Dialectic: Sartre and Heschel

I recently picked up a book of four of Sartre’s plays. I don’t remember now why I requested it from the library – it’s not on my reading list – except that one of my favorite quotes comes from Sartre: “Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he has not created himself – and is nevertheless free. Because having once been hurled into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

In any case, I read a translation of Sartre’s 1943 play The Flies (Les Mouches) this week, and I finished it shortly before going to my shiur, where we read Heschel’s 1936 The Meaning of Repentance.

It really was perfect timing, because Heschel and Sartre are discussing the exact same themes – but their views are directly opposed to one another.

Sartre adapts the Greek myth of Electra to describe a town where the king – and the Gods – use superstition, religion, and repentance to keep the people blind to their own power. The king – and the Gods – become so wrapped up in maintaining fear in the people’s minds and hearts that they themselves are victims of the system they have set up to remain in power, while the people remain too cowed to ever claim the “burden of freedom.” And – here is the key – the Gods cannot harm a man who knows he is free. He the king cannot control.

Orestes: …You are the king of gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves and the sea. But you are not the king of man.

Zeus: Impudent spawn! So I am not your king? Who, then, made you?

Orestes: You. But you blundered; you should not have made me free … No sooner had you created me than I ceased to be yours.

Heschel also writes about the relationship between sovereign (God) and man – about the necessity of the relationship to both parties:

Godliness … existed prior to the creation of the world and will survive the world in eternity. Sovereignty can exist only in a relationship … God desired kingship and from that will creation emerged. But now the kingly dignity of God depends on us …. We have to choose God as king.

Heschel goes on to the role of repentance in this relationship:

The deepest human longing is to be a thought in God’s mind, to be the object of his attention. He may punish and discipline me, only let Him not forget me, not abandon me. This single desire … will be fulfilled on the Days of Awe. The “Holy King” is “King of Judgment” …. Before the judgment and memory of God we stand. How can we prove ourselves? How can we persist? How can we be steadfast?

Through repentance.

But Heschel then highlights what I think may be the core difference between Sartre’s argument and Heshel’s:

… through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation.

In Sartre’s play, the Gods do exist – the philosopher who denies them completely is just as foolish as anyone else. And humanity is indeed desperate to be remembered and recognized by the Gods, to have significance and meaning in their lives, if only  for their imagined crimes and unending guilt. But the Gods in Sartre’s play aren’t secure in their power, and they aren’t forgiving. The Gods feed off of humanity’s agonizing repentance, until the day that humanity will recognize that they can only live by assuming the burden of their responsibility – responsibility for their crimes and responsibility to move forward with their lives.

At the end of the day, though, I think Sartre and Heschel agreed on the core issue, which is that humanity needed – and still needs – to take responsibility and action for issues of injustice. Sartre wrote several plays exploring the issues of racism and social inequality; Heschel was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and actively supported the Civil Rights movement. They both reacted to WWII with faith in the power of humanity to overcome evil – they simply disagreed on whether God played a role in that fight.

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – Heschel

All it takes is one person … and another … and another … and another … to start a movement. – Heschel

I do not believe in God …. but in the concentration camp, I learned to believe in men. – Sartre

Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he has not created himself – and is nevertheless free. Because having once been hurled into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. – Sartre


Ideological Difference

I was talking with a friend at work the other day about humility and helping others. He was talking about turning past pain into experiences that better enable him to help people, and about humbling one’s self to be able to truly help people – to serve people, not just look down on them while offering them a hand. Our painful experiences being a vehicle of sorts – that both levels the playing field and gives each of us unique perspectives and strengths.

So it was timely that a Facebook friend posted this today, quoting Rabbi M. M. Schneerson:

“There is compassion that feeds the ego and there is compassion that humbles it.

Compassion that feeds the ego is a sense of pity for those who stand beneath you.

Compassion that humbles is born of a deeper understanding of the order of things:

When you understand that your fellow man is suffering in order that you may be privileged to help him —then you are truly humbled.”

The Rebbe almost gets it, in my opinion. Maybe it’s his wording that strikes me wrong, but when you really get to the core of what he’s saying and the way he says it, we have two slightly different ideas:

  • “I have suffered and that enables me to help others who suffer.” (my friend)
  • “Suffering exists in the world so that I have the opportunity to grow as a person [or earn merit] by helping others.” (the Rebbe)

Personally, I find my friend’s approach to be the less egotistical, and more compassionate, one.

I have to admit, it’s not the first place I’ve encountered this egotistical fallacy in religious thought – “the poor exist so that we get to give charity,” “suffering is in the world so that the person can earn merit,” etc. Having worked with families who suffer terribly, I refuse to believe that all suffering is good or given by a higher power for reasons individual to the sufferer. Not all suffering is equal to our ability to handle it; not all suffering will be individually significant in the history of the world.

But I agree with my friend at work. Suffering can give us unique strengths and perspective to help the next person we meet who is suffering as well. Suffering offers us a choice in what we make of it.