I’m reading a book that again reminds me how much we’re leaving unused our most potent argument for creating attachment to Israel among not just Jews but everyone else in the world.
Leading a Worthy Life by Leon Kass is not about Judaism, Israel or the Middle East (although the author is the child of Jewish immigrants). Rather, it distills decades of thinking and writing by its remarkable author into a set of essays that tries to establish what it means to live, truly live, rather than just exist in modern times.
Kass is most well known as a bio-ethicist who warns about promises made by bio-tech utopians offering brave new worlds of human advancement, oblivious to what Aldous Huxley had to say on the matter of Brave New Worlds. But Kass is also a self-educated humanist who “pivoted” later in his career to teaching literature and philosophy at the University of Chicago and the “great-books” centered Saint John’s College.
Like others intimate with his own cultural legacy, Kass understands that the components of time on earth worthy to be called a life are unchanging: work that allows you practice and experience excellence; a meaningful and loving relationship (preferably leading to children); genuine friendship; commitment to something greater than yourself (a community, nation; and/ or higher power); and life of the mind dedicated to seeking out truth and beauty.
In our present age, the choices leading to a worthy life are under assault by the wider culture. Work has become a means to an end (usually involving making enough money to live in comfort). Commitment to marriage is diminishing, even as the right to marry has expanded, with many couples not bothering to seal a life-long bond or breaking that bond once made. In such a world, Eros has been separated from love through emotionless “flings” or steady diets of pornography.
Regarding life of the mind, an abandonment of the very texts that inspired Kass in favor of not just trendy multicultural replacements, but pragmatic subjects like business and computer programming, means most students today are not striving to understand what it means to be human, but are rather lost in a sea of ever-expanding life choices all leading nowhere. It is this “lostness” that creates openings for snake-oil salesmen offering politics in the classroom as a replacement to genuine thinking and reflection, or radical experiments in lifestyle that further deteriorate the culture while bringing participants no closer to living vs. merely existing.
Despite what he’s seen happen to our culture over the last half century, Kass is actually an optimist. For in teaching young people over the decades, he has not seen any diminishment in their hunger for all the things he sees as adding up to a worthy life. Despite easy availability of one-night-stands and Internet porn, they want a life where their intellectual, emotional and erotic selves are tied to those of someone else. They understand that Facebook friends are not the same as real ones. And they are ready to ask (and attempt to answer) tough questions such as “What is true?”, “What is beautiful?” and “Who am I?”
This list of components of the worthy life helps unravel mysteries surrounding the topic near and dear to readers of this blog. Why, for example, are Israelis so damn happy despite living under existential threat few of us in the comfortable West even understand, much less experience? They are happy because their life has purpose, for each one of them is responsible for building and defending a nation, rather than just living off unearned inheritance. Such purposefulness equates to happiness that no level of threat or insult from Israel’s enemies seems able to shake.
Existence defined by worthy purpose might also explain why Israel’s high-tech nation (with its focus on life-saving technologies) seems so much more serious than even our own robust start-up culture which tends towards giving consumers ever more choices and pastimes. The fact that Israel is the only westernized nation where parents are committed to having children beyond replacement level also demonstrates an ongoing dedication to something more than the self and the now.
That’s good news for our Israeli cousins. But what do these observations provide to those of us who fight on the behalf of the Jewish state who may not live under similar existential conditions?
Some thoughts on that next time…