JUDAISM: Meaning in Human Existence

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

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

The ingredients of human frailty, grandeur, sin, freedom and divine parentage make up the human existence.

The most crucial element in human thinking is self-directed. What does it mean to be a human self, to live a human life? 

Here, too, the Jews looked for meaning. They were intensely interested in human nature, but not for the brute facts of the case. They wanted truth-for-life. They wanted to understand the human condition so as to avail themselves of its highest reaches. 

Whereas, Hinduism focuses on the goal of life, Judaism focuses on the self-directed nature of human thinking.

The Jews were acutely aware of human limitations. Compared with the majesty of the heavens, people are “dust” (Psalm 103:14); facing the forces of nature they can be “crushed like a moth” (Job 4:19). Their time upon the earth is swiftly spent, like grass that in the morning flourishes, but “in the evening fades and withers” (Psalm 90:6). Even this brief span is laced with pain that causes our years to end “as a sigh” (Psalm 90:9). Not once but repeatedly the Jews were forced to the rhetorical question: “What are human beings” that God should give them a second thought? (Psalm 8:4). 

Not once but repeatedly the Jews were forced to the rhetorical question: “What are human beings” that God should give them a second thought?

Considering the freedom of Israel’s thought and her refusal to repress doubts when she felt them, it is not surprising to find that there were moments when they suspected that “human beings…are only animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other” (Ecclesiastes 3:18–19). Here is a biological interpretation of the human species as uncompromising as any the nineteenth century ever produced. The significant point, however, is that this passing thought did not prevail. The striking feature of the Jewish view of human nature is that without blinking its frailty, it went on to affirm its unspeakable grandeur. We are a blend of dust and divinity. 

Whereas, Hinduism focuses mainly on the divinity aspect; Judaism looks at human nature as a blend of dust and divinity.

The word unspeakable two sentence above is not hyperbole. The King James Version translates the central Jewish claim concerning the human station as follows: “Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5). That last word is a straight mistranslation, for the original Hebrew plainly reads “a little lower than the gods [or God]”—the number of the Hebrew word ’elohim is indeterminate. Why did the translators reduce deity to angels? The answer seems obvious: It was not erudition that they lacked, but rather the boldness—one is tempted to say nerve—of the Hebrews. We can respect their reserve. It is one thing to write a Hollywood script in which everyone seems wonderful; it is another thing to make such characters seem real. The one charge that has never been leveled against the Bible is that its characters are not real people. Even its greatest heroes, like David, are presented so unvarnished, so “warts and all,” that the Book of Samuel has been called the most honest historical writing of the ancient world. Yet no amount of realism could dampen the aspiration of the Jews. Human beings who on occasion so justly deserve the epithets “maggot and worm” (Job 25:6) are equally the beings whom God has “crowned with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:6). There is a rabbinic saying to the effect that whenever a man or woman walks down the street he or she is preceded by an invisible choir of angels crying, “Make way, make way! Make way for the image of God.”

The Jews have been bold enough to look at God as the ideal scene, or goal, of human evolution.

In speaking of the realism of the Jewish view of human nature we have thus far emphasized its recognition of physical limitations: weakness, susceptibility to pain, life’s brevity. We shall not have plumbed the full scope of its realism, however, until we add that they saw the basic human limitation as moral rather than physical. Human beings are not only frail; they are sinners: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). It is totally false to claim this verse for the defense of either the doctrine of total human depravity or the notion that sex is evil. These are both imported notions that have nothing to do with Judaism. The verse does, however, contribute something of great importance to Jewish anthropology. The word sin comes from a root meaning “to miss the mark,” and this people (despite their high origin) manage continually to do. Meant to be noble, they are usually something less; meant to be generous, they withhold from others. Created more than animal, they often sink to being nothing else. 

Judaism saw the basic human limitation as moral rather than physical. The word sin comes from a root meaning “to miss the mark.”

Yet never in these “missings” is the misstep required. Jews have never questioned human freedom. The first recorded human act involved free choice. In eating Eden’s forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were, it is true, seduced by the snake, but they could have resisted. The snake merely tempted them; it is clearly a story of a human lapse. Inanimate objects cannot be other than they are; they do what nature and circumstance decree. Human beings, once created, make or break themselves, forging their own destinies through their decisions. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16–17)—only for human beings does this injunction hold. “I have set before you life and death…therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Finally, it followed from the Jewish concept of their God as a loving God that people are God’s beloved children. In one of the tenderest metaphors of the entire Bible, Hosea pictures God yearning over people as though they were toddling infants:

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me,
my compassion grows warm and tender. (Hosea 11:3–4,8)

Even in this world, immense as it is and woven of the mighty powers of nature, men and women can walk with the confidence of children in a home in which they are fully accepted. 

Even though subject to the mighty powers of nature, humans enjoy the power of choice, and they forge their own destinies through their decisions. However, they also suffer from their missteps. 

What are the ingredients of the most creatively meaningful image of human existence that the mind can conceive? Remove human frailty—as grass, as a sigh, as dust, as moth-crushed—and the estimate becomes romantic. Remove grandeur—a little lower than God—and aspiration recedes. Remove sin—the tendency to miss the mark—and sentimentality threatens. Remove freedom—choose ye this day!—and responsibility goes by the board. Remove, finally, divine parentage and life becomes estranged, cut loose and adrift on a cold, indifferent sea. With all that has been discovered about human life in the intervening 2,500 years, it is difficult to find a flaw in this assessment.

Judaism conceives the most creatively meaningful image of human existence through the ingredients of human frailty, grandeur, sin, freedom and divine parentage.


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