Genius And Humility: A Modest Proposal For The New Year

Jews, geniuses and Jewish geniuses in particular have always had an uneasy relationship with power.

Trotsky, according to lore, turned down the premiership of the Soviet Union.

That might have been a bad move given that he was later assassinated by a terrorist linked to Stalin.

If we leave aside Trotsky, though, we can see why Jews have been reluctant to embrace political leadership.

Poor Saul, the first Israelite king, was tormented by God, who did not love him.

In fact, the Old Testament God, much as he loved the voice of David, has never loved competition from homo sapiens, those of us who were created in His image.

Thus, he struck down the Tower of Babel, the Trump Tower of its day, which rose too close to the heavens, and he plagued even David with all kinds of problems not only from Saul, who tried to kill him, but also from David’s own son, Absalom, who led an insurrection against his own father, the king, arguably the most luminous Jew in the history of my people.

That is not to say that David did not bring some of that turmoil onto himself. He cheated on his wife. He sent a soldier, Uriah, to the front lines, where he was killed. And he married that soldier’s wife, Bathsheba.

It is also true that David and Bathsheba had a son, Solomon, who, like David, is revered to this day, in Solomon’s case, for his wisdom, although he too was plagued with strife, and he too cheated on his wife or wives.

We can understand why modern-day Israelis, who have assumed positions of leadership, typically go by first names, like Shimon, or nicknames, like Bibi.

Whether acknowledged or not, this informality in all likelihood derives from respect for and fear of God, who calls Himself a vengeful God, a jealous God, an angry God.

Shimon Peres, the late Israeli president and prime minister, said that it is against the principles of Judaism for Jews to govern other people. But it may also strain the principles of Judaism for Jews to govern ourselves.

One might argue that Israelis are only allowed to govern themselves as long as they are not too obsessed with titles.

There are no kings in Israel, and even the presidency is largely a symbolic role.

Still, it is dangerous for Jews and geniuses to become political leaders.

Einstein intuited all of this, which may have been why he turned down the nascent state of Israel when he was offered its inaugural presidency.

A true genius is not only too much of an oddball or too eccentric for the job of chief executive; a true genius has too much humility and too much of an understanding of irony to pursue the presidency of any nation.

Whether or not a true genius realizes or admits it, he or she may be so reluctant to take executive positions, at least partly, because he or she recognizes that there are indeed greater powers on this planet and in the universe.

This may be why Paul Krugman, a brilliant man and a Nobel laureate in economics, reportedly said that he did not have the “temperament” to serve as treasury secretary in any administration.

He may not have the temperament, but he may also be too modest, perhaps even too God-fearing, to presume such a role for himself.

Speaking of temperament and genius, Donald Trump likes to tell us that he possesses an ample dose of both.

Let us now dispense with the obvious: Any person who tells us or has his or her paid political operatives tell us that he or she is a genius is not remotely close to being one.

Let us add a few related precepts, as Polonius would say: Neither a borrower, nor a lender be, unless of course you are running for president, in which case you can claim that you are a genius for declaring bankruptcy six times, for losing nearly $1 billion in one year, and for screwing over many of your creditors and employees out of their money.

Here is another spin on one of Polonius’ adages: To thine own self be true, and then it should follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man, unless of course your whole business model, your whole life, your whole existence, is based on being false, on being a liar, on gaming a system and not paying taxes for perhaps as many as 18 years, or roughly a generation, a word that etymologically may be linked to genius, since both deal with creation or procreation of a sort.

Lest anyone think that this Rosh Hashanah sermon is intended only for Donald Trump, let me add that my only major problem with our current president, Barack Obama, has been what I view as his messianic streak, or, more generously, his hubris.

In his recent exit interview in Vanity Fair with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, President Obama spoke of how “by definition the only problems that come to my desk are the ones that no one else can solve.”

Then he bemoaned his failure to imagine the humanitarian crisis and destruction in Syria.

He deserves credit for that admission, but he notably failed to mention in that interview the possibility of a no-fly zone in areas of Syria. If implemented five and one-half years ago, this military maneuver, while not without risks, could have created safe havens for civilians and avoided much of an American footprint.

Such advice was offered by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator John McCain and others back in 2011.

Not once in the Vanity Fair interview did Obama discuss that specific policy, nor was he asked about it.

Instead, President Obama used that portion of the interview to critique some of the other policies broached, such as vetting and providing arms to so-called moderate rebels in Syria to form a democratic fighting force. He did not believe such vetting or arms could have worked, and he might have been right.

But President Obama was wrong not to create a no-fly zone, not to establish a humanitarian corridor with an American and/or NATO presence in the air.

We all know what has happened since. Russia has filled the void, including the air space, making it next to impossible to avoid American casualties if we do try a no-fly zone in a Hillary Clinton administration.

I am not saying that President Obama has not been a good president, nor am I saying that Hillary Clinton, should she win the presidential election, will be better than he has been.

But I am saying that any person, who is obsessed with his “legacy,” who bandies about that term almost as much as Donald Trump bandies about the idea that he is a genius, is lacking in a degree of humility.

And modesty reigns in the kingdom of heaven.

Happy New Year!