Hope in Politics: A Jewish Perspective
By ALAN MITTLEMAN
Three modern philosophers present three different answers to the same critical question.
Hope is ubiquitous in human affairs, especially in regard to politics. Throughout history, politics has been the locus of many of our noblest aspirations, as well as of our darkest ambitions. Hope has driven us into wars and revolutions, but also inspired us to create better, more prosperous societies. Without it, benign expressions of politics such as constitutional democracy could never have been launched or sustained—but neither, too, could malignant forms such as totalitarianism or theocracy. Indeed, the modern age's most pernicious ideologies, from communism to Nazism to radical Islamism, all appealed to the yearning for a perfect political order, to be brought into being through extreme economic, social, or religious means. This naturally gives rise to the question: Were such movements products of misplaced hope? Are they still? Moreover, given the propensity for perversion, is politics per se a worthy object of our aspirations? And finally, we might ask, what may we hope for, within reason, from politics?
Since the nineteenth century, these questions have taken on a particular urgency for the Jewish people. During nearly two millennia in the diaspora, politics for the Jews had been, for the most part, aimed at securing or sustaining the ability to live as an autonomous religious community within a foreign society. Beginning with the Emancipation, which brought European Jewry out of the ghettos and into civil society, the Jews were introduced to new possibilities for politics. Many seized upon the opportunities it offered for social and economic integration. For some Jews, modern Zionism offered an alternative political response to the persistence of antisemitism in emancipated Europe. Yet ultimately, it was the establish-ment of a Jewish state in 1948 and the subsequent challenge of sovereignty that forced the Jews as a nation to re-formulate their relationship to politics and to consider what hopes they might rightly invest in it.
Three iconic, modern, German Jewish thinkers—Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber—each writing in the most promising and calamitous of political epochs, engaged the nexus of hope and politics explicitly. Cohen, a product of the nineteenth century deeply shaped by Kant's doctrine of progress, saw politics as a necessary and virtually sufficient framework for hope. To his mind, politics properly conceived and executed was the principal vehicle for redeeming the world. Rosenzweig, by contrast, took a diametrically opposed view, espousing a withdrawal from politics—at least for the Jews, whom he encouraged instead to nourish their own divinely guaranteed eternity. Finally, Buber, a collaborator with Rosenzweig and prolific social thinker, charted a middle course. While politics is inherently corrupting and unjust, he reasoned, it is also necessary. As such, it may be at least partially redeemed by prudent and moral action as the hour demands. Buber's politics—shorn of both Cohen's progressivism and Rosenzweig's quietism—is thus rendered no different from any other human project.
These three Jewish thinkers represent three dramatically different views, and three different ideals. In the following essay, I argue that it is Buber's view that best follows from the biblical and Jewish understanding of hope. As such, it is Buber who ultimately provides us with a well-grounded answer to the question of how much hope ought to be placed in politics: quite simply, neither too much nor too little.
Alan Mittleman is director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies and a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. This essay is based on his forthcoming book, Hope in a Democratic Age, and is published here with the permission of Oxford University Press. Azure