Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Liberty > Re-Reading “Peter and the Wolf”: On Liberty and the Problem of Evil

Re-Reading “Peter and the Wolf”: On Liberty and the Problem of Evil

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Rabbi Dov Rosenblum Educator; Lecturer at Nefesh Yehudi

A liberty ideal that endorses the wholesale release of human urges can unleash an unbridled evil. Man is a rational being, and a precondition for true liberty is that emotion is checked by reason. In the liberal conception of freedom, marriage can be portrayed as a prison; in the Torah conception it represents a release from bondage.

Elul 5778, August 2018
 

 

I

 

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?!

In the mid-eighteenth century, Emperor Franz Joseph I, perhaps out of compassion for his people’s welfare or his fear of them, ordered the destruction of the walls and ramparts guarding the old city of Vienna, and began the construction of a large, circular boulevard – the Ringstrasse or Ring Road. This road was intended to showcase the grandeur and glory of the Habsburg Empire and was to include museums, a stock market, the parliament, one of the first cinemas in the world, a theatre, an opera house and public gardens.

Several years ago, on a pleasant summer afternoon, this is how I arrived at the town square of the capital city of what had once been a great empire. Screening was due to begin of a new, animated version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, as part of the annual music festival. Crystal clear Austrian air, spotless plastic chairs (Austrians wouldn’t sit on anything else), and to top it all off, free entry, perfectly suited to a wandering Jew such as myself.

Even today, one-hundred and fifty years later, after breakdancing replaced the waltz, Vienna remains a calm oasis in a turbulent world.

Even today, one-hundred and fifty years later, after breakdancing replaced the waltz, Vienna remains a calm oasis in a turbulent world.[1] I sat down, to my right a local Aryan family. Tomorrow I would be recounting to my student group what their sweet, old grandfather had done in the Holocaust. To my left sat some tourists from Saudi Arabia, who might next week decide to continue where Hitler had left off. But tonight I was a citizen of the world, all careless smiles.

The reader might wonder why I am describing, in such detail, what was after all just a free concert accompanying an animated movie. The reason is a great favor that the director did with me: He had changed the story – specifically, the end of the story.

A quick reminder is in order. In Prokofiev’s story Peter is a brave young man, and his grandfather has forbidden him to venture into the forest, lest the wicked wolf gobble him up, just as he did his best friend, the duck. Peter, being a cheeky (and brave) lad, slips away, and with the aid of a little bird ensnares the wolf. At which point, the hunters arrive and administer the wolf’s last rites.

But in this revised version, Peter is a sensitive child with low self-confidence, large, melancholy eyes and only one friend – the duck. The hunters are angry, anti-social louts, who gang up on Peter earlier in the movie.

But in this revised version, Peter is a sensitive child with low self-confidence, large, melancholy eyes and only one friend—the duck. The hunters are angry, anti-social louts, who gang up on Peter earlier in the movie. The fight between Peter and the wolf is hard, yet it is punctuated by glances of mutual respect, like gladiators who bow to each other before they begin their struggle for life and death.

The highpoint of the movie comes when Peter marches victorious into the town square, and his grandfather begins negotiations with a circus (maybe they need a new performer), or with the butcher shop (wolf sausages are delicious). Peter, how shall I put it, is distinctly uncomfortable. In the final scene, quite unlike the original, Peter traps the malevolent hunter in his net, opens the cage, and walks silently with the wolf, until they are swallowed up by the gloomy forest.

Peter must be either crazy or hypnotized. The wolf just devoured his beloved duck, and had even tried to devour him, too. But, as in many fairy tales,[2] this story contains a truly deep message.

Let me fill in some autobiographical details. I had travelled to Vienna to meet a group taking a break from its tour of Poland, and had some hours to spare before meeting up to work out the thorny questions one asks at the gates of hell. The reason this group had deviated from the standard itinerary was not only to think through these questions in a neutral environment, free from the paralyzing formality of the ritualistic journey to Poland, but also out of a desire to really clarify the problem of evil.

The question: “Where was humanity during the Holocaust?” is somehow less disturbing while travelling through the primitive Ukrainian and Polish countryside. But in elegant Vienna, with its educated, upper class inhabitants who all let us down so badly—this is when the problem of evil really hits hard. Perhaps this is the reason why those Holocaust writers who grew up in traditional Jewish homes, such as Eli Weisel who was raised in a pious Chassidic family, or Katsetnik who studied in yeshiva, refrain from lengthy discussion of the problem of evil; those from secular backgrounds such as Jean Améry and Primo Levy, who experienced the Holocaust as a shocking collapse of their western humanism, cannot but raise the issue. Yet it was here in this charming town that the silver screen provided a glimpse of a solution.

The ease with which we can instantly identify “bad” actions, as opposed to the time it takes to identify “good” actions, can be misleading. For we not only wish to differentiate between good and evil, or to establish a yardstick by which to measure them, but also to discover the essence of evil. Why is man indifferent to the suffering of his fellow man? Why does he want him to suffer? Is this some act of revenge against a cruel world that inflicted him in his youth? Is it some perverse curiosity, testing the limits of the human experience? Or perhaps an example of self-interest combined with a lack of ability to feel empathy or the capacity for restraint?

If it were possible, we would prefer to dress evil up, distort its features, deny it a childhood and adolescence, and thereby reject the possibility of any biological relationship between it and us.

Generally, we begin by searching for genuinely wicked characters. Fortunately, truly evil people are rarely encountered in our day to day lives, creating a natural gravitation to madmen who populated the twentieth century. We are comfortable with the stereotype of the crazy, frenzied, mentally ill psychopath, Hitler being an outstanding example. His toothbrush moustache and hysterical screaming make it easy for us to process the existence of evil by declaring it irrelevant. If it were possible, we would prefer to dress evil up, distort its features, deny it a childhood and adolescence, and thereby reject the possibility of any biological relationship between it and us. This is why the most frightening picture of Hitler is as a child of three, a sad, little boy with eyes, nose and mouth—he even looks human. This is the moment when we realize that evil is actually a human phenomenon. In some intangible way, that child is me.

It was for good reason that Hannah Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil caused such a storm of resentment. Eichmann simply did not conform to the classical image of the wicked man, and the court drama orchestrated by the prosecution, justified as it may have been, did not fit the bald, apologetic clerk sitting in the glass cage. Arendt didn’t attack the turning of the judicial process into an educational opportunity alone (about which there is ample reason to disagree); she also forced us to consider how normal it was, in fact, to be evil.[3] It forced us with increasing urgency to suspect ourselves and our friends, the salt of the earth, and ask if even we contain something of that evil.

On the other hand, though she “saved” us from the pitfall of defining evil as inhuman, Arendt led us dangerously close to another pitfall. For as soon as we remove evil’s artificial disguise and encounter it underneath “regular people,” the inevitable conclusion is that we can all be evil, and moreover, nobody is evil de facto, but only post facto. Yet again, we have lost the opportunity to learn something from the existence of evil.

I am claiming that the evil inclination, which is the essence of all the evil that exists in the world, is a man who is ruled by his drives.

Let us move onto the fundamentals, and attempt to define the source of evil in man’s soul. We shall study here the core of the “evil inclination” as described in the Jewish rabbinic tradition.

The Sages identify two forces in man’s soul, the good inclination and the evil inclination.[4] A simple reading suggests that the evil inclination is what predisposes man to evil. However, this cannot be a complete picture, for the Sages also state that the evil inclination alone is active in man until his coming of age (bar-mitzvah), and only then does the good inclination appear.[5] It is clear then that it isn’t the evil inclination (somehow external to man) which predisposes man to perform evil (some children might be evil, but others are surely not), but rather some universal force active in man’s soul.[6]

I am claiming that the evil inclination, which is the essence of all the evil that exists in the world, is a man who is ruled by his drives. A child is an ideal example of this mode of behavior, for the dominant factor dictating a child’s conduct is his drives, his intellect playing only a minor part.

We are bewitched by children due to their natural conduct. An adult measures his actions, and acts only with a degree of self-control and moderation, as if he functions by remote control. But a child is not calculated nor reserved, and his personality expresses itself naturally. This spontaneous behavior is very appealing. Yet an adult who acts with childlike spontaneity is a danger, first and foremost to himself. Even if he possesses the most noble and desirable inclinations, such as kindness and generosity, and is therefore a helpful and popular person, he will not develop and grow but rather stagnate. If his natural inclinations are less positive (say, he is cruel and miserly) then we are in deep trouble. It is easy to get along with children, both because they have little ability to cause damage, and also because we can educate and mold their character. But Antoine de Saint-Exupéry[7] was completely off the mark: all that is wrong in the world is not caused by adults, but by children who never grew up.

It is easy to get along with children,  But Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was completely off the mark: all that is wrong in the world is not caused by adults, but by children who never grew up.

Nietzsche takes the other extreme. He claims that natural man, the genius with no inhibitions who is not subject to any external authority but develops his essence from within—he is the true hero of humanity. The Nazis were later to interpret Nietzsche to their ends, and indeed the 1940’s was a time when animalistic drives were granted total and unlimited freedom. Yet Nietzsche was not amoral. He was a sensitive man who fainted clean away when he saw a man whipping a horse. His attack on classical philosophy, and on the Judeo-Christian moral tradition in particular, was that any external or civil meddling in human behavior emasculated him, and would eventually cause a perversion of idea and natural ethics.

Richard Wagner in his essay Judaism in Music was very critical of the Jew:

If we hear a Jew speak … the cold indifference of its peculiar “blubber” never by any chance rises to the ardor of a higher , heartfelt passion … Now, if the aforesaid qualities of his dialect make the Jew almost incapable of giving artistic enunciation to his feeling and beholdings through talk, for such an enunciation through song his aptitude must needs be infinitely smaller. Song is just Talk aroused to highest passion … All that worked repellently upon us in his outward appearance and in his speech, makes us take to our heels at last in his Song.[8]

These sort of texts are rejected today as farcical, anti-semitic rants, but Wagner’s claim deserves to be examined. The Jew, it is to be admitted, is suspicious of unbounded emotions.

These sort of texts are rejected today as farcical, anti-semitic rants, but Wagner’s claim deserves to be examined. The Jew, it is to be admitted, is suspicious of unbounded emotions. He is wary of indulgence, of allowing his drives complete freedom; he always must examine the appropriate response based on a comprehensive set of standards. The Talmud states: “A man may not fill his mouth with laughter in this world.”[9] At the same time, the verse commands: “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.”[10]

We accept Wagner’s criticism as a compliment, and hew to the Sages’ belief that the spontaneous expression of man’s spirit is part—a prominent part—of the reign of evil. As the Jews found out much to their misfortune, this mode of behavior is the evil inclination incarnate.

Heinrich Heine, the most admired (part-time renegade) Jew in German history foresaw this wickedness. In the midst of his vacillating life he wrote the following:

Christianity—and that is its greatest merit—has to some extent tamed that brutal Germanic lust for battle, but could not destroy it; and if ever that restraining talisman, the cross, breaks, the savagery of the ancient fighters will rattle forth again, the absurd frenzy of the berserker, of which the Nordic poets sing and tell so much. […] A play will be enacted in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like a harmless idyll.[11]

Heine wrote this in the mid-nineteenth century. He was not speaking of the Germany of Bismarck or Hitler, but that of Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Kant and Schopenhauer. Heine depicts this explosion of creative energies, as the growing desire to return to Germany’s ancient mythology. Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—total work of art—and Hitler’s ecstatic speeches at the Reichstag are not really all that different at their source.

The animal is the ideal example of a being fully expressive of its natural faculties. An animal acts instinctively, it is “beyond good and evil.” Goebbels writes in his diary on 29 December 1939: “Both (Judaism and Christianity) have no point of contact to the animal element, and thus, in the end, they will be destroyed.”[12] Goebbels did not expect the Jews to pity animals; rather he demanded that the animal be recognized for its authenticity. The animal is an apt simile for the Aryan superman who rejects those artificial boundaries men construct for themselves.

(It is interesting to note that for a short period, quarter Jews or “mischlings of the second degree,” were permitted to work in Germany as doctors but not as veterinarians.[13] According to Nazi doctrine, a Jew could adopt ethical behavior in order to earn a living, but was completely incapable of developing an appropriate relationship with animals.)

Prokofiev’s original Peter was representing man in his fight against the evil wolf, and Peter’s victory is the moment he enters adulthood as represented by the hunters. The modern Peter fights with the animal beyond the city’s boundaries, beyond man’s shameful business with insignificant monetary transactions, an artificial construct divorced from nature. (This is why Jews and money get along so well together: The Jew is also an artificial construct, lacking a countryside and a living language.) The animal is indeed a murderer, but that is its nature, and thus it is superior to the corrupted community of mankind. Peter overcame the wolf, but the struggle acquaints him with the noble and authentic lifestyle of the animal, and in his heart of hearts he feels closer to the animal than he does to humans. Who knows, perhaps this is why Hitler named his command bunker in eastern Prussia “the Wolf’s Lair.”

In these dark and foreboding places, the wolf is man’s best friend.

 

II

 

Three Conceptions of Freedom

Freedom, as derived from the “blond Teuton beast” of humanity, is freedom without limits. To deny an animal its natural right to hunt is to emasculate it, and to stop a human from acting as he desires is to imprison him. The human “superman” is defined by his absolute freedom.

This idea is depressing, for on the face of it, absolute freedom cannot form the basis for civil society. Government, by its essence, is based on the premise that there are concrete limits on the liberty of the individual, so as to prevent violence and coerce citizens to fulfill their civic commitments. The government reserves the right to utilize this power, and thus, by definition, it limits the individual’s freedom; it can only be expressed in society by an omnipotent ruler.

Freedom, as derived from the “blond Teuton beast” of humanity, is freedom without limits. To deny an animal its natural right to hunt is to emasculate it, and to stop a human from acting as he desires is to imprison him.

Hitler offered a sophisticated alternative. The leader’s will is not depicted as being imposed on the people, but on the contrary, as releasing the people from the artificial boundaries placed upon them by history: the Judeo-Christian tradition, the horrible French, the long knives of the traitors, and so on. The leader has no boundaries, and thereby represents an ideal model for every Aryan.

It takes nerves of steel, but a curious and detached viewing of 1930s Nazi propaganda films will show a happy and invigorated society. The message is not one of power, but of creativity and life. Germany was not a Soviet style totalitarian state which nullified the individual, but an extreme application of the “general will,” bursting via creative genius out of a feeble history, and impacting universally.

In his speech to the National Socialist party in 1934 in Nuremberg, Hitler says: “The state does not command us, we command the state.” The state is the tool which orders the relationship between people, and by its nature it limits the freedom of the individual—which is why it is predicated on balancing the different branches of government. Hitler wiped out the state, and in its place addresses the Volk, the collective of individuals, grants absolute freedom to all.

The Sages’ depiction of freedom is quite different: “There is no free man, except for he who is occupied with Torah.”[14]

One definition of freedom is based on the claim that wisdom is the essential core of man. According to this definition, human freedom, which itself is human wisdom, should never be limited. Wisdom has the right to be free, and human drives should be subservient to his wisdom, not only because of the benefit that accrues a person who runs his or her life sensibly, but also because wisdom is an expression of the humanity within. The basic and fundamental demand is for freedom of thought, and freedom of action is based on the assumption that under ideal conditions, human action reflects prior thought, relating back to man qua man. This idea might justify giving priority to freedom of information, which enables freedom of thought and thus relates to man’s essence, over freedom of profession, which is related only to freedom of action. Freedom of action may be limited if it contradicts the pure intellect, since this limits only his physical qualities, which are not his essence.[15]

An intellect-based legal system is thus moral not only on an intellectual basis, but even on the basis of individual freedom. The Sages who ascribe freedom to the Torah scholar could describe their position as follows: Torah study not only develops the intellect, but it is also the means by which the intellect becomes the prime cause for man’s behavior and actions. Without the Torah man is captive to his drives. Rabbi Israel Salanter and his disciples wrote in the same vein, differentiating between the “man within man” and the “animal within man.” They define his conscious and unconscious drives with the goal of controlling, or even manipulating, the animal.

The fact that this present author identifies with the Lithuanian school of thought might demand he give priority to this concept of freedom. But here the plot thickens.

On the surface, marriage is a state of oppression.[16] It does not contradict freedom in a formalistic sense, since both sides agreed to entered the marriage of their free will. As other manifestations of the Social Contract, it is a self-imposed serfdom. The Sages however, take a radically different approach. The Midrash interprets the verse, “God makes a home for the lonely; He leads out the chained prisoners,”[17] as applying to marriage. They saw marriage as freedom.[18]

We can explain by means of a third conception of freedom. Natural subjugation consists of man’s subservience to the limits of his own personality. Freedom of limits (in the Neitszschean “authentic” sense or in the Hitlerian sense) does not remove man from his prison; it only transfers him from one cell to another, under the best of circumstances. A man is limited by the boundaries of his comprehension, and he cannot surpass his familiar surroundings. The prisoner be released from his cell only by someone who supplies him with alternative ideas and new horizons. But this can be done only within a covenant with an Other, empowering a person with a vision and perspective that transcends  the self.

This broader concept of freedom does not aspire to grant every person unlimited potential to act as he desires, but rather to choose his path from the myriad of available trails.

The exodus from Egypt split open reality’s boundaries. By means of a covenant with God, Israel could behold life from a Divine perspective. Similarly, marriage tears down individual boundaries by joining two people in a binding covenant, whereby each rescues the other.

This broader concept of freedom does not aspire to grant every person unlimited potential to act as he desires, but rather to choose his path from the myriad of available trails. Not freedom of profession, nor freedom of information, express this concept best, but freedom of expression. Not because of the speaker’s right to express his opinion, which is really an extension of the freedom of action, but because of my right to hear it.

 

III

 

The following day I gave the students a guided tour of the town center.

In the Judenplatz stands an amazing sculpture carved by Rachel Whiteread, a British artist, as a memorial to the Jewish community. It is a concrete cube resembling a bookshelf with its volumes placed backwards, so that you see only the page edges, but not the bindings, as though the books were telling passersby: “We are tired of you; we the Jews have gone home, and you won’t even remember the titles of our books”.

The Torah scholar is a free man by virtue of his exposure to the Divine perspective, empowering him to emerge out of the cell of limited conceptions and paralyzing doubts. Jewish emigration not only leaves the Austrians without book. It also returns them to the bleak cell of human loneliness.


[1] I wrote this in the spring of 2015. However, by now the gates of the Syrian hell have burst open, and the aftershocks are felt even in Austria.

[2] See Bruno Bettelheim, The uses of enchantment:‎ the meaning and importance of fairy tales, New York, 1976.

[3] One of his interrogators reputedly said, that Eichmann was more normal than the interrogator himself after he had finished cross examining him.

[4] For example, the Mishnah in Berachot (9:1) states: You shall love God your Lord with all your heart (Deut. 6:5), with your good inclination and evil inclination.

[5] Sanhedrin 90b.

[6] See the second explanation in the Shita Mekubetzet (Berachot 63b); Meshech Chochmah (Exodus 12:21); The Mussar Epistle by Rabbi Israel Salanter.

[7] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, New York, 1943.

[8] Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music and Other Essays, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, p. 85f.

[9] Berachot 31a.

[10] Deut. 14:1.

[11] Heinrich Heine, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 85.

[12] The Goebbels Diaries 1939-1941, New York, 1983, p. 77.

[13] Saul Friedlander, The Years of Extermination, New York, 2007, p. 424.

[14] Avot 6:2.

[15]  If a person does act wrongly, then it seems that his intellect is being crushed by psychological or physiological pressures, and, on the contrary, by limiting his physical opportunities one can set the intellect free. Obviously, this argument is a slippery slope, and can ultimately lead to the dangerous claim of false consciousness.

[16] Georges Moustaki in his song Ma Liberté, portrays marriage as the loss of freedom.

[17] Psalms 68:7.

[18] Vayikra Rabbah 8:1.


photo: Bigstock

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