Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and other books, and the founder of Objectivism, a philosophy that preaches the superiority of the intellect and objective, rational thought untainted by “weak” altruistic emotional responses, remains an enigma to modern readers, critics and thinkers.
Many people wish her memory away, but in their chase and battle they unwittingly bring to life the truths she espoused. Others swear by her, but in their undying devotion they compromise their critical individuality, which is the very foundation of her philosophy. And, regardless of the readers’ responses, there are inconsistencies within her own thoughts, which make understanding her all the more daunting a task. She can count associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as one of her devoted fans, while Salon magazine compared her work to Hitler’s.
I am neither a fierce critic nor an all-accepting fan. I feel neither troubled nor vindicated by her excesses. I view her work and the ideas contained therein with skepticism, but I am also eager to learn and gain from all my literary experiences.
The first thing I tell myself I must remember is that regardless of Rand’s self-confidence she does not have a monopoly on truth and consistency. She is a mere mortal – albeit a smart one – who was as blinded by subjective personality as are the rest of us. That said we must not throw out the baby with the bath water. While Ayn Rand is tempting prey, the mature way of approaching her literature is with weeding tools and a little patience. So, now that we’re no longer judging her but a selection of her ideas, I want to focus on the conflict between her ideas and Judaism. It has been suggested that her ideas are diametrically opposed to Jewish values, especially those expressed in Chassidism. This conflict is a high profile one, which strikes you immediately with the formation of her characters and plots.
Some of the obvious battlefields are charity, ego, submission and compassion. (I purposely omit religion, since that is a perfect example of her manic writing, in which she links disjointed ideas and expects them to hold with nothing but the glue of her own zeal. Her direct assault on religion merits no response, but her indirect assault, her attack on religious “values”, is the subject of this article.)
In a very general way, the assault is on Christian– and not Jewish– values. If necessary, we can dust off the book and walk through it point by point, page by page demonstrating that the conflict is with Christianity and not with Judaism. But I think that won’t be necessary since I’m hoping that after a general retrospective you, readers, will agree that her assault on “Judaism” is hardly that. This is part of the tragedy of assimilation: her knowledge of religion was mainly of Christianity, and, as most secular Jews do, she lumped all religious beliefs together. Had she known that Judaism, and specifically Chassidism, elevate the individual– with all of his talents and thoughts– instead of trampling him, maybe she would have embraced the most individualistic (albeit in a totally different way), objective philosophy out there, Chasidus.
“Woah,” you’re probably thinking, and rightfully so.The jump from a slight flaw of association to submission to a dogma that demands control over every aspect of one’s life is quite a big one. Yes, indeed, yet I stand by my conjecture. And here’s why: Ayn Rand held that man’s only responsibility is to himself. Does that sound familiar to the Talmudic dictum, “Man is obligated to say: ‘the world was created for me.’”? If you’re a bit taken aback by that Talmudic saying, know that there are many just like it.
But how to reconcile this face of Judaism with the side that demands humility, self sacrifice, companionship and love? How do we judge every isolated experience to determine which side of Judaism should dictate that experience? The questions go on, but in truth they all begin from a false premise, which is that these two worldviews are contradictory. In fact, these two views compliment each other.
Judaism wants the individual to realize his greatest potential. Judaism wants to empower every man and woman, and does so by encouraging them to incorporate every relationship, experience and thought in the quest for fulfillment. But Judaism also knows personal-fulfillment cannot be attained until one becomes a real part of his experience. Humble yourself before every person and learn from that person.
Another way of looking at the discrepancy between Rand and Judaism is a disagreement on where to draw the line of Self; Rand believes “Self” begins and ends with the body. Judaism holds the “Self” is the experience, the surroundings, the context, the mission, and of course, the body. And oh does Judaism preach dedication to that self!
Instead of focusing on the abstract and theoretical, let’s look at the factual evidence: In Rand’s books, those who “humble” themselves are angry and bitter and harbor resentment towards the world. They are unaccomplished and search to share the blame for their errors. But in Jewish history, those who “humbled” themselves, both, before G-d and before man, were not angry, jealous people, but were the most fulfilled and satisfied on earth. And they didn’t have to sacrifice their legacy and name to reach that level; they live on as legends and heroes in the Jewish tradition.
In our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe redefined humility. He would stand for hours as rows of children passed him, with each child receiving a blessing, a smile and a token. He humbled himself before the youth. He humbled himself before his nation. And most of all, he humbled himself before G-d. At the same time, however, there was never a more vibrant personality. His presence filled the room, and his ideas were felt throughout the world.
This is the Jewish path: self-fulfillment through humility and incorporation. Had Ayn Rand known her Jewish history; had she known the Rashi and the Rambam, I doubt she would have accused religion of crushing the individual. Had she known the Rebbe, maybe her books would have been just a bit more consistent. Maybe.