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In recounting his struggle to accept his own mortality while rescuing some faith in the redeeming significance of human life, Horowitz is guided by several carefully chosen thinkers. Prominent among them are the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.) and the towering Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). The former appeals to Horowitz as a philosophical Stoic who, given the final erasure of death, questions not only the permanence but the utility of earthly striving. “Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens,” Horowitz quotes the emperor quoting the slave Epictetus; although he does not note the resemblance, all three might have been quoting the strikingly similar musings on the ephemerality and futility of life by the biblical author of Ecclesiastes.
Even more strikingly, and to Horowitz’s frustration, Marcus Aurelius, as if overwhelmed by the bleakness of his own vision, concludes his Stoic quest in a complete philosophical reversal, urging himself and his readers to place their faith in the all-seeing wisdom of the immortal gods. (Appropriately enough, Ecclesiastes ends on an analogous note.) Moving, then, to the opposite side of the spectrum, Horowitz turns to Dostoevsky, with his famous repudiation of the quest for earthly salvation—a quest, the novelist mordantly observes, that “has led to the greatest crimes”—and his surrender to the love that surpasses understanding that is epitomized for Dostoevsky in the Christian faith.
Yet this, too, will not do. As Horowitz details, the great novelist’s embrace of all existence under the aspect of divine love is fatally undercut by the vicious and unremitting hatred Dostoevsky reserves in his heart for one human species in particular—namely, the Jews. And it is here that Horowitz’s book takes its final turn as, in a brief concluding chapter, his “Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next” comes to rest in contemplation of the stubborn and mysterious will of his own people to survive and to hold fast to their ancient calling, with its pledge of final redemption, against all odds and in contention with so many more powerful but finally evanescent human regimes.
It would not be too much to say that Horowitz’s tortuous but clear-eyed quest for redemptive meaning is itself an expression of a quintessentially Jewish approach to life, its possibilities, and its rewards, whether realized or promised. It is a spirit that he shares with Joseph Lieberman. Bypassing the often inaccessible researches of the academics and the platitudes of the self-help specialists, both of these men of affairs and passionate amateur theologians have something acute to say about Judaism’s answers to the toughest questions life presents us with—at no time more poignantly than in the annual season of repentance and renewal.
Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and the former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services.
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