A friend wrote after I posted my last two blogs “Who are we?” and “Who are we? A follow-up” by asking: “Have you been studying existentialism? Looks that way to me.”
My short answer is no, I haven’t been studying it. But, the question deserved a fuller response, so here it is.
First, I don’t believe in fate or in a supernatural power that deliberately determines who lives and who dies in any particular time or place, as the Unetaneh Tokef prayer of Rosh Hashanah asserts. I approach that prayer on the High Holidays as metaphor, that life is fragile and we humans have to do everything possible to preserve and promote life based on the ‘unity principle’ as stated in the Shema. Not only is doing so the morally right thing to do, but is based on the perspective of enlightened self-interest, that we all need each other across communities, cultures, ethnicities, religions, races, genders, and national identities, and therefore we need to be prepared to climb the barricades in defense of any of us should we be attacked based on bigotry and hatred.
Second, I believe that the ongoing welfare of the Jewish people is important in and of itself based on our core values (see below) and therefore important for the world as a whole.
These words set the stage for Jews long ago about our relationships with one another: “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh – all Israel is responsible for one another” (Talmud, Shavuot 39a), “Al tifros min ha-tzibur – Don’t separate yourself from the community” (Mishnah, Avot 2:5), and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s story about the man selfishly drilling a hole under his seat in a boat proclaiming that he had the right to do so because it was under his seat regardless of the fact that water will doom all the passengers in the boat. (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6,)
Dr. King expanded the principle of our interdependency this way, which I wholeheartedly accept: “Our world is a neighborhood…We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” (March 31, 1968)
Onto the existentialist dilemma – I accept this part of the existentialist position, that each of us is a free and responsible agent who must determine our respective development and course in life through deliberate willful acts and thereby create for ourselves purpose and meaning.
I do not believe, however, in another aspect of existentialism that asserts life as an absurdity, that no one – not God, not cultures or other people, not ruling authorities – can offer us ultimate meaning and purpose though family comes awfully close. Nor do I believe that we are blank slates at birth. To the contrary, children must be educated and learn to choose good over evil. I take it as an act of faith that the virtues Judaism teaches are interwoven into the fabric of a moral universe – goodness (tov), justice (tzedek), compassion (rachamim), wisdom (chochmah), understanding (binah), respect/dignity (kavod), and peace/wholeness/integrity (shalom-shleimut).
The opening chapter of the Book of Genesis affirms repeatedly that the created world is “good” (ki tov) and that the human being is created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the divine image” (Genesis 1:26). As such, we are thinking beings (as God is imaged as a ‘thinking Being’) and we have the capacity to be aware that we are imbued with infinite value and worth (Mishnah Avot 3:14 – Rabbi Heschel called this awareness “radical amazement” at the very fact of our existence). Our challenge therefore, as Reconstructionist Judaism postulated, is to be “Godly,” that is to embrace our tradition’s moral virtues and act accordingly in every dimension of our lives, private and public.
We don’t merely exist, as the existentialist proclaims. I regard myself as an ‘essentialist’ in that I believe there’s an “essence” to every human being. That essence is called the soul/neshamah – the “life-breath” or “Godly” element in each of us. Judaism affirms that the neshamah is Eternal and Ineffable, that it is a reality separate from the material world, and that it enables us to envision and imagine ourselves as linked to all things, intrinsic within the created world, and committed to restoring the world in “the image of the dominion of the Godly” (Tikun olam). The neshamah is that part of every human being that can (if we allow it) guide us to become moral beings.
Whether we are existentialists seeking to overcome absurdity, or essentialists seeking to live according to a higher moral standard, or anything else, our behavior freely chosen ultimately is the determining factor about who we are, who we become, how we are known to others, and how we regard ourselves.
The danger of existentialist thinking, in my view, is that one can be led to cynicism about life and the world given the existentialist claim that life is an absurdity and has no meaning. For me, my faith in Jewish tradition’s prophetic values and aspirations are based in the religious truth that each human being is infinitely valuable and worthy and each of us can become an agent for decency, justice, and compassion. This comports well with my own innate optimism (i.e. seeing the half-full glass) despite difficult times and the presence of far too many evil actors in the world.
I thank my friend for the question. I hope my response clarifies my orientation, Jewish and world-views, and basis for faith.