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What Are We on Earth To Do?: (A Little Essay on a Very Big Topic)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 26-54 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0028

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Does existence itself bear meaning? Don’t smile! The question may sound trivial, but is actually pivotal . . . and as inexhaustible as elusive. Still, because we are constantly making life choices rooted precisely in what we perceive to be the point of our existence, our personal philosophies end up mattering profoundly. The main point of this study is to focus the question of life’s meaning by asking what it means specifically for a Jew to be committed to the goal of living a meaningful life. And I have an ancillary point as well: attempting to elucidate what Judaism has to teach about the reason for being will inevitably set us to wondering about the reason that Judaism itself exists and about what we may rationally posit as its essential, even perhaps its ultimate, purpose. Taken together, I think the answers to these two questions create a context for understanding the most basic distinction between the Jewish and Christian worldviews—and I hope to be able to explain cogently that distinction as well.

By admitting that there is indeed a God who created the universe, we oblige ourselves to begin our inquiry not by asking what we ourselves would like the point of existence to be, but rather what we can rationally suppose that God the Creator might have intended it to be. After all, God could have made a world in which all men and women would willingly serve as faithful and contented servants of the divine realm, a world in which each man and woman would be beatifically happy as a servant of God. Of course, this world we live in is nothing like that. We live instead in a “vale of tears” largely inhabited by insufferable, cruel people wholly uninterested in serving even the most elementary of God’s desires as set forth in Scripture.1 This surely did not have to be; the fundamental challenge, then, is to ask: why did the Creator deem it reasonable to make this human ability to rebel against divine values a part of the palette of our capabilities, despite the calamitous consequences of such a decision? Or, to pose the same question in the language of philosophers: what could possibly have been the ultimate reason for freedom of will to have been made an inalienable feature of the human condition? And so we come to the simplest (and least simple) of all questions, the ones I wish formally to address here for my readers. What could the point of human existence possibly be? What do we exist on earth to do?

To attempt to sketch a comprehensive response, I suggest that we use as our drawing pad a passage by the great eighteenth-century Italian kabbalist Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto (called Ramḥal) that I have come to consider one of the most forceful in all Jewish theological literature:

Before the souls of humanity descended into the world, they were dependent totally on our wholly praiseworthy God. Such divine beneficence, however, occasioned shame in those predescended souls, somewhat in the manner of poor individuals “who have no choice but to accept gifts of food from others, but who then feel humiliated to be seen by their benefactors”2 . . . And [indeed, after humanity was created and set in place on earth], this was just how it was for [the first of] of God’s creatures, men and women who were compelled [to act] by the simple fact that they had no reality other than what came to them directly from the divine “root” to act according to preprogrammed principles. But it was the will of God that divine service become the part of human activity, and that required that the actions of human beings be freed from the burden of irresistible celestial influence. According to this plan, it was necessary that the supreme will [of God] grant a kind of autonomy on earth that would enable human beings to act under their personal initiative and according to specific choices they were then able to make . . . and so it [is even today] when the soul, ready to descend into the world (and animate a new human life), is “sawed” off its divine source [and...


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