and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from -- that people really can't change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called "human nature."

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur -- says this point of view -- within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian -- the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: "Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is -- history." Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can't change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement -- abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism -- starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called "The Triumph of the Therapeutic": the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species' fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

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