A cautious optimist is one who has a hopeful vision of the future but is wary of getting there.
On the whole, it is easier to be a pessimist than even a cautious optimist. A pessimistic outlook demands little more than lamenting the travails of the present, longing nostalgically for a bygone age, and settling for a state of despair. Cautious optimism, by contrast demands creativity, originality — an ability to think beyond a difficult moment and find solutions to the problems of the present.
Thankfully, there is a tradition of cautious optimism that has been the heart and mainstay of Jewish thinking for the last two millennia.
To be sure, there is no shortage of important Jewish thinkers and ideas that lament the challenges and adversity that have befallen Jews through the centuries — the Jewish outlook is and can never be Pollyannaish. One need look no further than the Biblical prophets to see a litany of such lament. Divrei tochacha [words of reproof] are a central theme in the musings and prognostication that make up so much of the prophetic writings of the tanakh. When times were good — during moments of political independence, economic prosperity, cultural flourishing, when the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple seemed highly implausible to most people — the prophets preached impending destruction.
Pessimistic prophetic warnings were so ubiquitous that Jeremiah, the ultimate forecaster of gloom and doom, that they merited the 18th-century coining of the word jeremiad to capture his ability to sketch a bleakly pessimistic vision of the future.
Yet the very same Jeremiah, like other biblical prophets, did more than simply bemoan the present and long for an idealized past.In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel, pessimism and despair abounded. Prophets, including Jeremiah, redirected their message toward divrei nechama [words of comfort], that is, toward redemption and hope.
It is no exaggeration that, in this situation, Jeremiah's cautious optimism about the future may have saved the Jewish people from disappearing entirely. If despair had been the only or even the dominant Jewish response to adversity and exile, it is doubtful the Jewish people would have found the mental and emotional fortitude to survive the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple.
In this respect, Jeremiah's message of hope at this difficult moment contrasted with concurrent messages of despair, some of which are still well known. Psalms 130 and 137 (traditionally attributed to David but likely written by Jews who went into exile) reflect raw, unmitigated despair:
Out of the depths I cry out to you, oh God
And more famously, from Psalm 137:
By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept as we remembered Zion … If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.
Thankfully, Jeremiah saw beyond seemingly insurmountable and permanent adversity and gravitated instead toward a cautiously optimistic view of the future.This he described in the most practical terms in Jeremiah 29, one of the most underrated and overlooked passages in the Hebrew Bible. Written an open letter to Jews living for the time in exile, uncertain if their way of life would continue outside the Land of Israel and without the theological leadership of the Temple and the political leadership of the Davidic monarchy, this passage provided a roadmap forward
Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat the fruits they produce; get married, find wives for your sons and husbands for your daughters, so that they can bear many children…
In other words: do not despair.
One of the crucial distinctions that Jeremiah draws here is the subtle but pivotal difference between dismay (distress caused by something unexpected) and despair (the complete loss or absence of hope). At no point does Jeremiah suggest forgetting the past or pretending it never happened. On the contrary, he lists in great detail all the reasons to dismay. Nonetheless, he insisted that despair was not option and that adversity must not preclude or discourage Jews from the arduous task of finding a way forward.
This outlook provided a template for generations of Jews who experienced adversity in one setting or another to refrain from despair even at the darkest moments. Examples abound, but one need only count the number of times that Jews — driven out of the home where they had lived for generations — not only found refuge but transplanted their uprooted world to a still undiscovered, strange new home, and prospered there. This is the story, in a nutshell, of the two centers of Jewish life in the 21st century: American Jewry and the State of Israel.
Dismay became the catalyst and motivation to survive, rebuild, and subvert the impulse to despair.
Cautious optimism is never easy and always more demanding than surrendering to the temptations and inertia created by pessimism and despair, especially when the pillars of decency are under siege by ignorance and narrow-mindedness. A first step out of the morass of pessimism and despair is to draw inspiration from centuries of Jews who have taken this step and further steps already, beginning with Jeremiah — the quintessential cautious optimist.