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

December 18, 2019 | Shalom Carmy
About the author: Shalom Carmy teaches Bible and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University and is an affiliated scholar at the university’s Cardozo law school. He is also the editor emeritus of Tradition, a journal of Orthodox thought.

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.

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