The Rabbis taught: “For two and one half years, the Schools of Shammai and Hillel engaged in debate, the former declaring that it would have been better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it was better for humanity to have been created rather than not created. They decided, upon voting, that it would have been better for humanity not to have been created—but now that humans have been created, let one examine one’s [past] deeds; others say, let one consider one’s [future] deeds.”—B. Eruvin 13b
“Retirement” corresponds to the final stages of life. As such, a great deal of time is spent in thinking, reflecting, and ruminating about the nature of life. No matter how occupied one may be in one kind of activity or another, the human psyche finds itself drifting to thoughts and considerations of what life means and has meant in the past. Our memory of distant events is sharpened and somehow more lucid; we review parts of our lives that we often find wanting. More often than not, our minds are beset by disappointments, failures, and losses, and we tend to focus more worriedly on the miseries of the world in general—famine, disease, war, poverty, violence—and on the intractable pervasiveness of human suffering. This does not suggest that we have given up on the belief that no part of life is without [End Page 87] merit, joy, or spiritual and moral meaning. Yet, it seems that in one’s later years, the mood of Kohelet overrides that of the Song of Songs.
This has, indeed, been my personal experience until now. Whether these thoughts reflect a personal tendency toward melancholy or not, in the midst of these existential and spiritual challenges (shared by many others, I believe), one talmudic passage has drifted into the orbit of my awareness, tugging at me for some explanation and interpretation. Perhaps a new understanding could rescue my heart from the despondency of Kohelet and lead me closer to the joy, buoyancy, and overall optimism of the talmudic sages.
This dispute between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai is both perplexing and fascinating. It appears in the context of many other disputes between the two schools of thought, but unlike them its theme is not halakhic but rather philosophical and attitudinal. After examining the content, context, and some commentary to the passage, I wish to add my own understanding, as an attempt to come to terms with my own angst and melancholy—and perhaps that of others as well, in the later stages of their lives.
The question—should humanity have been created or not—is of course rhetorical. It appears as if the rabbis contend with contradictory feelings and thoughts about the value of human life. Which is preferable: to have been created as we now experience our reality, or not to ever have existed? Such consideration reflects the not uncommon feeling of those overcome by a sense of futility and failure. Enmeshed in this emotional framework, our perception of life is colored by the widespread absurdity of so much in life’s unfolding. In spite of the occasional moments of joy and feelings of worth-whileness, the option of not having been created altogether appears to be the preferred one. Life’s negatives seem to far outweigh its positives, with only one inescapable conclusion: it would have been better never to have been created at all.
Ephraim E. Urbach, in his classical work on rabbinic ideas and beliefs, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, presents us with a summary of the thinking on this passage by both modern scholars and traditional commentators.1 Urbach points out the anomalies of the passage: the dispute lasting two and half years, its ending in a vote call (unlike halakhic disputes), the [End Page 88] absence of any discussion or comment on the passage in the entire Babylonian Talmud (the only place that it appears), and finally its antithesis to the preponderance of rabbinic statements which make it unmistakably clear...