The Mourner's Hope
Grief and the foundations of justice
Nov 1, 2008
18 Min read time
On August 16, 2008, Martha Nussbaum—University of Chicago professor and Boston Review contributing editor—became a bat mitzvah. Part of the ceremony is the d’var Torah: a talk by the bat mitzvah on a section of the Torah portion (parashah) and the haftarah (pl. haftarot, a biblical reading accompanying a thematically related Torah portion). Nussbaum’s talk is reproduced here.
Va’etchanan, today’s Torah portion from Deuteronomy (5.1-18), is paired by tradition with the first of a series of haftarot of consolation: nahamu, from Isaiah (40.1-26). Taken together, the two texts generate a puzzle. Consolation appears to be a very personal, even intimate, idea. The Isaiah text expresses it as such. The words of consolation are spoken to Jerusalem “tenderly,” and consolation is depicted throughout in intimate metaphors of personal love and care: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40.11). A later passage of Isaiah, which ancient commentators often connect with this one, even depicts God as a mother feeding Jerusalem at her breast (Isaiah 66.11). Being consoled, then, is being filled up, completed, restored to the blissful state of a nursing infant.
This personal message, however, is matched with a text from Deuteronomy that emphasizes the binding, covenantal force of laws (Deuteronomy 5.1-18 contains the second version of the ten commandments). The passage also emphasizes that these laws are not just handed down through tradition, but are there to be grasped by “all of us, here, today, the living.” The great twelfth century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, connecting the Decalogue with a sentence in the preceding chapter that calls the Jews a “wise and understanding people,” (Deuteronomy 4.6, also part of this parashah) argued that the commandments are laws of reason. God’s statutes, hukkim, he says, are neither esoteric nor subjective; they are out there, decipherable by anyone who exercises wisdom and understanding. They are undecipherable only for lack of knowledge, insight, and sensitivity. Thus, Maimonides concludes, the rules of justice that lie at the heart of Judaism are not sectarian but universal, not subjective but fully objective. He adds that they are always bound up with the need for action aimed at realizing norms of justice in this world.
We appear, then, to be moving in two very different worlds: the inner world of the longing heart, of suffering that needs the consolation of an embrace; and the world of universal justice, imposing demands on all of us, whether we feel like listening or not. How could the worlds of these two texts possibly be brought together? Two hints help us go further.
Israel is ‘brokenhearted’ and a ‘mourner,’ longing for the restoration of the just order of the world. Even her mourning, then, is aimed at universal justice.
First, both texts refer repeatedly to the voice, and to listening. Moses speaks to all the people, saying, “Hear, o Israel,” Sh’ma Yisrael, and he then proclaims the ensuing words as b’oznechem, “into your ears,” a strongly physical depiction of the way in which the voice literally enters the body. The haftarah text is also filled with references to the voice. A voice calls out, and then another voice calls out. The female messenger of joy to Zion is herself imagined primarily as a voice whose message needs to be received by the grieving city. So both texts emphasize the need to be receptive to messages that come from outside oneself, but that then literally, physically, enter into the self through the ears, transforming it. (We may hear in this metaphor a reference to the way in which music can both affect our deepest personal emotions, and at the same time call us to truths outside of ourselves; but that is getting ahead of my argument.)
Second, both texts, more closely inspected, contain a strong element of moral universalism. As Maimonides maintained, the laws, said to all the living, are portrayed not as mere accidents of history, but as laws of reason for all. And this section of Isaiah is one of the most markedly universalist in the prophetic books. In his great commentary on the haftarot, Michael Fishbane argues convincingly that Isaiah 40-66 is not sectarian, but inclusive of all people, including foreigners. Its dominant insight is that ethical action, which is binding on all alike, is the primary feature of the covenant, and pride, the sin that cuts off one person or group from the whole, is the main sin confronted by it. The overall vision is one in which only the abandonment of pride in a dedication to social justice will bring a world of peace. Fishbane concludes, “a universalist tone thus triumphs in Isaiah 40-66 over all theological and national divisions.” Indeed, he argues, the idea of mourning and the idea of achieving justice are connected in the way in which the section, as a whole, characterizes Israel: Israel is moral, pursuing justice, and Israel is also “brokenhearted” and a “mourner,” longing for the restoration of the just order of the world. Even her mourning, then, her longing for consolation, is aimed at universal justice.
* * *
But how, more precisely, does this connection work? Longing for consolation is not so easily linked to the pursuit of universal justice. Indeed, one might suppose, focusing on one’s own need to be consoled and embraced might be a powerful distraction from the pursuit of justice and peace. So the puzzle remains, and we must pursue it further.
To add an autobiographical note, the puzzle is one that both I and my readers and students persistently feel concerning my work as a philosopher: for I have worked on two apparently distinct topics, trying to map out some principles of social and global justice on the one hand, and investigating the structure of the personal emotions on the other—focusing in fact, in the latter case, on ideas of grief, consolation, and compassion, on the way one mourns the death of a beloved parent, the way one seeks consolation when one has experienced some terrible pain. People tend to feel that I simply work on two unconnected topics. I feel that the topics are connected, but articulating the connection is not so easy. So pursuing the puzzle generated by these two Biblical texts is at the same time an imperative of self-knowledge. I shall now move away, briefly, from the texts, hoping to return to them with a better understanding.
When we are babies, we are very needy and we experience a great deal of pain. We long to be held and comforted. We long for a world in which every pain is nullified, every separation suspended by an embrace. That means that we want to be the center of the universe. Because, after all, the only way we would ever get immediate relief of every pain would be to turn others into our slaves. At first, our only awareness of others is as dimly seen forces that minister to our needs. When they do so, they can be sort of loved. (I say “sort of,” because it is not really love when an infant welcomes the breast or runs to be comforted.) When they do not minister to our needs, when they obstinately go their own separate way and fail to meet some imperative of nurture or holding, we feel rage. We want people to be the way we need them to be. Freud called the infant “His Majesty the Baby” for good reason: babies, like kings, do not understand that other people are real; they just want to rule them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, commenting on the tendency of small children to make slaves of their parents, saw here a major threat to the very idea of a social order based on justice and political equality.
The personal call for comfort, in its infantile form, is sheer narcissism. Unreformed, it will surely defeat any thought of justice, since it does not even involve the understanding that other people are real.
The personal call for comfort, in its infantile form, is sheer narcissism. Unreformed, it will surely defeat any thought of justice.
As life goes on, if all goes well, we gradually become able to see others as whole people who have needs of their own, and we develop genuine love and concern for them, and guilt about the excessive demands we have made of them, and probably still want to make. Both of our texts emphasize this capacity for concern by focusing on the need to confront the other “face-to-face,” panim b’fanim in Deuteronomy—an idea suggesting the acknowledgment of the other as an end and not merely an instrument of one’s desires. (The eleventh-century commentator Rashi remarks that a face-to-face interaction requires honesty and the suspension of manipulative and dishonest behavior.) In the Isaiah text, similarly, we see that we must all bring messages of joy and consolation not only to ourselves, but, above all, to others, to our fellow citizens in Zion. The imperative, “Comfort ye my people” is a plural, and though many commentators see this as a reference only to a group of prophets, others—prominently including the sixth-seventh century liturgical poet Eleazar Kallir—hold that the addressees are us all, the entire congregation. (I am here grateful for Elsie Stern’s fine exegesis of Kallir’s poetic commentary, in a University of Chicago dissertation from 1998 entitled From Rebuke to Consolation.) So, we all should bring messages of concern and consolation to all, and there appears to be no reason, given the universalism of the text as a whole, not to take this to mean the entire world.
Concern for others will not develop, however, if the child remains convinced that its desired state is one of blissful completion or perfection, the removal of all pain and anxiety from the self. With that as one’s personal goal, one can only use others as instruments, since that unachievable end generates unceasing hungers. Therefore, along the way it is crucial to give up that unachievable state of completion or perfection as one’s personal goal. But this means recognizing that one is frail and mortal, subject to many weaknesses and ills that are the shared lot of human beings. Rousseau believed that accepting one’s shared fragility was the foundation of all possibility of social justice. It follows, as he saw, that the recognition of shared fragility is also vital to a happiness based upon, rather than subverting, justice. In saying this, he captured (though surely not intentionally) the meaning of the Isaiah text. To see this, let us look more closely at one connection in the portion I chanted.
In the famous verses that begin, “Every valley shall be exalted,” the message of consolation is immediately followed by a voice announcing that all flesh is grass. One might wonder how those two ideas go together, for surely it is not obviously comforting to think that one is mortal. In fact, everything that this voice says sounds like pretty bad news: “All flesh is grass, and all its grace like a flower in the field.” Who wants to hear that? Well, surely not the narcissist. For the narcissist—and by this I mean not so much a particular person as a part or voice within every one of us—expects to be above it all and immortal (like the kings and nobles of France, as Rousseau depicts them). The point is that only the person who acknowledges that she shares with other humans a set of weaknesses and needs is in a position to give, or receive, consolation of a non-narcissistic kind.
* * *
But what is non-narcissistic consolation like? Here we come back to the connection between our two texts: for consolation of a non-narcissistic kind is consolation addressed to all, consolation that takes the needs of others as seriously as one’s own needs, consolation that commits itself to moral laws that apply universally. Such a consolation can only become real in action through a dedication to universal justice, both social and global. Thinking nice thoughts, and even performing nice rituals, will do no good at all unless accompanied by the dedication to action to which Maimonides refers. That same dedication to action is at the heart of the Haskalah, Jewish enlightenment, and of the vision of classical Reform Judaism. Eighteenth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the leading thinker of the Haskalah, arguing that this was the correct way to interpret the Jewish tradition as a whole, wrote in Jerusalem:
Among all the prescriptions and ordinances of the Mosaic law, there is not a single one which says: You shall believe or not believe. They all say: You shall do or not do. Faith is not commanded, for it accepts no other commands than those that come to it by way of conviction. All the commandments of the divine law are addressed to man’s will, to his power to act.
In correspondence and in his philosophical writings, Mendelssohn argued that the Jewish tradition, correctly interpreted, realized Immanuel Kant’s ideal of a world of peace, based upon the ethical imperative to regard all others as ends, and not merely as means to one’s own happiness. The dedication to justice is consolation in just this sense: taking our shared human need as starting point, the consoler insists on providing decent support through political justice for the needs of all.
One might suppose that consolation aimed at justice exists in a profound and somewhat tragic tension with consolation aimed at filling the needs of the self. Most of us feel such a tension in our daily lives, even in our religious lives. We weep for the deaths of people we know and love, and we don’t weep for the equal sufferings and losses of people we don’t know. We pray for the health of people whose names we say in the ritual, and we often feel at such times that concern for the health of people on the other side of the world would be a distraction from those all-important personal emotions. We pray for our own group or nation and not, or not so much, for the flourishing of other nations. (Narcissism need not be about an individual cutting herself off from the group; it can be about one’s own group, or nation, cutting itself off from, or exalting itself above, the world.)
What our two texts suggest, however, is that we only have true consolation of the self if we have the commitment to a life of universal justice. For the narcissistic type of consolation is no good for the self. The voice of true or adequate emotion is the same as the voice of universal reason, and its message is that justice is to be pursued for all, in recognition of the human needs of all. Kant held that there was always a tension between the pursuit of happiness and the fulfillment of the moral law, though the moral law must take priority. Moses Mendelssohn disagrees at this point: for he argues (in Rhapsody or Additions to the Letters on the Sentiments) that the only happiness worthy of the name is a moral, connected sort of happiness, a happiness in which one functions as a member of what Kant called the kingdom of ends and what Mendelssohn calls “god’s wise and peaceful government.” Cutting oneself off from the whole is at the same time one’s own moral death. I am suggesting that our two Biblical passages, taken together, develop this same idea.
So much in our society tells us not to think of the hunger of people at a distance, not to think about the costs of war, not to think of the damages of many sorts that we inflict on others through waste and luxury.
These are fine thoughts, but how do we get there? Let us return to those references to the ear and to voice. What the narcissistic self-consoler seeks, as Mendelssohn said, is detachment from the whole. She does not want to listen to the voices of others. They cannot enter her ears. Both of our Biblical texts, by contrast, agree that we must keep our ears open for those voices, and become people who stand wide open to the messages that others, and the needs of others, convey to us. In other words, we need both receptivity and imagination. That is why I include the poem “Insensibility,” by Wilfred Owen, the poet and British officer killed in action in the First World War, for it speaks with tremendous force about the moral death caused by closing off one’s ability to imagine the pain of others, and it suggests that this failing is extremely common in our society. I think Owen and Isaiah are in profound agreement. Indeed, I include the Owen poem because Isaiah, being so familiar, is easy to avoid, sitting here in Hyde Park, in comfort and prosperity. The words sort of go into the ear but maybe really don’t. Perhaps, however, the surprising bluntness of Owen’s references to blood and obtuseness are less easily avoided because they are unfamiliar and searing; they might jolt one into a fuller consideration of what Isaiah is talking about.
A kind of narcissism that is very common in the modern world—as also in the ancient world—is made possible, then, by our insensibility, our failure to join those who, in Owen’s words, “With a thought besmirch / Blood over all our soul,” making the pain of others their own. So much in our society tells us not to think of the hunger of people at a distance, not to think about the costs of war, not to think of the damages of many sorts that we inflict on others through waste and luxury. In short: we refuse, actively or passively, to join what Owen beautifully calls “The eternal reciprocity of tears.” That idea of reciprocal consolation is what Isaiah 40 is after too: not consolation of the sort that focuses on one’s personal friends and their illnesses, not consolation that focuses on the frailties of one’s body and the anxieties these frailties generate, but a consolation that seeks in actively joining the world, through the receptivity of our ears, and joining fearlessly in a struggle to realize for all the laws of justice that reason recommends.
* * *
Because this struggle needs imagination and open ears, it needs, I believe, the arts and the humanities (as exemplified, today, by the beautiful music of our liturgy and by the poetry of so many of our texts): these studies expand and cultivate our humanity, making us more receptive and thoughtful, better citizens both of our nation and of the world. Indeed, my own decision to become bat mitzvah was motivated, above all, by the desire to become more attuned, knowledgeable, receptive, and also active in the poetic and musical dimension of Judaism, and I have the idea that this is not a distraction from the pursuit of global justice, but its fitting support and intensification.
There is one more surprising feature of the Isaiah text that deserves our attention. The messenger of joy to Zion is a female messenger. M’vaseret is a feminine form, and commentators through the ages have found this extremely odd. Because most lived in cultures that did not like to see insight as delivered by a woman, they have twisted and turned in efforts to read the feminine form away. Sometimes the commentator supplies a feminine noun, such as “prophecy,” or “congregation,” to be the female messenger in question. Another common device is to take Zion herself to be the messenger of joy to herself, an odd and unlikely reading. Rashi is the only early commentator who faces the music and says that the messenger is indeed female: but he then immediately suggests that she is meant to be seen as a less adequate messenger than a male messenger who is referred to at Isaiah 57.7. Suppose that we simply face the text as it is: why should the messenger of the good kind of (non-narcissistic) consolation be depicted as female?
In an excellent article on this passage in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, Rabbi Sheryl Nosan-Blank suggests that the text is alluding to the bonds of solidarity that women often have with other women: if Zion is a woman, she will hear the voice of consolation more easily from another woman. Maybe, but I do not see anything in the text that develops such an idea further; nor does the claim ring true to me. By contrast, a second suggestion of Nosan-Blank’s, though brief, seems more promising: the femaleness of the messenger reminds us, metaphorically, of the theme of receptivity that is emphasized in the text as a whole. This is likely to be right, since it connects thematically with so much in the passage. In most cultures, women are denigrated because they are associated with receptivity and neediness. The text suggests, then, that only someone who can accept such features in him or herself (joining the “eternal reciprocity of tears”) can ultimately hear, and convey to others, the right, non-narcissistic type of consolation.
Because this world is, as Isaiah knows, a world of pride, the message of consolation requires courage and outspokenness. So that female messenger is instructed to raise her voice “without fear.” In a world of moral obtuseness, the message of universal justice is threatening. Joyful to the needy, it is threatening to the powerful. So that messenger needs fortitude—not just because it takes courage to say what justice requires, but because the message is not just about talking, which is not so difficult. It is about putting one’s whole self into the search for justice, which means not just some nice words, but a patient and persistent effort of imagination, analysis, and, ultimately, action. That kind of dedication asks of us all a courage that we can barely imagine and only rarely, and inadequately, approach.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
November 01, 2008
18 Min read time