Here we are again on the threshold of another new year: are we ready to look back – and to move forward? What were we thinking as we journeyed here this evening? About the old year? About the future? Perhaps, we were simply in a hurry to get here on time. So, now we are here – but where are we? We are congregated together in this synagogue, obviously – but where are we in ourselves? Are we ready to make a new beginning? What are we feeling? Expectant? Anxious? Excited? Nervous? Hopeful? Fearful? Each one of us will be feeling different things, of course – and perhaps, some of us are not aware of what we’re feeling; at least not of our deepest feelings, although we may be aware of feeling hungry because we missed dinner, or pleasantly replete because we have just eaten a delicious festive meal, or vaguely uneasy because we’re really not sure why we are here, or simply, happy to have arrived at this special moment of celebration.
Yes, here we are – each of us with our own bundle of feelings, needs – and, maybe, questions – like: is there anything new about the year – except the date? And: what difference will it make to our individual lives that the Jewish year has changed?
It will not make a difference – this New Year of 5771 – unless we want it to; or rather, unless we are able to make a difference, or to do something different; that is the challenge we face: to renew our lives. Some of us really like new challenges: stepping out on a new path; trying something different; exploring an unforeseen opportunity; embarking on an adventure. But some of us, really don’t: we feel fearful and anxious about the unknown; and feel that there is just too much change going on all the time already; bewildering us and constantly overtaking us; the change some of us yearn for, is for everything to slow down – and, preferably, stand still; if only the hectic world we live in today was a bus, moving on its predetermined route, stop by stop, and we could just ring the bell, and get off when it suited us.
Judging by my own experience and my pastoral work as a rabbi for the past twenty-one years, I would say that the people who embrace the new and are eager to explore uncharted territory are in the minority. But it’s not just a matter of our personal predispositions. The Danish 19th century philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) explored the phenomenon of anxiety in his work, The Concept of Anxiety, first published in 1844 (1). Known as the “father of existentialism”, Kirkegaard, was also keen to revitalise Christianity, and so, drawing on the biblical account of Creation and the Christian concept of ‘original sin’, he identified the primal anxiety as the choice set before Adam to eat from God’s forbidden tree of knowledge or not. The first human being was free to make the choice, and according to Kierkegaard, the mere fact that one has the possibility and freedom to do something, engenders feelings of dread. As Kirkegaard famously put it, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.”
For Kierkegaard then, anxiety is intrinsic to the human condition. But it has been during the past hundred years that anxiety has also come to be seen as the spirit of the age. Ever since the Great War of 1914 to 1918 wreaked its havoc; squandering a generation of young men and destroying the sense of optimism and hope that had marked modernity’s steady march of progress, thinkers have been talking about living in ‘an Age of Anxiety’. And some have argued that modernity itself has been the problem: In his book, The Crisis of the Mind, published in 1919 (2), French thinker, Paul Valery, argued that ‘the crisis of the mind’ was a direct result of “the free coexistence…. of the most dissimilar ideas, the most contradictory principles of life and learning, [which] is characteristic of a modern epoch.” And so, according to Valery, although the military crisis was over, ‘the crisis of the mind’, precipitated by the loss of a fixed system of reference for living and thinking, remained.
The thinker, whose reflections on the Age of Anxiety became the most influential during the second half of the 20th century, was Protestant theologian-philosopher, Paul Tillich. In his book, The Courage To Be, published in 1952 (3), Tillich identified three types of anxiety: Ontic anxiety, focused on fears about fate and death, moral anxiety, centered on feelings of guilt and fear of condemnation, and spiritual anxiety, characterised by a sense of emptiness and loss of meaning. While all three may be present in any age, Tillich associated each one with the end of a major epoch, arguing that ”at the end of ancient civilization ontic anxiety is predominant, at the end of the Middle Ages moral anxiety, and at the end of the modern period spiritual anxiety”. He wrote, further:
It is significant that the three main periods of anxiety appear at the end of an era. The anxiety which, in its different forms, is potentially present in every individual becomes general if the accustomed structures of meaning, power, belief, and order have disintegrated. These structures, as long as they are in force, keep anxiety bound within a protective system of courage by participation. The individual who participates in the institutions and ways of life of such a system is not liberated from his personal anxieties but he has means of overcoming them with well-known methods. In periods of great changes these methods no longer work. Conflicts between the old, which tries to maintain itself, often with new means, and the new, which deprives the old of its intrinsic power, produce anxiety in all directions.
Like Valery, Tillich connects spiritual anxiety with the very nature of modernity, arguing:
The breakdown of absolutism, the development of liberalism and democracy, the rise of a technical civilization with its victory over all enemies and its own beginning disintegration – these are the sociological presuppositions for the third main period of anxiety. In this the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness is dominant. We are under the threat of spiritual nonbeing.
Emptiness; meaninglessness; spiritual nonbeing. It was the 19th century German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who is understood to have been the first thinker to speak of ‘the death of God’ – but there have been so many other deaths since Nietzsche made his somber pronouncement: the death of hope, the death of progress; the death of reason; the death of the human spirit; eclipsed by the deaths of millions of human beings – from the trenches of the Great War to the Nazi death camps; from the Stalinist executions to the killing fields of Cambodia and the machete-wielding mobs of Rwanda. Is that why so many people today feel tormented by feelings of emptiness, meaninglessness and spiritual nonbeing?
You may be wandering what Jewish thinkers have to say about all this? Could it be that we Jews are all too preoccupied with feeling anxious most of the time to devote much time to thinking and writing about it? Or, perhaps, the extent of Jewish anxiety explains why so many Jews are practitioners of psycho-analysis and psycho therapy – beginning, with Sigmund Freud, of course, who developed his theories on the basis of his clinical work with his, mostly, Jewish patients in Vienna.
Psycho-analysts and psycho-therapists treat individuals. In recent years, the Age of Anxiety seems to have spawned a new epoch characterised by ‘catastrophic thinking’ – a concept first identified by psychologists, working with individual sufferers, and now applied on a societal level. Interestingly, in an article published online a year ago, an Israeli American writer and blogger, called Benjamin Kerstein, contributed a skeptical note to the debate (4):
We are living in an age of catastrophic thinking. Our social and cultural discourse on any number of subjects – the environment, the economy, public health, technology – is defined by a vocabulary and a worldview that can only be described as apocalyptic. The world, we are constantly told, is in a state of mortal crisis, and unless we act fast enough to stop it, we are all facing disaster and oblivion. Everything, it seems, is swiftly accelerating toward a terrible end.
One gets the feeling that Benjamin Kerstein is not convinced. But whether we agree with his tone or not, or think that we are approaching the apocalypse, or not, it does seem that the Age of Anxiety has gone global. So, how does what we are doing here this evening connect with the zeitgeist? Is there a connection at all – or are we participating in some kind of anachronistic rite in an effort to fend off the sprit of the age? Are we taking refuge from the concerns of the world around us – or, as we share this sacred moment, are we engaged, on the contrary, in reviving the human spirit and restoring hope to our broken planet? Ha-yom harat olam: as the Sages put it, ‘today is the birthday of the world’; is it just too fanciful to imagine that by coming to this Erev Rosh ha-Shanah service – whatever brought us here, and however we are feeling – our participation in the celebration of the world’s birthday might actually make a difference? After all, if a collection of over-excited traders at the Stock Exchange can destroy or revive economic fortunes, depending on the collective mood, why can’t all the Jewish congregations assembled across the world this evening summon up the spirit we need for a shanah tovah – a good year?
It could work… but we would need to believe in what we are doing here at least as much as those stock-brokers believe in what they are doing over there… and isn’t it a strange thing that while religion is so often dismissed as ‘nonsense’ these days by atheists and secularists alike, the irrational antics that determine the fortunes of the economy, are not…
Of course there are real problems out there and justifiable fears – at home and abroad: unemployment is still rising; a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians continues to be elusive; oppression and persecution remain rife across the globe; climate-change is in evidence… the list goes on. And yet, beset by real threats of all kinds, and feeling anxious and anguished, we can still choose to celebrate Life – as our ancestors did before us – and, so choose to challenge the increasing dominance of ‘catastrophic thinking’. In doing so, we might find inspiration in the words of the poet, W.H. Auden (1907-1973), whose long six-part poem, entitled, The Age of Anxiety. A Baroque Eclogue, was published in 1947. Auden’s allegorical reflection on the spirit of the age, centered on a fictional cast of characters in a New York bar, includes this sharp comment (5):
Yet the noble despair of the poets
Is nothing of the sort; it is silly
To refuse the tasks of time
And, overlooking our lives,
Cry – “Miserable wicked me,
How interesting I am.”
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
As Jews we would hardly think of climbing ‘the cross of the moment’, but perhaps no other people knows as well as we do, what it means to grasp the tasks at hand and to climb out of the abyss for the sake of tomorrow. Auden won the 1948 Pulitzer prize for The Age of Anxiety. Meanwhile, that same year, Leonard Bernstein, inspired by Auden’s work, began to compose his Symphony No.2, giving it the same title – and, even more pertinent, from a Jewish perspective, the modern State of Israel was established: Whatever has happened in and around Israel, and across the world in the past sixty-two years, do we need more evidence that hope can triumph over despair and that anxiety can be transmuted into a transformational impulse?
Interestingly, Kierkegaard did not simply regard anxiety in negative terms; he saw anxiety as a way of salvation for humanity, as well as a torment, because, as he understood it, through the experience of anxiety we can become truly aware of our potential, our choices and our personal responsibility; in this way, anxiety can be a vehicle for recognising and realising our true identity and freedoms. And so, while in The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard expressed its horrors graphically, “No Grand Inquisitor has in readiness such terrible tortures as has anxiety”, he also believed that, “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”
We are here this evening to apprehend intimations of the ultimate in our midst – and in the, as yet, unknown realm of tomorrow beyond this moment. May we all learn in our own ways to transform our anxieties into a source of enrichment and growth, for our own sakes, and for the sake of our families, our community, our people, and our world. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5771 – 8th September 2009
1. Kierkegaard, Søren (1981), The Concept of Anxiety, Princeton University Press (first published as Begrebet Angest in June 1844; first English translation, 1946, as The Concept of Dread)
2. “La Crise de l’esprit” – “The Crisis of the Mind” by Paul Valery originally appeared in English, in two parts, in The Athenaeum (London), April 11 and May 2, 1919. The French text was published the same year in the August number of La Nouvelle Revue Française.
3. Tillich, Paul, The Courage To Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 61-63
4. Kerstein, Benjamin, “The Age of Catastrophic Thinking” in Azureonline, Summer 5769/2009, No. 37) www.azure.org.il/article.php?id=504
5. W.H Auden, The Age of Anxiety. A Baroque Eclogue (London: Faber, 1947)