Q and A with the Author & Rabbi Barry Schwartz, Director Jewish Publication Society

  1. Is there a distinctive Jewish take on hope that you discern in your book?

Choosing Hope argues that because we are created in the Divine image human beings possess the power, the creativity and the responsibility to fulfill our deepest hopes.

The Bible and the traditional Jewish prayer book often look to God to fulfill our deepest hopes. From a contemporary Jewish theological stance, Choosing Hope argues that God looks to us to do that. Ancient rabbinic sources support the view that God intentionally left creation in a state of incompleteness or imperfection so it could be completed and improved by human beings, thus providing us with the opportunity to achieve our ultimate potential. Choosing Hope asserts that as images of God, we have virtually unlimited creativity and the power to take actions that will realize our hopes. Whether or not we do so lies in our hands, not God’s. God offers us inspiration, cheers us on, as it were, and hopes in us even when we feel hopeless. But God will not bail us out—or prevent despair from triumphing over hope. Only we can do that.

  1. How can you apply what you learned to current events? 

In times of trial like those we are enduring with COVID-19, hope fuels the capacity to envision a future we want and supplies us with the energy to build it. Judaism’s central narratives, texts, and practices embody a rich array of sources that sustain hope in these dark times.

Writing during the German occupation of his country in 1942, French philosopher and theologian Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) defined hope as an individual’s or a society’s response to times of trial. Marcel noted that when hope is not developed “in the department of the us, that is in fellowship,” it retains a mark of timidity. A 2021 Israeli research study on the importance of hope during COVID-19 pandemic found that “hope and morale can serve as significant indicators of the population’s ability to cope with the pandemic” and that secular Israelis demonstrated lower levels of hope than their religious counterparts. Participating in the life of a Jewish religious community during the pandemic, even by zoom, enhances the sense of fellowship which strengthens hope. And re-exposure to Judaism’s hope-filled narratives—from the travails of Abraham and Sarah and the Exodus from Egypt, to the stories of Purim and Chanukah—reminds us of our capacity to surmount our trials and as our ancestors did, to choose hope over despair, now, in our time.

  1. What are the most dramatic examples of hope cited in your work? 

Often considered among the Bible’s most pessimistic books, a fresh reading of Job charts the journey from near suicidal grief toward hope and re-engagement with life. Job stands as a rock of hope for anyone caught in the teeth of life’s most painful trials.

Here are two examples. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became the dressmaker of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, described an incident she witnessed in the White House during the Civil War. In 1863, about a year after the Lincoln’s son Willie died, the president had received some particularly bad news from the War Department. He opened the Bible and turned to Job. Keckley wrote: “the dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope.” In his 1986 Nobel lecture Elie Wiesel called us “to remember Job who, having lost everything—his children, his friends, his possessions, and even his argument with God—still found the strength to begin again, to rebuild his life. . . . His ordeal concerns all humanity. . . . He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair.”

Originally published in the Jewish Publication Society Newsletter, March 2022