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    Optimist or pessimist? – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Are you an optimist?

    A. I am not sure. I looked up “Optimism” in my book, “Eighty Days and Eighty Nights: Wise Words for Everyday“, to find the answer, but there wasn’t a chapter on the subject. So let me confront myself and discover what I am – an optimist or a pessimist.

    It seems to depend on the day. Some days I am an optimist, and things look good. God is kind, the world is smiling, people are thoughtful, the human mind is advancing, and I say with Browning, “God’s in His heaven – all’s right with the world!”

    On good days like that, Jewish things are also doing well: Jewish life is on an upward swing and Mashi’ach is on his way.

    Some days, though, I look out and see grey and gloom. Bad things are happening to good people. The world is a grimace. I’m uncertain whether civilisation will survive. God does His best, but we aren’t helping Him much.

    It’s happening with Jewish things too. Not just because of external factors, but assessed internally. Quantity and quality are both a worry. Will Judaism last? “O Lord God, only You know!”

    I never know from day to day what I am, an optimist or a pessimist. Probably – to use a 19th century concept – I am a meliorist, who believes that things can get better if humans put in the effort; the world has weathered storms before and historically things tend to get better. Think only of medicine and health, of living conditions and culture.

    The Talmud tells of a long debate (for two and a half years) between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel, who asked whether it would have been better if God had not made man and the world. Thanks to Bet Hillel they concluded that yes, it would have been better, but now that we have a world we have to look after it and help it to flourish.

    Leibnitz, who created the term “optimism”, said this was the best of all possible worlds; Jewish thought says that with effort we can make it so.

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