Human Perfectibility

Human Perfectibility

One Man’s View

By Eugen Schoenfeld

The history of religion is a history of conquest, power and control. Most people acknowledge that most wars in the past were fought in the name of G-d or were justified by religion.

Even today as we are listening to the discourses by the Republican candidates for the presidency, each of the two leading candidates is trying to prove that his Christianity is more intense and superior to the other.

No wonder, therefore, that the power struggle in the Middle East is a struggle in which religion plays a great part. All the Muslim revolutionists today, whether Islamic State, Al-Qaida or Hamas, justify their struggle by religion. This is not new or limited to Muslims (going back to the Jewish conquest of Canaan).

We are experiencing the consequences of centuries of colonization of Asia and Africa. The colonial powers destroyed traditional forms of government, whatever they may have been, and after World War II when the colonies became free, they found themselves fighting for the establishment of new power systems.

Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

The main issue for us: How do we respond to the fears related to the constant threat that we experience?

The noted psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his book “Escape From Freedom” suggested that we are likely to reject our freedoms for promised safety and well-being, just as the Germans did after World War I. Like those Germans, we are likely to become cynical and place our trust in weaponry and power.

But when we do so, we destroy the value system of freedom and human rights that took us centuries to achieve. We must, especially when we fear for our existence, emphasize the hope that is rooted in the idea of human perfectibility.

All my adult life I solemnly held on to the belief in human perfectibility. This belief is a part of my heritage. Rabbinic midrashim tell us that even though G-d is perfect, He deliberately and purposefully created an imperfect and incomplete world.

Can you imagine living in a perfect world? What purpose would man have in such a world?

So G-d in His wisdom gave us an imperfect and unfinished world and assigned us the task of completing and perfecting it.

Unlike all other creatures G-d created with but one purpose — that of reproduction — we human beings were charged with becoming G-d’s collaborators and improving the world. This is the central meaning of tikkun olam.

To accomplish this task, humans were given the capacity to think, and we acquired the capacity to distinguish right from wrong. I have once suggested that in line with this great gift, we should alter the first of the morning blessings, which in my opinion is an anachronism, and replace it with the blessing in which we thank the Creator for giving us the capacity lehavdil beyn tov v’rah — to distinguish between right and wrong, between good and evil.

In spite of the many evil things that I experienced in my life, such as the Holocaust and what seems Islamic State’s commitment to the destruction of civilization, I continue to hold on to the idea of the perfectibility of mankind. Giving up this belief leads to giving up my belief in a rational tomorrow.

The belief in the perfectibility of mankind is the foundation for the belief that the world tomorrow will better than this one, that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in a better world. I continue to hold on to the belief that when G-d created humanity, He assigned us the task to be His co-creator.

He commissioned us to add the letter “e” to “human” and make ourselves into humane beings. Otherwise, mankind will regress and will replace the “u” in human with an “a,” making us a collection of Hamans — the destroyers of humanity.

How can we elevate ourselves to become humane? By understanding and practicing the moral principles that were given us in the Torah. We should wrap ourselves in the spirit of these principles as we do the tallit. We should wrap ourselves with the mantle of rachamim, the mantle of sensitivity to other beings. It is the mantle that was woven by the fabric of tzar bal chai — the law that commands us not to cause pain to a living being.

But above all else, we must abide by and accept the command lo tachmod — to renounce our tendency of coveting power and dictatorial rule. Still more, we are to reject the idea of “my way or the highway,” the sure way that leads to dictatorship. We must accept the right of being different, so long as we do not demand that others become like us.

I have been the recipient in my 70 years in this country of the comment “If you don’t like it, go back from where you came.” Religions are organizations of believers who, although in a different manner, are supposedly committed to the unity of G-d and the unity of mankind but who instead have contrarily spread the seeds of hostility. In the name of G-d, by whichever name we call Him/Her/It, we demand conformity to one belief.

I have often been the recipient of the following statement: “I am sorry for you because you are a Jew and therefore you will not achieve salvation.” This statement is an aggressive statement — perhaps not as aggressive as proclaimed in Islamic belief, but nonetheless aggressive.

No religion should advocate the idea “I am better than you” or “My G-d is truer than yours.” Let me quote a statement from the Christian Bible (Matthew): “Let no one see the sawdust in your brother’s eyes before you see the plank in your own.”

I remember my roots, and I remember being homeless, despised and threatened. I remember my family and the many who were and still are killed with hardly a place to go.

I was the possessor of a homeless passport. Therefore, I will always be committed to the ideals described by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus in her magnificent poem “The New Colossus”:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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