Growing up, our home was, for lack of better words, very pessimistic. The approach to everything was always negative and foreboding. I have tried very hard to get beyond this way of thinking and to rise above it. Something inside me has just always felt detached from this kind of outlook. I feel better being upbeat and positive. I would love to raise these issues with my family and though I know of all the available self-help kinds of thinking, I was wondering if Judaism has something concrete to say about this. Does our tradition advocate optimism or pessimism as life positions?
My belief is that Judaism has something to say about every facet of the human condition — life-perspective is no exception. Discourses on optimism versus pessimism within Judaism abound, though as a philosophical/theological system, Judaism is generally considered fundamentally optimistic. However, the nuances in the conversation are worthy of further inquiry and probing.
A Talmudic discussion found in Eruvin 13b may be the quintessential optimism vs. pessimism debate. For two and a half years, Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel were in dispute. Bet Shammai asserted it would have been better for humans not to have been created than to have been created, and Bet Hillel maintained that it was better for humans to have been created than not. They finally took a vote and decided it would have been better for humans to not have been created, but that since creation occurred, let them investigate their past deeds or, as some say they concluded, let them examine their future actions.
What a great debate! If you were asked the question, what would you say? Upon what would you base your answer? For some, the answer may change depending on the day or the moment. After two and a half years, though, the conclusion our sages came to was a seemingly bleak one: It would have been better for humans not to have been created.
Not to have been created? This seems to go against everything we believe in! To not have had the opportunity to serve our Maker, to partner with God in the fixing of this world, to not have the opportunity to draw close to the Divine Presence? This seems untenable and wholly un-Jewish. In fact, in the Creation narrative itself, the Almighty declares: “And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” — including the creation of human beings.
How can we understand this argument between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai? How can we begin to understand this bleak approach? When you think about it from our very human perspective, there are overwhelming possibilities to mess up in life and to sully the world and to not appreciate the gifts of living. Yet God sees in the creation of human beings a tremendous potential for good. Could it be that humans are pessimists and that God is the ultimate optimist? Nothing is quite as optimistic as the very act of the Creation.
The Talmud’s conclusion therefore makes sense. From our perspective, maybe it would have been better to have not been created — we wreak havoc everywhere we turn. But now that we are created, let’s live accordingly — let’s be reflective in our actions and try to live up to the image of God.
This debate may speak to our general existential being, but what about our daily responses to challenges? Your family may have experienced some of the vicissitudes of Jewish history that many of our people have gone through and have, not unlike others, emerged with heavy hearts. We cannot overlook the reality that, to a certain extent, it is our life’s experiences that mold our demeanors. Some Hassidic masters describe their lives as a struggle against melancholy, a sentiment that has always spoken deeply to me — from masters who we tend to think of as joyous! Perhaps we need to be deliberate in our pursuit of optimism, adopting habits of hope, if you will.
One stratagem the Talmud promotes is to always react confidently to demanding events with the positive life-affirming assertion: “Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for good.”
This may seem quite thorny, and even corny given the day-in-day-out kinds of stuff we all go through — from keys locked in cars to missed airplanes to lattes spilled over newly cleaned suits, to name a few! In our pursuit of practical everyday strategies for “hands-on optimism” this following story of Rabbi Akiva may be helpful:
Rabbi Akiva was once traveling and came to a certain town. He proceeded to look for a place to sleep, but was turned away from each house of lodging. He declared, “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good,” and he spent the night in an open field. He had with him a rooster, a donkey and a lamp. A gust of wind came and blew out the lamp, a weasel came and ate the rooster, and a lion came and ate the donkey. Rabbi Akiva, even in this trying situation, said: “Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good.” The very same night, an army attacked the city and carried off the residents of the town from which he had been turned away. He reflected afterward: “Did I not say to you, ‘Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for good?’” Out in the forest with his light out and his rooster and donkey no longer capable of making sounds, he was safe.
This famous anecdote is less about theodicy and more about attitude. A light blowing out is not dramatic, it is merely a nuisance of life. Even the loss of property or animals in this instance is not devastating, just annoying. But Rabbi Akiva is able to absorb the disappointments in life and declare, “Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for good.” This kind of declaration can go a long way. Habits of hope and the language of optimism may help each of us develop a Rabbi Akiva-like demeanor of optimism — it may even have the power to have an effect on reality!