Up to this point in this great quest, we have not seen anyone actually directly ask any of the big questions: ‘What is the meaning/purpose of life?’ or ‘What is the purpose of creation?’ We’ve found hints and suggestions, partial answers and major innovations in Jewish thought. But none got right down to it and popped the big question.
That all ends with the philosophers. Perhaps philosophy, as an outside discipline, was able to break free from the bonds of tradition and ask questions that were previously taboo. The man who first broke through the barrier was Saadia ibn Yosef, more commonly known as Saadia Gaon. Rav (Rabbi) Saadia was born in Egypt in 882 and was appointed the Gaon (translated as genius, but here it means dean) of the ancient Talmudic academy of Sura, in Bavel. He was the first to translate the Torah into Arabic, the spoken language of the Jews of the region, and he wrote the groundbreaking work that (re)introduced philosophy into Judaism.
This work, called Emunot v’Dayot (Beliefs and Opinions), directly influenced countless Jewish philosophers over the next millennium. It was completed in the year 933 and deals with almost every philosophical issue concerning Judaism. He rarely relies on the Talmud and the Midrash as primary sources. His ideas seem to come from philosophical thought itself and from scripture. This pattern would be repeated over the centuries by many of the Sefaradi Jewish philosophers.
‘Beliefs and Opinions’ is divided into 10 sections, each one dealing with a different aspect of Jewish belief. They include: creation, the Creator, commandments, free will, the effect of our deeds, the soul, the resurrection and the world to come, messianic times, reward and punishment, and what we should be doing with our lives. Pretty heavy stuff. At the end of the first section, he point-blank asks the question of why the Creator created everything. His answers are surprising. He gives three:
1. There was no reason for creation
2. To reveal divine greatness and wisdom to the creations
3. To enable the creations to experience subservience to God
Before getting into any of this, it is worth noting a couple of things. First, Rav Saadia briefly returns to this question in the fourth section and states there that the purpose of all creation was for human beings. It seems likely that this was his ultimate answer and that these first three answers should somehow fit into that conclusion. Second, although these three answers may seem to be mutually exclusive, they do not have to be. For our purposes, we are going to assume that the answers are not mutually exclusive, meaning that they work together to produce a complete picture of God’s purpose in creation.
Getting all these answers to fit together seems like a pretty daunting task. In particular, that first answer stands out like a sore thumb. What could Rav Saadia have meant by that? At first glance it seems to smack of deism. Deism is the belief that God simply created everything, and let it all run by itself according to the laws that make it function, and then took off for God knows where. Did the illustrious Rav Saadia, the grandfather of Jewish philosophy, inadvertently tread this heretical path?
Fortunately, his other answers get Rav Saadia out of this jam. His second and third answers explicitly reveal God’s continuous active involvement in His creation. No deist deity could possibly be troubled with the tedium of ‘revealing divine greatness and wisdom to the creations’. Neither could such a deity have much interest in ‘enabling those creations to experience subservience to God’. Rav Saadia was clearly a believer in the traditional God of the Bible revealing His divine glory and imposing His divine will.
To the classical and medieval mind, there was nothing more natural than drawing the obvious conclusion that only one of the myriad creations was created to be the recipient of that glory and the subject of that will. That creature, man, was endowed with the image likeness of its creator, a uniqueness that set it apart from all else. Everything else, no matter how powerful or enduring, no matter how intricate or perfectly formed, could possibly compete with man as God’s pet project. Man, when viewed through a religious, philosophical, or mystical lens, was the purpose of creation.
But the modern mind has major difficulty accepting Rav Saadia’s conclusion. How are we supposed to believe that the entire universe was created for us? Such a belief may have worked 1000 years ago when people hadn’t much of a clue about the complexity of the universe. Today, however, it just doesn’t wash. The truth is, even back then people were aware that this belief was a bit of a stretch. No less an authority than Maimonides asked this very question on Rav Saadia’s conclusion. While it is true that it is not hard to find scriptural proof to back the belief up, this only removes the question back a level or two. Perhaps this is just one more ancient belief that has to be relegated to that huge dustbin of false ideas that human beings have come up with at one time or another.
But maybe there is a way out of the problem. It turns out that the latest and the greatest conclusions of quantum mechanics, that mysterious system of modern physics that everybody talks about and nobody really understands, makes a somewhat similar claim. An unsettling possible conclusion of quantum mechanics is that all of reality is in a perpetual state of flux, constantly buzzing in and out of various possible states of existence without actually being in any definite state except under a very specific condition. This condition is observation by a ‘conscious observer’. Somehow consciousness, whatever that may be, is necessary to ‘collapse’ the indefiniteness into concrete reality. While all this may be a little hard to believe, it is the current dogma that may lie at the foundation of modern physics.
Human beings happen to be the best known candidates for ‘conscious observers’. There may be others out there somewhere, but human beings remain the only known species fully qualified for the job. That is our uniqueness, our ticket to purposefulness. It is through consciousness that all of reality, from interstellar space to quarks, gains permanence in an otherwise transitory existence. Obviously, Rav Saadia was unaware of all this 1100 years ago. But he was aware that there was something unique about human beings, something that set them apart from all other creatures and enabled them to transfer purposefulness to everything else. In this sense, perhaps, he considered them to be the purpose of creation.
But what about his earlier answers? The second answer, to reveal divine greatness and wisdom, and the third answer of enabling creations to experience subservience to God, are really flip sides of the same coin. Who is supposed to be the recipient of this revelation of greatness and wisdom? Obviously, it was to be those creations that are capable of appreciating that revelation. To appreciate such wonders requires consciousness – awareness of both one’s own being and of the reality of everything else. This remarkable ability, which we almost always tend to take for granted, is really our private pipeline to experience the wonder of creation. God, in creating everything, revealed all this greatness and wisdom, all this wonder, so that a conscious being could observe it and experience it. We are among the privileged few who can do that.
It doesn’t end there. The third answer compliments this privilege. With all that wonder, comes a great responsibility. We, perhaps unique among all creation, have been chosen for the task of understanding where we stand in relation to God. We human beings must recognize our own subservience to the Creator of all this wonder. We must fathom the vast gap that yawns between the Creator and the created. While this may pierce our precious egos a bit, it’s worth it in the end. There is no greater sense of self worth, of purposefulness, than that which comes through reverence of God. Through that, and through that alone, does a person come to understand his or her place in life.
But we are still left with that first answer. How does that fit in with all this wonder and reverence? It turns out the Rav Saadia added a little clarity to the first answer. He wrote that creation, despite having no purpose, was not pointless. He explained that unlike a human activity, which is rendered pointless when it lacks a purpose, divine activity does not suffer from such a limitation. God is above such mundane constraints as needing a purpose in order to feel worthwhile. God is not a human being. No matter how tempted we may be to make God into a glorified human being, we will never get there. God is infinitely above human needs and desires, and only the very highest aspirations of the human soul enable us to catch the faintest glimmer of God’s essence. From the ‘God’ vantage point, there is nothing other than the divine will. There is no other purpose, no goal, no pot at the end of the rainbow that makes the whole thing worthwhile. There is only God’s will, and nothing else.
This is a difficult and crucial idea to understand. It cuts to the core of Jewish philosophy. On the most sublime, the most divine level, there is only God and God’s will. It is an idea that actually forms the bridge between Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism, two theological systems that frequently stand diametrically opposed to each other. It is an idea that stands at the pinnacle of human knowledge. We, as important and as essential as we may be, are nothing more than a product of God’s will. We are no different than the rest of creation in this regard. We, along with everything else, exist, and that’s the whole of it. ‘Being’ is its own purpose; it is utterly beyond any purpose, it simply ‘is’.
Philosophical ideas are usually too pie-in-the-sky for anybody normal to get anything out of. They are almost invariably super-intellectual and tend to turn off most people pretty quickly. But there are ways of taking this highbrow stuff and making it relevant and real. Rav Saadia’s idea is a perfect candidate. It may not be easy to acquire the consciousness of being the focal point through which all other things become purposeful. It runs the risk of turning into a huge ego trip. But it can lead to a tremendous sense of self worth, a quality that is sorely lacking in today’s world of transient pleasure seeking and instant everything. Building up such a consciousness is a long term project. It means thinking about one’s place in the world and becoming aware of one’s significance. It means putting in some serious contemplation about the role and the responsibilities of human beings, both as individuals and as a whole, and whether we are fulfilling our task.
Exploring the purpose of creation was never meant to be easy. It is not a simple act of faith or a mechanical ritual. It is using the mind to delve to the bottom of the deepest question there is. It should come as no surprise when the answers are found to be challenging and even a little disturbing. As we proceed along the lonely road examining these ultimate questions we have to be ready for anything. If we encounter something like the first of Saadia’s answers, we should not dismiss it offhandedly as useless or irrelevant. Exploring the purpose of creation is the journey of a lifetime.
Food for Thought
No matter how we spin it, no purpose in creation doesn't sound very Jewish. How does this square with Judaism and Torah?
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