JUDAISM: Meaning in Creation

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Body and Mind must also evolve along with the spirit—in complete continuity, consistency and harmony.

In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky has Ivan blurt out: “I don’t accept this world of God’s, and although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept.” 

Ivan is not alone in finding God, perhaps, good, but the world not. Entire philosophies have done the same—Cynicism in Greece, Jainism in India. Judaism, by contrast, affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion through its assumption that God created it. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) and pronounced it to be good. 

Most people find God, perhaps, good, but the world not. Judaism, by contrast, affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion through its assumption that God created it. According to Hinduism, the world is simply there. It is neither good nor bad.

What does it mean to say that the universe, the entire realm of natural existence as we know it, is God-created? Philosophers might look to such a statement as explanation for the means by which the world came into being, but that is a purely cosmogonic question that has no bearing on how we live. Did the world have a first cause or not? Our answer to that question seems unrelated to the way life feels to us. 

There is another side to the affirmation that the universe is God-created, however. Approached from this second angle, the assertion speaks not to the way the earth originated but to the character of its agent. Unlike the first issue, this one affects us profoundly. Everyone at times finds himself or herself asking whether life is worthwhile, which amounts to asking whether, when the going gets rough, it makes sense to continue to live. Those who conclude that it does not make sense give up, if not once and for all by suicide, then piecemeal, by surrendering daily to the encroaching desolation of the years. Whatever else the word God may mean, it means a being in whom power and value converge, a being whose will cannot be thwarted and whose will is good. In this sense, to affirm that existence is God-created is to affirm its unimpeachable worth.

To affirm that existence is God-created is to affirm its unimpeachable worth.

There is a passage in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party that speaks to this point. Celia, who has been not just disappointed but disillusioned in love, goes to a psychiatrist for help and begins her first session with this surprising statement:

I must tell you
That I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me—
Because, if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong
With the world itself—and that’s much more frightening!
That would be terrible. So I’d rather believe
There is something wrong with me, that could be put right.

These lines speak to the most basic decision life demands. Things repeatedly go wrong in life. When they do, what are we to conclude? Ultimately, the options come down to two. One possibility is that the fault lies in the stars, dear Brutus. Many have so concluded. They range all the way from quipsters who propose that the best educational toy we could give to children is jigsaw puzzles in which no two pieces fit together, to Thomas Hardy, who inferred that the power that spawned a universe so inherently tragic must be some sort of dumb vegetable. In Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage the principal character, Philip, was given a Persian rug by a Bohemian roué who assured him that by studying the carpet he would be able to comprehend life’s meaning. The donor died, and Philip was still in the dark. How could the involved pattern of a Persian rug solve the problem of life’s meaning? When the answer finally dawned on him, it seemed obvious: Life has no meaning. “For nothing was there a why and a wherefore.”

When things repeatedly go wrong in life, one option is to blame the world.

This is one possibility. The other possibility is that when things go wrong the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves. Neither answer can be objectively validated, but there is no doubt as to which elicits the more creative response. In the one case human beings are helpless, for their troubles stem from the botched character of existence itself, which is beyond their power to remedy. The other possibility challenges people to look closer to home—to search for causes of their problems in places where they can effect changes. Seen in this light, the Jewish affirmation that the world is God-created equipped them with a constructive premise. However desperate their lot, however deep the valley of the shadow of death they found themselves in, they never despaired of life itself. Meaning was always waiting to be won; the opportunity to respond creatively was never absent. For the world had been fashioned by the God who not only meted out the heavens with a span, but whose goodness endured forever.

The other option is never to despair of life itself but to search for causes of problems in places where changes can be effected. 

Thus far we have been speaking of the Jewish estimate of creation as a whole, but one element in the biblical account deserves special attention: its regard for nature—the physical, material component of existence. 

Much of Greek thought takes a dim view of matter. Likewise Indian philosophy, which considers matter a barbarian, spoiling everything it touches. Salvation in such contexts involves freeing the soul from its material container. 

In Judaism, we see regard for nature—the physical, material component of existence. Whereas, Hinduism takes a dim view of matter—something barbarian that spoils everything it touches. Hinduism can improve in this regard.

How different the first chapter of Genesis, which (as we have seen) opens with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” emphasis now added, and climaxes with God reviewing “everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” We ought to let our minds dwell on that adjective “very,” for it gives a lilt to the entire Jewish, and subsequently Western, view of nature. Pressing for meaning in every direction, the Jews refused to abandon the physical aspects of existence as illusory, defective, or unimportant. Fresh as the morning of Creation, nature was to be relished. The abundance of food made the Promised Land “a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity” (Deuteronomy 8:7–8). Sex, too, was good. An occasional minority movement like the Essenes might have concluded the opposite, but Jews as a whole hold marriage in high regard. The entire assumption behind the prophets’ denunciation of the inequalities of wealth that confronted them was the reverse of the opinion that possessions are bad. They are so good that more people should have more of them. 

The Jews refused to abandon the physical aspects of existence as illusory, defective, or unimportant. Fresh as the morning of Creation, nature was to be relished. Sex, too, was good, and Jews as a whole hold marriage in high regard.

Such an affirmative and buoyant attitude toward nature does seem to set Judaism off from India’s basic outlook. It does not, however, distinguish it from East Asia, where the appreciation of nature is profound. What divides the Hebraic from the Chinese view of nature does not come out until we note a third verse in this crucial first chapter of Genesis. In verse 26 God says of the people he intends to create: “Let them have dominion…over all the earth.” How much this differs from the Chinese attitude toward nature can be seen by recalling its opposite sentiment in the Tao Te Ching:

Those who would take over the earth
And shape it to their will
Never, I notice, succeed.

Material nature is part of the whole system. It should evolve just as the spirit is evolving—in complete continuity, consistency and harmony.

If we propositionalize the three key assertions about nature in the opening chapter of Genesis—

God created the earth;
let [human beings] have dominion over the earth;
behold, it was very good…

—we find an appreciation of nature, blended with confidence in human powers to work with it for the good, that in its time was exceptional. It was, as we well know, an attitude that was destined to bear fruit, for it is no accident that modern science first emerged in the Western world. Archbishop William Temple used to say that Judaism and its offspring, Christianity, are the most materialistic religions in the world. When Islam is added to the list, the Semitically originated religions emerge as exceptional in insisting that human beings are ineradicably body as well as spirit and that this coupling is not a liability. From this basic premise three corollaries follow: (1) that the material aspects of life are important (hence the strong emphasis in the West on humanitarianism and social service); (2) that matter can participate in the condition of salvation itself (affirmed by the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body); and (3) that nature can host the Divine (the Kingdom of God is to come “on Earth,” to which Christianity adds its doctrine of the Incarnation).

Humans are extension of nature. Human powers should work for the evolution of spirit, mind and body, and not just of the spirit as emphasized in Hinduism. Spirit does not exist alone. The existence of spirit is intimately tied with the existence of mind and body.


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