Some time ago the authors decided to embark on a personal project. After spending serious time delving into intricate rabbinic issues with study partners, the next subject chosen was the rather bold but nebulous question of ‘the meaning of life/purpose of creation according to Judaism’. Without having many clues as to where to look for answers, we just dove right in. Needless to say, we didn’t get very far. We realized that such an important issue would have to be dealt with systematically and would take a great deal of research, a considerable amount of perseverance, and a pinch of chutzpah to even take on the topic to begin with. We possessed no remarkable qualifications that could facilitate such an adventure, nor did we have any vast experience to fall back on. In other words, this was one grand shot in the dark. Nevertheless, we stuck to our decision and went blindly ahead into no-man’s land and this project is the result.
One of the first things we found in our initial research was that, much to our surprise, a comprehensive analysis of this question had never been done (at least if it had we didn’t know about it). We had decided that we wanted to do more than just list possible sources and let the reader decide what they mean – we wanted to interpret the sources, put them in a historical and spiritual context, and make them come alive in some vital manner for the contemporary reader. In short, we wanted to put our own spin on these ancient sources and make them real.
So we were in largely uncharted territory without any guide. But we did have some tools to work with, a compass of sorts - we knew where we wanted to end up. The skeptical reader might ask, ‘Well, what good was knowing where you were headed if you had no idea how to get there?’ One of the first unappreciated blessings we experienced in working on this project was not asking ourselves that question, because if we had, we probably would have given up almost immediately. In addition, the knowledge of one’s goal is an invaluable asset in any endeavor and works in mysterious ways to steer one in the right directions.
With that knowledge, although we were wanderers, we were wanderers with a goal post in sight. The first step in ‘getting there’ was to decide how to organize our list of sources. After much trial and error, we settled on a plan to group the sources according to certain key categories in Jewish history. In the end we settled on a list of 20 major categories that wind their way through the vast annals of Jewish writings. The categories we ended up with span the major periods of Jewish intellectual and spiritual development – from Biblical times through the 20th century. The following is the list of these categories (dates are approximate rounded to nearest half-century):
1. The Chumash (Pentateuch)
2. The Prophets (commonly believed to be approximately 1200 – 450 BCE)
3. The Writings (commonly believed to be approximately 1100 – 350 BCE)
4. The Inter-testimonial Era (Second Temple Period between the close of the Old Testament and the Earliest writings of the New Testament (350 BCE – 50 CE)
5. Early Deviations (200 BCE – 100 CE)
6. The Mishna (50 – 200)
7. The Talmud (200 –700)
8. Liturgy (100 – 1000)
9. The Midrash (150 – 1200)
10. The Philosophers (900 – 1400)
11. The Biblical Commentators (1000 – 1550)
12. The Legal Codes (1050 – 1600)
13. The Mystics (1100 - 1750)
14. The Pantheists (1600 – Present)
15. Mussar (1700 – Present)
16. The Hasidim (1700 – Present)
17. The Yeshiva World (1750 – Present)
18. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist (1750 – Present)
19. The Atheists (1850 – Present)
20. Orthodoxy in the Modern World (1850 – Present)
A Word about Style
Each category is introduced with a description about historical context, major works, and historical influence. We attempt to include both the Orthodox and academic views on the period. The individual sources have a similar introduction. The primary quotes upon which the source is based are presented in English with key original Hebrew words quoted when necessary in transliteration. The first part of our contribution is an analysis of the quote through asking important questions and suggesting answers. The second part is our attempt at clarifying how this idea/teaching is relevant for contemporary Jews, and how an individual from any Jewish background could use it in his or her daily life. We promise to do everything we can to not make this thing too cerebral – no scholarly footnotes, not much detailed analysis of obscure Hebrew minutia, and a minimal of philosophical and theological babbling. We want to make this readable, understandable, and readily usable.
One important point that must be clarified at the outset: Judaism comes with a deity. We will use either the English word 'God' or the Hebrew word 'Hashem' (which literally means 'the name' but is commonly used as a substitute name for God). In translations from a Hebrew quote we will use the word Hashem in place of the more familiar word 'Lord'. Our reasons for this are complex but the bottom line is that most Jews are a little uncomfortable with the word 'Lord' for God. It smacks of church and Bible-thumping preachers and a lot of what Jews tend to dislike about religion. Hashem avoids all that. It is what it says it is: the name of God according to Jewish tradition.
The Jewish understanding of God is a fascinating topic of study that is intricately related to the meaning and purpose of life. A good deal of the answers to the 'big question' will involve God in some crucial way. This should come as no surprise to anybody. Occasionally, we will attempt to clarify certain ideas about God that have played a role in Judaism. If you cannot stomach the idea of belief in the God of the Bible or any other image of a deity, we suggest that you stick along for the ride anyway. If you feel you need to get a better idea about the Jewish view of God, you might consider going to part 2 of this project, which covers precisely that subject. You may find some interesting challenges to your beliefs and some different ideas about God that you had never thought about or never imagined to be compatible with Judaism.
Our intended audience is Jews from the entire spectrum, from ultra-orthodox to radically secular, though non-Jews are more than welcome to join in. No prior knowledge is assumed - if you can’t read the Hebrew - it's ok, everything will be translated and explained. All historical and scholarly background will be filled in. We’re all going to be on the same page by the end of each section and everyone will be able to think about it and make their own educated decisions about buying into it and how it matters. Our goal is simple and straightforward: that questions of purpose and meaning in life from a Jewish perspective be discussed in as accessible a manner as possible, by as many people as possible, and to inspire discussions groups and individual thought on these important issues. We believe it’s about time that people got down to thinking and talking about the meaning of life.
Aren't confident enough to comment? Send an email to the author about any question pertaining to the essay
- Please keep comments and questions short and to the point.
- Try to keep things civil and overall try to keep the conversations respectful.
- No four letter words.
- No missionizing.
- Site moderators reserve the right to delete your comments if they do not follow the guidlines or are off-topic.
There are no Topics to show. Add a Topic to start a specefic discussion
Date: 10/27/17 at 12:15:02
Very excited to read more