We’ve covered sixty different approaches to these central questions of religion and life: What is the purpose of creation?
What is the purpose of life?
What is the meaning of life?
The answers have covered the entire spectrum of Judaism throughout its long and glorious history. Before drawing any conclusions about what Judaism has to say about these crucial questions, a quick recap is in order.
The following is a list of subjects with their answers summarized as briefly as possible:
1. Garden of Eden - Living in simplicity
2. Deuteronomy - Achieving God consciousness
3. Deuteronomy (end) - Exercising free will
1. Solomon - Gaining wisdom
2. Micah - Walking with God
3. Isaiah - Bringing the Messianic age
1. Psalms - Attaining holiness
2. Job - Riding the storm of suffering
3. Ecclesiastes - Fearing God
Second Temple Period
1. Simon the Righteous - Studying Torah, serving God, doing kindness
2. Apocrypha - Earning reward in the World to Come
3. Hillel - Selflessness
Beyond the Pale
1. Dead Sea Scrolls – Experiencing life
2. Early Jewish Christians – Love God, love your neighbor
3. Philo – Contemplation
1. Schools of Hillel and Shammai – Taking a personal spiritual accounting
2. The Mishna – Understanding one’s own importance
3. Rabbi Meir – Studying Torah for its own sake
1. Talmud Bavli - Revealing the glory of God
2. Talmud Yerushalmi – Doing God’s will
3. Talmud Bavli – Having faith and searching for God
1. Shabbat Amidah – Contemplating creation
2. Blessings – Thanking God
3. Alenu – Fixing the world
1. Midrash Rabbah - Blazing a path for God
2. Midrash Tanchuma – A dwelling place for God
3. Late Midrash – God awareness
1. Saadia Gaon – Being
2. Maimonides – Everything for its own sake
3. Sefer Hahinuch – Sanctification of God
1. Rashi – Living up to one’s potential
2. Ramban – Recognizing that we are God’s creations
3. Sforno – Being like God
1. Rambam – Understanding God’s oneness
2. Tur – Be fruitful and multiply
3. Shulhan Aruch – Knowing God in everything
1. Zohar – Making God’s presence real
2. Lurianic Kabbalah – Earning God’s goodness
3. Maharal – Creation is God’s adornment
1. Baruch Spinoza – Intuitive knowledge of God
2. Albert Einstein – Contemplating the mysterious
3. Victor Frankl – Searching for meaning
1. Moshe Chaim Luzzato – Fusion with God
2. Yisrael Salanter – Fighting the yetzer hara
3. Eliyahu Dessler – Experiencing God in everything
1. Baal Shem Tov – Panentheism (God is within everything)
2. Rebbe Nachman – Experiencing amazement in nature
3. Peshis’cha – To be a Jew, to be yourself
1. Vilna Gaon – Tikkun hamiddot
2. Chaim Volozhin – The study of Torah
3. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik – Creating ourselves
1. Moses Mendelssohn – cultivating virtue
2. Abraham Joshua Heschel – God searching for man
3. Mordechai Kaplan – Seek meaning to find God
1. Karl Marx – Achieving productivity
2. Sigmund Freud – Striving after happiness
3. Ayn Rand – Pursuing rational self-interest
Tradition Meets Modernity
1. Samson Raphael Hirsch – To belong to God
2. Avraham Isaac Hakohen Kook – Elevating humanity
3. The Haredim – Struggling against the urges
A quick overview of this list reveals that about half (31) of the answers involve God in some way (that number could go up or down depending how inclusive one wants to be about God’s role in things). Of the remainder, about two thirds (21) involved some aspect of personal growth, while about one third (10) were concerned with helping humanity out in some way. (Some of the answers fit into more than one category so the numbers don’t quite work out.) The approximate breakdown of the general goals of god, personal, communal is 3:2:1. This shouldn’t come as any major surprise being as Judaism has always focused on these three arenas of life.
This survey, of course, is fairly subjective. While many of the answers would probably make it on anybody’s list, there are others that would not. For instance, not every survey of Jewish answers to the meaning/purpose of life would include Philo or the Dead Sea Scrolls. Another survey might include more answers from the Chumash or the Tanakh and less from modern times. It is also possible that different choices could be made for the individual entries in any category. Also, within a given subject, someone might find a different answer to one of the questions than we found. Finally, even if one agrees with our choice of entries and the sources within the entries for the answers, they might interpret the sources quite differently than we did. In response to all of these possible objections, we emphasize that this list is simply our findings to answer these very fundamental questions.
Nevertheless, we do feel that this list is fairly representative of Judaism through the ages. It covers all the main categories of Jewish thought, from ancient times up until the present. It illustrates the most important changes and trends that took place through the centuries, including many of the movements that veered off of traditional Judaism as Jews explored different avenues of life. While some may take objection to including atheists, pantheists, and Jewish Christians in a study of Judaism’s take on the purpose of life, we feel otherwise. We strongly believe that leaving these branches out would leave us with an incomplete picture. It might be nice and tidy and monolithic, but it wouldn’t be totally representative of Jews throughout history.
How do we feel about the results of this project? We do believe that it was worthwhile and hopefully will fill in a niche in Jewish thought that rather strangely was never filled. Most of the answers were extremely interesting and some were highly unexpected. While we cannot, at this point, claim to have discovered any trends in how Jews have thought about these questions through the ages, the consistent themes of God, personal growth and satisfaction, and concern for others, paint a rather noble and worthy picture of this remarkable people. All in all, it has been a fascinating journey – on the large scale for the Jewish people, and on a considerably smaller scale for us.
That being said, there is something a little disappointing in the answers. As enlightening and as inspiring as they may be, more often than not they seem quite removed from the ‘real’ world. All this talk about God’s glory and oneness, about the mystery of creation and the vast potential of the human soul, begins to sound a little pie-in-the-sky after a while. It’s all very wonderful to expound about the virtues of the spiritual over the material, but most of us are really pretty earthy and mundane. We want a nice hot pizza or a good cold beer while kicking back and taking in a movie. There is nothing wrong with wanting any of this. It is part of human nature and probably always will be. Spiritual pursuits are nice supplements to life but they really aren’t the meat and potatoes. Most people, when they really face themselves in the mirror, would take a good meal over a spiritual experience any day of the week.
Judaism’s answers to the big questions are heavily loaded in the theological, spiritual, intellectual, and ethical dimensions. For the average person, Jewish or not, all of these are important but none is the focal point of their life. Jews as a whole may tend to be more drawn in these directions than people in general, but the typical Jew would hardly qualify as an avid student of any of them. This may be a reflection of the diminishing role of religion in everyday life or it may be related to an increasing focus on the practical over the theoretical. The automated, computerized world that we live in has little room for a God who presence can only be felt under extreme conditions of spiritual concentration. The bottom line is that the traditional Jewish answers no longer work for most Jews.
So what are the alternatives?
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