Midnight and Morning in America

08.14.2016

I want to talk about three things today that in my mind are related. One is the field of Positive Psychology. The second is the philosophy of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem which I attended for the fifth time this summer. And, the third is the presidential election. And, I beg your indulgence on the third one. I know I spoke about it last week, but today, I want to come from a different angle.

Hillary Clinton in her acceptance speech accused Donald Trump of painting an overly dark picture of the state of our country—of saying, it is midnight in America. And, she laid claim to an optimism about America that she believes transcends party lines. She referenced Ronald Reagan’s speech about morning in America.

What emerged from the two political conventions were two very different versions of America. In one view, America is in deep trouble. We have deep problems, and we ignore them at our peril. The first step in fixing our problems is facing them squarely. That’s what we heard at the Republican Convention.

The Democrats depicted themselves as the party of aspiration. They didn’t deny we have problems. But, they said, rather than focus on what’s wrong with our ‘now’, let’s talk about our goals for a bright tomorrow.

And, these two ways of looking at the world reflect a deeper cultural divide not only in American and Western culture, but in Jewish culture, too. And, I have a bias. But, I have to tell you, I am struggling with these two world views right now. I don’t think either one of them has a lock on reality.

Let me begin by talking about the field of Positive Psychology. Two years ago, Rabbi Irwin Kula told us: the purpose of Jewish practice is to promote human flourishing. If we can demonstrate that the observance of Shabbat leads us to a happier, more fulfilled and more meaningful life, we will do it. And, if not, we will not do it.

Jews today are not going to live a Jewish life out of fear for our survival. So, if we want Jewish life to thrive, we need to work on convincing the Jewish people that ‘doing Jewish’ will help us flourish.

Now, the term ‘human flourishing’ comes from the new field of Positive Psychology. What is Positive Psychology?: “You go to a therapist. And, she tells you: ‘Don’t talk to me about your problems. Tell me what is going right in your life. And, we can build on that.’”

Rabbi Kula has invited us to be part of an experiment. We are going to be part of a cohort of 12 congregations that will explore the human flourishing component of one Jewish practice this year: Yom Kippur.

Over the next 12 months I’ll be working with eleven other rabbis to come up with specific practices to implement in our congregations both before and on Yom Kippur to make this time of year maximally meaningful. We will be asking this question together: If the goal of the high holidays is to change us for the better—what can do in shul on that day, and before that day to make it most likely that will really happen?

And, towards that goal, we are going to be drawing on the insights of Positive Psychology. The co-founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, believes that until recently the field of psychology has focused almost exclusively on human problems—our psychoses, our neuroses, and our anxieties. Seligman doesn’t believe we should abandon that focus. But, he says, psychology also needs to focus on human aspiration. He says it’s not enough to get rid of sadness. If psychology really has something to say about human nature, it can’t be content to understand what makes us not-miserable. It has to understand what leads a person to thrive.

Here is an insight from the first batch of articles that I was asked to read. Barbara Frederickson has an idea she calls ‘the broaden and build theory of positive emotions.’ For Frederickson, happiness is not just a goal. It’s also a means to a better life. Happy people are not narcissistic. On the contrary, truly happy people create more happiness around them. Positive emotions like joy, contentment and love open us up, deepen us, and broaden us, so that we become more resilient, more creative, better problem solvers, and ultimately, more ethical people.

Positive psychologists believe that if we can become happier, more optimistic people, we will change the world for the better. And, they are asking: can we train ourselves to be more positive? Are there exercises we can do?

In Jewish terms, what if the month before Rosh Hashanah, instead of reflecting on what we have done wrong, every single day for a month we reflected on something we did right, and how we could do more of that in the coming year? Would that help? Would that have an impact on our life? These are the kinds of things we are going to think about together over the next twelve months.

Now, it turns out that Positive Psychology fits beautifully with the philosophy of the Hartman Institute. Hartman teaches Aspirational Zionism. Don’t tell me about the problems of the Jewish people. Tell me about the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. Don’t talk to me about Jewish survival. Abraham was not told by God, ‘Avraham–Leave your birthplace, go to a new land, and when you get there— Don’t get killed!” No! God inspired Abraham. God said—“Abraham! Go out and create something new and beautiful.”

So, don’t talk to me about anti-semitism. Fear doesn’t inspire people. Talk to me instead about Israeli doctors in Haiti or treating refugees from Syria, or Israel as a beacon of human rights in a troubled neighborhood.

When we speak of Israel, let’s not focus exclusively on how we’re going to defend ourselves. Let’s not obsess about what the world is saying about us. Instead, let’s ask ourselves: who do we want to be? What kind of a country do we aspire to create? And, let that be our guide.

I think you know where my biases lie. My heart is with Hartman and with Rabbi Kula and with Positive Psychology. I am an optimist by nature. I think that to be a Jew, you have to be an optimist. But, I am also worried. I am worried that we are overdoing it.

The field of Positive Psychology really came of age in the 1990’s. 1993 was the first time I gave a sermon criticizing our obsession with the Holocaust and our excessive preoccupation with Jewish survival. I was caught up in the spirit of the time. It truly was Morning in America. The Soviet Empire had crumbled. Democracy was breaking out all over. Oslo promised a whole new Middle East. This was before 9/11. It was before global terrorism, and ISIS, and a resurgent Russia. And, it was before the recession of 2008.

I’m not saying we were fools in the 1990’s. I’m not saying it’s Midnight in America. But, I’m worried that the optimists among us are ignoring uncomfortable realities that don’t fit our world view.  I’m worried that the aspirationalists among us are not paying enough attention to the growth of anti-semitism around the world and university campuses here, and the danger to Western values in Europe that is posed by a Muslim population that has not assimilated those values.

Of fourteen Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, only one of them is democratic. Islam is not inherently anti-democratic. But, Islam as it is practiced globally today has a problem. And, because out of political correctness, we turn a blind eye, someone less responsible is filling the vacuum and it’s not pretty.

We don’t really have to choose between Midnight and Morning in America. Our Tradition offers us a model in which both are true, but with a tilt towards Morning. In today’s haftarah, Isaiah is harsh and brutally honest in his assessment of the moral deficiencies of our people. But, he ends, as all our prophets do, on a note of hope. And, for the next seven weeks every haftarah is poster child for Positive Psychology, full of optimism as we enter the new year.

There are three haftarot of harsh criticism and there are seven haftarot of hope and renewal. There is no denial of real problems. There is no political correctness by Isaiah or Jeremiah. But, the balance is clear. Optimism has the decisive edge. Aspiration overwhelms self-criticism.

Martin Seligman is not saying psychology should ignore human problems. Nor do I really think that Hartman is pollyannish. But, somehow or other we need to do a better job of reconciling the two world views that were placed before us this month. There must be a way to achieve a better balance between Midnight and Morning– in our lives and in the world

 


Devarim/2016
Midnight and Morning in America              
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum


I want to talk about three things today that in my mind are related. One is the field of Positive Psychology. The second is the philosophy of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem which I attended for the fifth time this summer. And, the third is the presidential election. And, I beg your indulgence on the third one. I know I spoke about it last week, but today, I want to come from a different angle.

Hillary Clinton in her acceptance speech accused Donald Trump of painting an overly dark picture of the state of our country—of saying, it is midnight in America. And, she laid claim to an optimism about America that she believes transcends party lines. She referenced Ronald Reagan’s speech about morning in America.

What emerged from the two political conventions were two very different versions of America. In one view, America is in deep trouble. We have deep problems, and we ignore them at our peril. The first step in fixing our problems is facing them squarely. That’s what we heard at the Republican Convention.

The Democrats depicted themselves as the party of aspiration. They didn’t deny we have problems. But, they said, rather than focus on what’s wrong with our ‘now’, let’s talk about our goals for a bright tomorrow.

And, these two ways of looking at the world reflect a deeper cultural divide not only in American and Western culture, but in Jewish culture, too. And, I have a bias. But, I have to tell you, I am struggling with these two world views right now. I don’t think either one of them has a lock on reality.

Let me begin by talking about the field of Positive Psychology. Two years ago, Rabbi Irwin Kula told us: the purpose of Jewish practice is to promote human flourishing. If we can demonstrate that the observance of Shabbat leads us to a happier, more fulfilled and more meaningful life, we will do it. And, if not, we will not do it.

Jews today are not going to live a Jewish life out of fear for our survival. So, if we want Jewish life to thrive, we need to work on convincing the Jewish people that ‘doing Jewish’ will help us flourish.

Now, the term ‘human flourishing’ comes from the new field of Positive Psychology. What is Positive Psychology?: “You go to a therapist. And, she tells you: ‘Don’t talk to me about your problems. Tell me what is going right in your life. And, we can build on that.’”

Rabbi Kula has invited us to be part of an experiment. We are going to be part of a cohort of 12 congregations that will explore the human flourishing component of one Jewish practice this year: Yom Kippur.

Over the next 12 months I’ll be working with eleven other rabbis to come up with specific practices to implement in our congregations both before and on Yom Kippur to make this time of year maximally meaningful. We will be asking this question together: If the goal of the high holidays is to change us for the better—what can do in shul on that day, and before that day to make it most likely that will really happen?

And, towards that goal, we are going to be drawing on the insights of Positive Psychology. The co-founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, believes that until recently the field of psychology has focused almost exclusively on human problems—our psychoses, our neuroses, and our anxieties. Seligman doesn’t believe we should abandon that focus. But, he says, psychology also needs to focus on human aspiration. He says it’s not enough to get rid of sadness. If psychology really has something to say about human nature, it can’t be content to understand what makes us not-miserable. It has to understand what leads a person to thrive.

Here is an insight from the first batch of articles that I was asked to read. Barbara Frederickson has an idea she calls ‘the broaden and build theory of positive emotions.’ For Frederickson, happiness is not just a goal. It’s also a means to a better life. Happy people are not narcissistic. On the contrary, truly happy people create more happiness around them. Positive emotions like joy, contentment and love open us up, deepen us, and broaden us, so that we become more resilient, more creative, better problem solvers, and ultimately, more ethical people.

Positive psychologists believe that if we can become happier, more optimistic people, we will change the world for the better. And, they are asking: can we train ourselves to be more positive? Are there exercises we can do?

In Jewish terms, what if the month before Rosh Hashanah, instead of reflecting on what we have done wrong, every single day for a month we reflected on something we did right, and how we could do more of that in the coming year? Would that help? Would that have an impact on our life? These are the kinds of things we are going to think about together over the next twelve months.

Now, it turns out that Positive Psychology fits beautifully with the philosophy of the Hartman Institute. Hartman teaches Aspirational Zionism. Don’t tell me about the problems of the Jewish people. Tell me about the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. Don’t talk to me about Jewish survival. Abraham was not told by God, ‘Avraham–Leave your birthplace, go to a new land, and when you get there— Don’t get killed!” No! God inspired Abraham. God said—“Abraham! Go out and create something new and beautiful.”

So, don’t talk to me about anti-semitism. Fear doesn’t inspire people. Talk to me instead about Israeli doctors in Haiti or treating refugees from Syria, or Israel as a beacon of human rights in a troubled neighborhood.

When we speak of Israel, let’s not focus exclusively on how we’re going to defend ourselves. Let’s not obsess about what the world is saying about us. Instead, let’s ask ourselves: who do we want to be? What kind of a country do we aspire to create? And, let that be our guide.

I think you know where my biases lie. My heart is with Hartman and with Rabbi Kula and with Positive Psychology. I am an optimist by nature. I think that to be a Jew, you have to be an optimist. But, I am also worried. I am worried that we are overdoing it.

The field of Positive Psychology really came of age in the 1990’s. 1993 was the first time I gave a sermon criticizing our obsession with the Holocaust and our excessive preoccupation with Jewish survival. I was caught up in the spirit of the time. It truly was Morning in America. The Soviet Empire had crumbled. Democracy was breaking out all over. Oslo promised a whole new Middle East. This was before 9/11. It was before global terrorism, and ISIS, and a resurgent Russia. And, it was before the recession of 2008.

I’m not saying we were fools in the 1990’s. I’m not saying it’s Midnight in America. But, I’m worried that the optimists among us are ignoring uncomfortable realities that don’t fit our world view.  I’m worried that the aspirationalists among us are not paying enough attention to the growth of anti-semitism around the world and university campuses here, and the danger to Western values in Europe that is posed by a Muslim population that has not assimilated those values.

Of fourteen Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, only one of them is democratic. Islam is not inherently anti-democratic. But, Islam as it is practiced globally today has a problem. And, because out of political correctness, we turn a blind eye, someone less responsible is filling the vacuum and it’s not pretty.

We don’t really have to choose between Midnight and Morning in America. Our Tradition offers us a model in which both are true, but with a tilt towards Morning. In today’s haftarah, Isaiah is harsh and brutally honest in his assessment of the moral deficiencies of our people. But, he ends, as all our prophets do, on a note of hope. And, for the next seven weeks every haftarah is poster child for Positive Psychology, full of optimism as we enter the new year.

There are three haftarot of harsh criticism and there are seven haftarot of hope and renewal. There is no denial of real problems. There is no political correctness by Isaiah or Jeremiah. But, the balance is clear. Optimism has the decisive edge. Aspiration overwhelms self-criticism.

Martin Seligman is not saying psychology should ignore human problems. Nor do I really think that Hartman is pollyannish. But, somehow or other we need to do a better job of reconciling the two world views that were placed before us this month. There must be a way to achieve a better balance between Midnight and Morning– in our lives and in the world.