Once the human being has recognized that ultimately there is no way to know why God created the world and mankind, he can make his way back to reason and meaning. Once he leaves this “divine absurdity” behind as an unsolvable problem, his intelligence is able to guide him through the labyrinth of human existence.
It is his failure to understand the fundamental purpose of existence that forces man to become humble and know the limitations of his intelligence and reasoning. And only then does reason become a powerful instrument for man to understand the world and its subjective meaning. When man encounters inexplicable contradictions, or questions that are unanswerable, he realizes that he has come to the end of the road of what is humanly possible. He will then have to resort to what is intellectually possible. Were he not to do so, cognitive chaos would form, all his reasoning would come to an end, and he would be completely paralyzed. The art of reasoning is in direct proportion to the limitations of human understanding. As such, one of the most important functions of reason is to recognize that there are an infinite number of realities that surpass it. This knowledge may not save us but it can mitigate the absurdity of existence.
For the human being, therefore, life is absurd only as far as its ultimacy is concerned. Once he steps away from this, life could become extremely meaningful to him, and he may argue that this is what God had in mind as its purpose as far as human beings are concerned.
In other words, man can discover God’s secondary purpose for human existence and find great satisfaction in this, as long as he recognizes that the primary reason is not known to him. In fact, it is only because he recognizes this that he can find real significance in his life. It is the mystery behind his existence that gives him a feeling of ultimate meaning.
It cannot be denied that for the religious person this is a rather comfortable situation. At least he knows that there is purpose to his suffering and torment. This comfort is not available to the atheist who will have to deal with his suffering devoid of any such support. It may therefore be argued that for the atheist to continue to live and behave honorably is of greater moral value than for the believer to do so. The atheist places himself in a category of absolute unselfishness. For him there is no meaning beyond absurdity. Life and what is beyond (if anything) is all absurd. So when he acts morally it is not because he believes there is any ultimate meaning to his life, but because he believes it is the right thing to do. It is pure altruism (1). We may postulate that God takes great satisfaction in this. On the other hand, it is much more painful for the believer to believe in a God Who needs to include suffering and cruelty as absolute essentials in His very creation. Here, the atheist is more comfortable. He does not have to deal with this problem (2).
We must realize that the awareness of everything’s ultimate absurdity does not mean that all is illogical. Logic or the lack of it only makes sense or non-sense once matters have been brought down to a level where absurdity is left behind and we enter the sphere where human intellect operates. To make “sense” of something means to limit the place within which the human being is able to conduct his life by way of his intelligence, and it is here that there is need for structure and a specific and orderly way of living combined with cognitive and rational thinking. But just as every form of rational thinking has its limits and must bend before that which can no longer be grasped because it enters the space where unsolvable contradictions and enigmas have the upper hand, so life often reminds the human being that he may be confronted with problems—including some moral ones—that are unsolvable.
Values often clash and cannot be reconciled, not only because of practical reasons, but even conceptually. One cannot combine full liberty with full equality. Full liberty for wolves cannot be reconciled with full liberty for sheep. Justice and mercy, knowledge and happiness may collide. A coherent and perfect solution cannot be conceived. All one can strive for is a trade-off: this amount of equality for that amount of liberty; this much justice for that much mercy.
There are no perfect solutions to many of our moral problems. An aircraft carrying 120 passengers is hurtling out of control towards a densely populated area. There is no time to evacuate the area and the impact of the plane is certain to kill thousands. The only possible move is to shoot down the plane. What should be done?
On a deeper level, philosophers have debated whether or not there are absolute moral criteria by which one could declare something evil. Some maintain that this is purely subjective and it is only our thinking that makes it so. Bertrand Russell’s famous observation—“I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it” (3)—is well taken.
Matters like these constantly remind us that we cannot escape the absurdity behind these questions and situations. Still, we need to use our minds to deal with these problems on a practical level although we cannot solve them on a conceptual one.
Halacha, too, is unable to solve these problems in an ideal way. All it can do is command a response without being able to prove it correct. In the case of the airplane that has gone out of control, Halacha cannot argue that it is better to shoot down the plane and have 120 people killed, just as it cannot argue that it is better not to shoot it down and have thousands of people killed. All it can do is claim that it has come to a conclusion on the basis of some subjective criteria, or that a Divine Will orders us to do such and such, although there is nothing “logical” about this Will. It really belongs to the category of the absurd, which is beyond our grasp and known only to God. Therefore, for the religious person to claim that Halacha is always morally right is missing the point. It is only right in the sense that it is God’s Will, or deduced by some halachic argument that would break down once it touches the unknown and absurd.
But what is of utmost importance is to realize that Halacha could have decided differently, when bearing in mind other halachic opinions that could also be backed up by subjective arguments, as is often the case in the Talmud. A famous example (Baba Metzia 62a) is the difference of opinion between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura concerning two people who are walking in the desert and have only one bottle of water, which is not sufficient to keep them both alive if they share the bottle. What should the owner of the bottle do? Drink it all himself, surviving while his friend dies (Rabbi Akiva), or share it and have them both die (Ben Petura)? Both have strong arguments, but ultimately, they clash conceptually because they use different value systems. This is the meaning of Elu ve-elu divrei Elokim chayim – These and those are the utterances of the living God (Eruvin 3b).
This dictum does not mean that each opinion is completely correct. Actually, the reverse is true. Each is forced to admit that its argument is problematic since it is impossible to come to a conclusive and absolutely correct decision. As such, each opinion has to make space for the other. Each is a trade-off, a compromise. All that is left for Halacha to decide is which tradeoff to follow. For that, it will need secondary reasons that may have little to do with the actual argument.
As is well known, the many different opinions between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai are nearly always decided in favor of Beit Hillel. The reason given is most remarkable: Beit Hillel were easy and forbearing and would quote the opinion of Beit Shamai before stating their own opinion. In this way, Beit Hillel showed great derech eretz (respect) to Beit Shamai, something Beit Shamai did not reciprocate (Eruvin ad loc). This has nothing to do with the actual argument and therefore should be completely irrelevant. Still, it is the only reason why Halacha decided to follow the opinion of Beit Hillel! Even more surprising is that the Talmud states that Beit Shamai were mechadedei tfei, sharper than Beit Hillel (Yevamot 14a). Yet this was still not a reason to decide the issues according to Beit Shamai. The Talmud wants to convey that even though Beit Shamai are sharper and have better arguments, one can still not contend that their arguments are definitely right, since that is impossible. It remains a trade-off. The only thing required now is to make a decision, because a ruling needs to be made. Without a decision life cannot continue! On a pragmatic level, A and B cannot simultaneously be followed. Either we light the Chanukah candles from 1-8 (Beit Hillel) or from 8-1 (Beit Shamai), but we cannot do both at the same time. One is reminded of William James’ observation that not to make a decision is also a decision.
To be continued….
(1) Obviously, one cannot argue that since the atheist lives such an unselfish life, which the believer by definition is unable to reach, God does not exist. The level of unselfishness cannot be the parameter by which to decide whether God does or does not exist. But what it could mean is that this type of atheist is more loved by God than the believer will ever be. In that case, there could be great religious meaning to atheism. It may even be the reason why God created the possibility for it to exist. There may be greater tzaddikim among exceptional atheists than among the religious. This, however, is a broad topic!
(2) One wonders how many people would be able to live on the level of the moral atheist. It has been argued that most of them would probably go for a life of “minimum” morality, unless they borrow subconsciously from the moral standards of religion or subscribe to the notion of “evolutionary ethics” in which the atheist is prepared to live a moral life because this is the only way he is able to survive. Still, while only few tzaddikim are found in atheist circles, it cannot be denied that there have been some outstanding exceptions such as Spinoza, perhaps. (Whether or not Spinoza was really an atheist is a separate discussion.)
(3) “Notes on Philosophy, January 1960,″ Philosophy, April 1960, as quoted in The Retreat to Commitment, 2nd ed., p. xxv (Preface).