Joy and Sadness

Moses Mendelssohn famously argued that mixed sentiments are aesthetically more profound than simple ones.  Profound does not mean pleasing. Pleasing requires something pleasant, but mixed sentiments are not as pleasant as simple ones. A mix of joy and sadness can hardly be more pleasant than joy, pure and simple. Whatever strength joy confers, or expresses, is diminished by sadness. Why then praise mixed sentiments?

I believe that mixed sentiments elevate us. Simple sentiments presuppose attention to things that are simple. Complex sentiments are attached to, or evoked by, complex matters.

Imagine you are God. You look down from your heavenly abode and you see all the things that occur on this earth, let alone other earths for which you may be responsible. Do you think you’d be happy? The gods are happy only if they don’t really care about us down here. A God who cares cannot be happy. But, assuming that God does not manipulate or force us to act one way or another, he may not always and only be sad. Sometimes he may be pleased. Or rather, since He is God, and for Him there is no time (time attaching only to temporal things), he must always and forever be both, sad and happy. Mixed emotions bring us a little closer to God.

There is a wonderful rabbinic story about what went on in Heaven as the Israelites shouted for joy when their Egyptian pursuers drowned in the sea, riders, horses, and all. The angels, so goes the story, wanted to join the chorus of jubilation. Perhaps it was Miriam’s timbrel that proved irresistible. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, immediately shushed them and said, how can you be jubilant as my creatures are drowning?

Today, Israel celebrated its 73rd Independence Day. It is a joyous occasion for all who take pride and comfort from Israel’s existence. Among them is my father-in-law who just turned 100 and who saw what people do to Jews who don’t have what it takes to fight back. Israel is strong, and that is good.

Many of us who take pride and comfort from Israel’s existence are also haunted by the fact that Israel’s independence means catastrophe to the Palestinian Arab community. Can we keep both of these facts in our minds at the same time? Not at the same time, perhaps. After all, we are not God. But perhaps one after the other. And then, perhaps, our sense of joy will be mitigated by sadness. Books poster

May this be more than an exercise in aesthetics. There is nothing sublime or beautiful, says philosopher Immanuel Kant, that is not also morally good.





Emily Berg posted on May 7, 2021 at 10:06 pm

Hi Michael – I’ve been reading about the evictions in East Jerusalem…Of course I agree that Israel has been a catastrophe for the Palestinians – and a worse and worse one – do you see a way to change this as long as Israel is a Jewish state? It seems that apartheid is more and more necessary for it to remain one, and that is only logical and has been predicted by many for a long time. I hope the US will someday soon withdraw its support from Israel, which might force them to actually try to co-exist with Palestinians rather than grind them into the dirt.

Emily Berg posted on May 7, 2021 at 11:51 pm

I guess I think your comments are just much too mild! Though not wrong. But mildness is wrong.

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