Carl Orff’s setting of the medieval Latin poem, “O Fortuna,” is one of the most popular pieces of orchestral music. When the Yale Concert Band and Glee Club performed the work this past Saturday night, there were probably few audience members who were not already familiar with its striking opening and jubilant conclusion.
More members of the audience, perhaps, had never considered the poem’s meaning. The work is an extended protest against fortune, a grievance against the indiscriminate forces that govern human life. Fortune threatens to take away everything we hold dear in an instant: “Monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, you are malevolent; well-being is vain and always fades to nothing.” For the poet, man cannot evade fortune; his virtue, wealth and power are useless against its whims.
The idea that the capricious forces of fortune might win the day is antithetical to our notion of progress, to the certainty we would hope to feel in democracy, the social sciences and the advancement of humankind. It is an approach more akin to the tragedies of the ancient Greeks; to the Stark family that proclaims, “Winter is coming”; and to the imagined apocalypses of science fiction.
Yet, fatalism is not a sentiment at all foreign to my tradition, Judaism. Two weeks ago, my community recited, “… On Yom Kippur it is sealed … who will live and who will die.” Six months from now, on Passover, Jews across the world will read, “Rather, in every generation, there will be those who stand against us to destroy us.” There is a fatality to history that the Jewish people have witnessed too many times to ignore.
The other evening, three swastikas were chalked outside Durfee Hall. A week ago, swastikas were found painted on a Jewish fraternity house at Emory University. Immediately after Yom Kippur, a synagogue in Spokane found a swastika painted in its courtyard.
Some — pointing to incidents such as these, and others in Paris, Berlin and Brussels — have claimed that the world is experiencing a resurgence of anti-Semitism. I have no idea if this is true, but the lesson of “O Fortuna” is to steel ourselves for the worst.
Upon viewing the swastikas outside Durfee, we might express confusion: How could this happen? What sort of people could be driven to such hatred? But a more productive reaction is to nod sadly, to realize that some people are less loving than we might have hoped and to recognize that nothing that we value in this world will persist of its own accord. No forces of progress or humanity can be counted upon to save the day; we must fight to protect that which we treasure most.
Fatalism is not paralysis. It is an approach to thinking about history that never allows us to relax from protecting the things we care about, because the world might never actually get better.
After all, why should we suspect that anti-Semitism will abate as humanity becomes more civilized and progress marches on? In many ways, Judaism fits in less with our society than it ever has. Judaism is a community that is difficult to join, at a moment where inclusion is the byword of so many of our institutions. It is a group of people governed by arbitrary norms, in a time when so many proclaim that arbitrary norms are oppressive. It is a set of particular claims for particular people in an era ruled by universalisms. It is a religion in a secular age. It is anachronistic, when so many decry being “on the wrong side of history.” The perception that the worldwide Jewish community is implicated in the decisions of the Israeli government certainly does not help matters.
In theory, it shouldn’t matter how many people are opposed to the project of Judaism as long as they engage peacefully and respectfully. Yet, there will always be fewer people able to say, “I disagree with you but love you anyway” than those who treat their intellectual and political opponents as existential enemies and objects of hate.
It is a cliché that in the face of hate, we must love — but in the face of Fortuna, we must also be vigilant. This Thursday, when Yale’s Jewish community and I dance around campus with the Torah, I will be joyful and passionate about the Book that my community loves above all others. But I will also grasp the Torah as tightly as possible, close to my chest and to my heart, because we can never afford to stop being vigilant about the things that matter most to us.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.