Remember the Past, but Strive for a Better Future
I have been reading a book about the Hundred Years’ War between France and England by Jonathan Sumption, the well-known and controversial former member of the Supreme Court of Great Britain. It is a boring book about petty rivalries and seemingly endless battles and intrigues. It reflects the command of detail, rather than broad brush strokes one expects from lawyers and academics.
The Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts in Western Europe from 1337 to 1453, waged between the English House of Plantagenet and its rival House of York, and the French Valois and its rivals Anjou, Brittany, Bourbon, Burgundy, Flanders, Gascony, Normandy, Poitou, and Picardy (I might have missed out on others but who really cares), over the right to rule France.
It was one of the most notable conflicts of the Middle Ages. Five generations of kings fought for pride and power. And at the same time, they often had to battle with their own lords and barons. They were all feudal societies in which people were supposed to know their places in the hierarchy. Those lower down had to serve and were at the mercy of those above them socially.
Throughout the long drawn out back-and-forth of the war, barons, counts, and lords (and not a few ladies) kept on changing sides and loyalties. The wealthy elite and their henchmen, administrators, and merchants lived lives of luxury and privilege, while the vast majority of the ordinary population suffered in poverty. They were subject to almost constant invasion, expulsion, slavery, and brutal death, not to mention famine, plagues, and other natural disasters. Men would be forced to fight for whichever baron called on them to serve, leaving families without the manpower to cultivate the land. Since most did not return, their families were left destitute to starve to death. Fields, livestock, and property were confiscated or destroyed by each invading force. The old, the women, and the children were driven from their homes and the safety of besieged towns so that the defenders would not need to feed them. Marauding armies looking for food and loot terrorized their way across the continent. It was a brutish life.
The only respite might have come from adventures abroad such as the Crusades, in which one would kill and loot one’s way either to a fortune or a few gold coins that could set one’s family up for life.
Caught in the middle of this were the Jews — at the mercy of whichever king or duke they found refuge under. And because their communities relied on self-help and support, they survived better than most of the ordinary people they lived amongst, and were inevitably envied and used as scapegoats, especially by the church.
As I read Sumption’s detailed descriptions of the constant horrors the populace suffered, I could feel for those benighted populations. It has taken us hundreds of years to slowly improve the condition of our world for the vast majority. In my own lifetime, we have progressed enormously, lifting millions out of poverty and disease throughout much of the world. Most of us are healthier, richer, and freer beyond the imagination of the medieval mind.
There are of course still areas of human suffering — states and ghettos of violence, thousands of refugees driven from their homes and countries by war, poverty, and hate. Yet at the same time, the world responds with aid, loans, charity, and goodwill.
What worries me is the seemingly increasing sense of alienation, anger, and dissatisfaction in the so-called developed Western world. It is largely the fault of this new emphasis on identity politics: I am right and virtuous. You are entitled and bad. I don’t agree with you, so I will bring you down. My anger is legitimate but yours is not. My suffering is greater than yours.
No one’s suffering should be gauged in relation to someone else’s. To wallow in a sense of injustice, to blame and demean everyone else, only prevents progress. It breeds resentment, not good will. I am not alone in my concern. Two highly regarded philosophers Robert Putnam and Michael Sandel have just published books on this very subject. I believe in getting ahead, not getting even.
As Jews, we should appreciate how fortunate we are now. Of course, we must continue to fight our enemies — but not let that battle make us forget our humanity. We too suffer from this sense that our pain is greater than others. We have been so concerned with the Holocaust and our battles for survival in Israel and the Diaspora, that we are in danger of not appreciating how fortunate we really are now.
Yes, there is still hatred and envy directed at us, and yes, there are billions batting for the other side and our priority must be for ours because we are so few. But it is the mindset of victimhood that I object to and feel we are still encouraging. The ultra-Orthodox resent any interference even in the interests of general health and seemingly with no regard for anyone else. And on the secular side, there is the resentment of religion as well as the almost universal hypocrisy and incompetence of authorities. Yet, despite it all, it looks as though some humans have worked together to find a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.
I once heard an old Russian proverb that said, “He who looks to the past is in danger of losing an eye. But he who ignores the past is in danger of losing both eyes.” It is true that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it. But those who only focus on the past cannot heal or go forward.
We are told, in our tradition, to remember the past — but to strive for a better future.
Jeremy Rosen is a rabbi, writer, and scholar, currently living in New York.