All over the world, people are obsessed with returning to the past. Recep Tayyip Erdogan yearns for the Ottoman Empire; Vladimir Putin dreams of Tzarist Russia; Brexiters envision a return to a lost bucolic England; ISIS seeks to restore the Caliphate; and Trump, of course, promises to “Make America Great Again.”
These political messages differ, but they all assume that there was once a golden age in the history of the nation, to which they seek to return. The philologist Svetalana Boym has called it a “proliferation of nostalgias.” These nostalgias of course, don’t have a real object, but an imaginary, idealized one that never existed. To what “pure” England do Brexiters want to return – to the Dickensian slums? Was Tsarist Russia such a paradise? And “Make American Great Again,” fine… But which “again” are we referring to – the “again” when women could expect few options and little respect, and Black Americans could expect Jim Crow segregation? Many cite the 1950s as America’s golden era, but they seem to forget that it was also the reign of McCarthyism and a time in which school children had drills for nuclear war. Every era has its appeals, but every era has its demons as well. No “golden age” has ever been pure gold, and by most objective measures, we are better today than in the past we yearn for. (Has Trump considered that in the times in which “America was great” there was no Twitter?)
Of course, all the nostalgic movements have a specific group to blame for the loss of that pristine and ideal past. The perceived decline is always caused by an external conspiracy. Nazis blamed the Jews for destroying the authentic German soul; radical Islam blames the infidels; others blame immigrants, intellectuals, liberals, or conservatives. Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Islamic world, cites that specific attitude (looking for external culprits when things go wrong) as an unmistakable sign of a civilization’s decline. “If only we could get rid of – fill in the blank with Jews, Muslims, immigrants, or cyclists – things will be great again,” nostalgics would say.
One can see the temptation in these past-seeking movements during times of upheaval and real or perceived dislocation. But if history has taught us anything, it is that, invariably, that search for the imaginary past ends in failure at best, and, at worst, in tragedy. Yet, at regular intervals, we fall prey to restorative fever. And that combination of nostalgia, scapegoating, and fear usually generates violence. It tries to rebuild the lost world with paranoiac determination and, in the process, forgoes critical thinking. It creates, as Boym puts it, “a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters.”
It’s tempting to think of Judaism as falling into this trap of obsession with a glorified past. That’s a common misconception about Judaism, among Jews and non-Jews alike. And it’s an understandable one, because Judaism does enshrine tradition and memory as important elements of Jewish practice. We root our cultural lives deeply in our long and proud history.
But it would be a grave error to believe that Judaism fits into the current wave of reactionary nostalgia. In fact, idealizing the past is plainly antithetical to a foundational principle of Judaism: that history is a progression.
Judaism was born when Abraham broke with his polytheistic past. Jews became a nation following an escape from a past of slavery and misery toward a new beginning. Later, Jewish philosophers would further develop the ideal of historical progress. Rabbi Sa’adia Ga’on wrote of an evolution of the human spirit that leads us, in every generation, to draw closer to the knowledge of God. Maimonides saw Man’s capacity for intelligence and reason as growing throughout history and ensuring that – if we use those capabilities properly – the future will be better than the past.
But the central proof of Judaism’s attachment to the principle of a better future is the messianic idea. Jewish tradition looks forward, not back, to find the ultimate vision of goodness and justice at the end of history. Some argue that the very concept of “the future” was created by Judaism, in contrast to the pagan concept of eternal and cyclical time. (See Dan Falk’s book In Search of Time.) As Emmanuel Levinas put it, ever since the Bible we are accustomed to thinking that “le temps va quelque part” (time goes somewhere).
Of course, the messianic ideal itself contains themes of restoration. We envision, for example, a return of the Jews to their land, and a rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But these restorative elements could not be further from reactionary nostalgia. After all, they take place within a larger messianic world that is entirely new. Jewish tradition gives us multiple interpretations of how the messianic era will unfold, but they all share one thing: the Messiah will usher in a time of peace and harmony that never existed before. The Bible calls the messianic era “the end of days,” implying that the very idea of time will be different.
The Zionist “return” to the land of Israel fits this dynamic beautifully. An indigenous people did return to a land where it had lived in the past, but that return also constituted a profound transformation of both that people and that land. Zionists sought to create a modern, democratic state such as the land had never contained, and, moreover, to create a “New Jew,” radically different from both the Diaspora Jew and the ancient Israelite. Zionism, like teshuvah, teaches us that in Judaism, “return” is a code word for change.
No, we are not a people of the past, and we don’t seek to go back to any lost age of glory. We have been forced, by our tradition and by our historical experience, to be a forward-looking people. And that gives us an unbreakable sense of optimism. We believe that as tough as the present may be, the future can – and ultimately will – be better.
In a 2012 speech to Jewish Funders Network, President Shimon Peres (of blessed memory) said this: “I believe we have to educate our children how to dream, not how to remember.” I don’t believe Peres meant to deny memory its rightful place. What he did want to remind us was that however important memory may be, our visions for the future are even more indispensable. It would be deeply un-Jewish to believe that our past is better than our future. Our sages knew – and so did Peres – that this type of thinking would usher decline and entropy. Great People don’t daydream of a lost past, they craft ambitious dreams for a better future.
We often struggle to define what Judaism should contribute to the world. Maybe in this time of destructive nostalgic obsession, the most vital thing we can offer is to “restore” the concept of the future. If that sounds paradoxical, it isn’t really. Our mission today may be inherited from our ancient history, but that mission is to create a new world far better, more just, and more real, than any idealized past.