Richard Holbrooke, Self-Knowledge, and the Jewish Idea of Repentance

Dec. 18 2019

George Packer’s biography of the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke exposes its subject as a social climber, prevaricator, serial adulterer, and disloyal friend, not to mention a man who took pains to keep his Jewish origins secret. Having recently read Packer’s book, Shalom Carmy finds himself reflecting on the author’s claim that his subject’s fatal flaw was a lack of self-knowledge, and on the nature of self-knowledge itself:

T’shuvah means return, and return in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish legal tradition means return to God. It is the word for repentance. Some prominent modern Jewish thinkers have used the term t’shuvah to refer to the individual or the community’s return to itself. The list includes ḥasidic rabbis and influential figures such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and my mentor Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Few have spoken about the apparent conflict between defining repentance as turning to God and defining it as the discovery of some deep metaphysical or psychological resources within oneself.

Theological liberals may not notice the problem. Many of them are not overly impressed by the otherness of God and the sizable gap between talking about God and celebrating the supposed powers of renewal within. As they see it, romantic effusion and contemporary therapies happily converge with mystical yearning, bringing together the object of religion, which is right relation to God, with whatever is admirable in us. The same cannot be said of authoritative Orthodox texts and the interpreters mentioned above, all of whom reject liberal or modernist trends in Judaism. Perhaps they assume a solution to this conflict between return to God and return to self that is so obvious it need not be spelled out. The solution exists, but it is not so obvious, at least not in our times.

If knowing yourself means knowing your capacities and knowing what you want in life, Richard Holbrooke seems to have known himself much better than most people. If repentance means being faithful to oneself, then he had little of which to repent. Holbrooke’s problem was that when others came to know him, they had reservations about what they saw. Based on the biography, I’d say Holbrooke’s tragedy is not lack of self-knowledge, but an insufficient understanding of everybody else, which can become a great liability in life.

It is this distinction between Holbrooke’s quite accurate self-knowledge in a limited sense and his lack of self-knowledge in its broader, relational sense that illuminates t’shuvah. When our Orthodox thinkers teach that returning to God is also returning to the self, they don’t mean being sincere—renewing loyalty to my hopes and ambitions. The true self they urge us to return to is the self that is summoned by God.

Read more at First Things

More about: Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Judaism, Repentance


The U.S. Is Trying to Seduce Israel into Accepting a Bad Deal with Iran. Israel Should Say No

Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its quarterly report on the Iranian nuclear program. According to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, the Islamic Republic can now produce enough weapons-grade uranium to manufacture “five nuclear weapons in one month, seven in two months, and a total of eight in three months.” The IAEA also has reason to believe that Tehran has further nuclear capabilities that it has successfully hidden from inspectors. David M. Weinberg is concerned about Washington’s response:

Believe it or not, the Biden administration apparently is once again offering the mullahs of Tehran a sweetheart deal: the release of $10 billion or more in frozen Iranian assets and clemency for Iran’s near-breakout nuclear advances of recent years, in exchange for Iranian release of American hostages and warmed-over pious Iranian pledges to freeze the Shiite atomic-bomb program.

This month, intelligence photos showed Iran again digging tunnels at its Natanz nuclear site—supposedly deep enough to withstand an American or Israeli military strike. This tells us that Iran has something to hide, a clear sign that it has not given up on its quest for a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, Antony Blinken today completes a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, where he is reportedly pressing the kingdom to enter the Abraham Accords. This is no coincidence, for reasons Weinberg explains:

Washington expects Israeli acquiescence in the emerging U.S. surrender to Iran in exchange for a series of other things important to Israel. These include U.S. backing for Israel against escalated Palestinian assaults expected this fall in UN forums, toning down U.S. criticism regarding settlement and security matters (at a time when the IDF is going to have to intensify its anti-terrorist operations in Judea and Samaria), an easing of U.S. pressures on Israel in connection with domestic matters (like judicial reform), a warm Washington visit for Prime Minister Netanyahu (which is not just a political concession but is rather critical to Israel’s overall deterrent posture), and most of all, significant American moves towards reconciliation with Saudi Arabia (which is critical to driving a breakthrough in Israeli-Saudi ties).

[But] even an expensive package of U.S. “concessions” to Saudi Arabia will not truly compensate for U.S. capitulation to Iran (something we know from experience will only embolden the hegemonic ambitions of the mullahs). And this capitulation will make it more difficult for the Saudis to embrace Israel publicly.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Antony Blinken, Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship