Much has been written about the meaning and purpose of Halacha, based on philosophy, metaphysics and psychology. Scholars have suggested that Halacha is the art of living in the presence of God. Others have posited that it requires the need to live a life dedicated to kedusha (holiness), while many argue that Halacha’s purpose is to achieve a high level of ethical standards. There are those who maintain that its main purpose is to make man surrender to the Divine will and teach him to ignore his subjective and often biased moral and philosophical insights, even when his moral intuition tells him that the halacha’s requirements are flawed. Proponents of this view are of the opinion that there is a higher morality, which man is unable to grasp. Still others believe that there is no purpose to Halacha other than to ensure that we keep the commandments, whether or not there is any moral meaning.
All these insights have merit and can be supported by a variety of Jewish traditional sources. What they fail to recognize, however, is that ultimately Halacha is an attempt to address the absurdity of human existence and give it meaning despite and in contradiction to this absurdity.
There is a famous midrash (Sota 12a) that highlights the role played by Halacha in dealing with the absurdity of human existence. The midrash relates how Miriam, Moshe’s sister, convinced her father, Amram, to have children with her mother, Yocheved, in the days when Pharaoh had decreed that all Israelite male children had to be killed at birth. Despite Amram’s earlier insistence that he should not father any more children so as to avoid the killing of possible future sons, Miriam admonished him saying he was worse than Pharaoh because while the king of Egypt denied children the right to continue to live, Amram refused to give them any life at all. (1)
Miriam, in essence, is arguing that even if Amram is correct from a rational point of view (Why have children if they will be immediately killed?), there is meaning, beyond absurdity, that transcends rational considerations. If one is commanded to have children, even genocide in progress is no reason to avoid fulfilling the obligation (2). Her argument is straightforward: we cannot know why it is necessary for human beings to exist, or why a particular human being is meant to come into the world at a certain moment. We do not know why God decided to create life instead of leaving a void; nor, for that matter, do we know the ultimate purpose of anything. It follows, then, that we have no criteria by which to decide whether or not to have children even if we know they will immediately die. After all, it may quite well be that life has infinite meaning even if it lasts no more than one second. But this is only known to God, the Creator.
Lacking any insight into God’s motivations for creating man, we are forced to admit that our own observations about the ultimate purpose of human existence are by definition subjective and therefore far from comprehensive.
When I consider whether there is righteousness in God’s decision to create the world, I have to conclude that there can be no logical or moral justification for it, at least not in human terms. After all, the suffering a person endures outweighs any benefits he gains from all of life. The reason for this is simple: non-existence precludes all suffering. From this point of view, earthquakes, tsunamis and man’s capability to wreak havoc and create holocausts are all unjustifiable – whether they are caused by God, or by man with his God-given free will to do evil. Either way, God is responsible for all of them, directly or indirectly. How, then, can we argue that God was justified in creating humanity?
Moreover, there is nothing to justify human existence that includes even the slightest form of discomfort. The argument that pain and suffering are necessary for man to morally grow is untenable since we are unable to answer why man needs to exist in order to morally grow. Even if the world would exist in a way that man would experience only the most pleasurable and exalted circumstances, this would still not explain why it is necessary for man and the world to exist at all. In what way is existence more pleasurable than non-existence? After all, non-existence would not include a human awareness that one is missing any pleasure or joy.
From the start we are faced with an enormous problem: our question as to why there is any existence is unanswerable. We have not the slightest hint why God chose to create the world, or human beings or, for that matter, Judaism. The Torah itself is completely unhelpful as far as this question is concerned. It never offers us any information of why God decided to create existence. It begins with the creation of the Earth, by which time God had already “made up His mind” to create a world with human beings. All the Torah does is tell us that once the world has come into existence, God demands of man to live a righteous life.
No doubt the Torah implies that there is a purpose, but it leaves us in complete darkness as to what that purpose is. Only God knows. Since man has no way of deciphering the ultimate purpose, from his perspective all existence is absurd. He is asked only to deal with this absurdity and be aware that there is purpose, which only makes sense to God. The fact that man is asked to do so is in itself completely absurd. It means that man deals with radical absurdity from the moment he is born until the day he dies. Whether his life is pleasant, or filled with constant hardship, it is absurdity he must deal with 24/7.
We cannot, then, escape the fact that Halacha is the art of dealing with existential absurdity. Its function, after all, is to guide man in how to live his life. And since life is absurd, Halacha, by definition, is absurd as well. In other words, its function is to help man deal with an absurdity in a way that gives meaning to this absurdity, although from the perspective of man, the meaning itself is ultimately absurd. Only to God, Who alone knows the ultimate purpose, does all this make sense.
Discovering the nature of Halacha therefore necessitates that we admit it is rooted in absurdity and that its response to that absurdity is itself motivated by absurdity. This is obvious since Halacha is part and parcel of this world.
All this is so vital that it is no exaggeration to say that any halachic response should really start with asking the question of why man, the Jew and the Torah exist. While the ultimate answers to these questions will never be known to us, it is most important that these questions be posed, so that the awareness of the absurdity of existence will become the foundation from which all halachic decisions flow forth and can be understood. Without this, Halacha can never be appreciated, and no answer can “make any sense.”
To support our claim, we need only to mention the halachic demand to give one’s life rather than be forced to worship idols. Basically, such worship does not hurt anybody, and while one could argue that it has some negative consequences, it should not be something one has to pay for with one’s life. The same is true concerning certain incestuous relationships. What is wrong with a brother marrying his sister? Why should they have to forfeit their lives rather than enter into such a relationship if they both consent to it? (3) The same can be argued concerning other prohibitions of incest, or those relating to bestiality. From the human being’s perspective, the demand to give up one’s life in this situation is absurd. Only when we admit that all of life is absurd, yet very much the absolute and undeniable reality in which we live, can we fathom why there may be laws that make little sense but still, unquestionably, have ultimate divine purpose. Without this awareness, no halacha could ever make sense or even be acceptable. Just as the existence of the world is a Godly decision, so are these laws. Just as the ultimate purpose of the world’s existence is totally unknown, so are the reasons for these laws. When asking why we need to live by these laws, we should simultaneously ask why there is a world, for essentially they are one and the same question.
Yet, I know of no sh’eilot or teshuvot (halachic responsa) that begin by asking why God created humanity. The truth, however, is that they really should! After all, how can one answer a halachic question without first acknowledging the absurdity of its being grounded in the absurdity of human existence?
Only when we establish the absurdity of life and the Halachic question can we start trying to respond to the inquiry.
To be continued…
1. See Rashi on Shemot 2:1. He has a slightly different reading.
2. While it is true that Miriam insisted that Amram should still father children, even if they would immediately be killed, it cannot be denied that this is a moot point in Halacha, since in some cases Halacha permits abortion in the very early stages of pregnancy when the fetus is severely deformed and would not survive. She may have argued that if it would be a daughter the child would stay alive, or that Pharaoh’s decree would possibly fail, as in the case of her brother Moshe (Sota ad loc). However, the Talmud also states her argument that Amram would be denying these unborn souls a life in the hereafter. This may support our position if we replace the word “hereafter” with the phrase “ultimate purpose known only to God.”
The story concerning Miriam is similar to the case mentioned in Baba Batra 60b, where the Sages wanted to decree that with the destruction of the Temple there was no purpose any more to keeping the Jewish people alive, and therefore people should no longer marry. It became clear, however, that the laypeople would not agree to this and would insist that despite all the suffering they would continue to have children and keep the Jewish people alive against all odds. One wonders whether the Sages were too pragmatic while the laypeople were more aware of the philosophical underpinnings of human and Jewish existence, as we explain further on in our essay.
3. See Maharsha on the Mishna in Chagiga 2:1.