“We have a maximum of choices and a minimum of meaning.”
— Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l
As I mentioned in my last essay, it seems that many religious and secular communities suffer from the same problem: the lack of a deeper existential, transcendental meaning. This is true as much of the Jewish community as of the non-Jewish world.
This is what makes these communities unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives, which in severe circumstances — such as during COVID-19 — leads to much unrest and violence.
Not only are our lives under threat, but our financial stability has been badly undermined. Also, the education of our children has been disrupted, which may affect them seriously in ways we cannot yet predict, and could be detrimental to them for the rest of their lives. And there is so much more at stake. These matters are highly worrisome.
In fact, all this will certainly bring upon us a new world order that will shock many of us. We may think that once a vaccine puts an end to the virus we’ll be able to go back to our old ways, but we will surely discover that nothing is further from the truth.
The enigma of life
The virus has forced us to confront the most elementary questions concerning life and death. It provokes us to ask why we love life, and will do anything to go on living, even when we all know that life is sometimes extremely painful, and perhaps not worth living.
The renowned French author and philosopher, Albert Camus, referred to this in his famous statement: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942). Indeed, this question must be asked: Why not prefer death to life, so as not to have to live with pain? To argue that it would mean losing out on the many beautiful parts of life is not really convincing. After all, we wouldn’t know what we were missing, so there’s nothing we would lack. But how many human beings are lucky enough not to be born? So why not opt for suicide? Nevertheless, we all want to live! We therefore will have to ask the question: Why?
While this question has always been in our subconscious, it is COVID-19 that has suddenly brought it to consciousness. Denying this question becomes more and more difficult. In fact, it becomes dangerous, since it constitutes a form of denial that can have disastrous consequences.
As mentioned in my earlier essay, COVID-19 is not the problem. The devastating result of this virus is only a symptom of a much larger ongoing problem, which concerns the way we have been conducting our lives on a micro and macro level throughout the last millennia.
Getting our priorities right
This virus was able to do its devastating work because we have our priorities wrong.
We have been guilty of utilitarian thinking in which we’ve made science, technology, and the marketplace the ultimate concerns of our lives, and we have refused to deal with a major factor on which our future depends: the significance and purpose of our lives. However important science, technology, and the marketplace may be, they have more to do with power and the functional side of our lives, and little to do with the meaning of our lives. If they are not kept under control, then something like COVID-19 can run wild, since there are no boundaries to stop it.
Abraham Joshua Heschel responded to Camus’ observation, quoted above, with the following words: “May I differ and suggest that there is only one really serious problem… Is there anything worth dying for?” (Who Is Man, p. 92). Indeed, this question is the very basis of our lives.
Science, technology, and the marketplace lack the capacity to give us insight into the meaning and existential purpose of our lives, because they deal with the external side of our existence, not with its essence. True, they offer us more and more choices for how to handle our lives, but they cannot tell us which choices to make. They cannot teach us what is moral and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, nor why we need and want to live. They can tell us how things happen, but are completely incapable of telling us why these things happen and how they make life worth living.
The most important issue in the life of human beings is the question of existential meaning. We are, by definition, Homo sapiens—meaning-seeking creatures.
And this is the reason we love life, despite everything. Something inside of us tells us that life is of infinite value, although we may not know what its meaning is. “To live is like love — all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it,” said Samuel Butler (“Higgledy-Piggledy,” Notebooks, 1912). And paradoxically, it is its un-knowableness that gives it even more value, because it reminds us that there is more to life than we will ever be able to grasp. We hear a perpetual murmur coming from the waves of another realm, which is ineffable.
As long as we believe that there is a profound purpose to our lives, we will be able to be happy and satisfied. As such, we can stand up against almost any obstacle, as Victor Frankl has shown us in his famous work Man’s Search for Meaning, which is based on his experience in the death camps during the Holocaust. The same is true of the late psychiatrist Erich Fromm, who explains in his remarkable book To Have or to Be? that much of the malaise in this world is due to the fact that to “have much” has become an obsession and the ultimate goal, whereas to “be and become much,” in the spiritual sense, has been put aside and declared of little importance.
Consequently, we have become existential orphans. After all, if you only have the how and not the why, matters will ultimately fall apart, because the most significant aspect of human beings is ignored or even ridiculed.
The tragedy is that for hundreds of years the why questions have been abolished and replaced by how questions. Science took the place of spirituality and religious insights. By doing so, it robbed people of their most important goals and needs: that which surpasses the external side of life and gives human beings transcendental meaning.
The tragedy of religion
The tremendous tragedy of religion is that once it was replaced with matters related to the external side of life, it adopted the very notion to which it always objected. It made the mistake of becoming utilitarian itself, thinking that by doing so it would be more popular and rescue itself from the hands of secularism, while in fact it fell victim to it. Religion became a behavioral discipline that wanted to represent the spiritual and the transcendental meaning of human beings by adopting its antitheses.
Religion has become a remnant of a bygone reality. It thought that once it would adopt definitions, (halachic) codes and catechisms, it would survive and provide meaning—new oxygen—to searching human beings. But in fact, it has suffocated them, because faith can only survive and grow in its natural habitat, in which the Divine stands at the center of human existence. Faith must encompass the sum total of human beings, which is far more than their intellect or scientific knowledge, and includes emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and so much more. It is this “more” that can inspire us with awe.
This problem has by now entered the Jewish and non-Jewish religious worlds and educational institutions, including the synagogue and the church. Most of these institutions no longer provide us with a way to experience such an exalted form of existence. And they have therefore become nearly meaningless for the seeker.
Secular ideologies have made the same mistake. While some of them offer deep insights, they are unable to provide their followers with a vision of how to live with these insights on a practical level. They have provided us with the art of comprehending, but not with the art of revering. Nor have they helped us to live in deep reverence for life, something that can only be accomplished through a type of lifestyle rooted in saintly deeds and rituals that touch on the very meaning of life.
In other words, what religion has too much of, secular ideologies have too little of. The first got stuck in so much formalism that it could no longer breathe, while the second adopted an approach that left us without guidelines on how to deal with a constantly increasing number of opportunities. This makes it impossible to get a grip on life, leaving us in nowhere land. Neither of these ideologies is capable of providing either the religious or the secular person with what we most long for: finding transcendental meaning and living accordingly.
Now that we have somewhat analyzed the problem, we must ask how to turn the tide. Hopefully, we’ll be able to discuss this in our next essay of this series.
With thanks to Channi Shapiro and Yael Shahar for their editorial comments.