Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
What is the meaning of life?
Wondering in Weehawken
Sure, at this time of the new year it makes sense for a person to wax philosophical and to ask such a big question.
However, let me consider that perhaps you were not really serious in sending in this question to begin with.
In that case, I will answer by quoting to you from the epilogue, the last scene of the 1983 Monty Python comedy film “The Meaning of Life.” There the host opens an envelope containing, well yes, the meaning of life. She reads it out loud and here is her profound advice: “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
While that may not be the momentous meaning of life, that is not bad advice.
Now, let me consider the alternative, and take your question as a serious inquiry and try to reply in kind.
It would be nice if I could answer you with a straightforward, focused reply, like the lady in the movie. But you do know when you address your ultimate inquiry to a talmudic advice columnist, you will get a complex response.
Since I got your question, I have tossed and turned many nights wondering (if you are serious) how I could possibly reply to you. I could never claim enough personal wisdom to begin to settle such an issue.
I decided to rely on the sacred writings of our religion, the Talmud and the Tanach, for some direction. Surprisingly, for the Talmud the answer from many citations is clear and to the point. First and foremost, the primary meaning of life is to be found in the study of the Torah. And secondly, the rest of the answer is for a person to keep the commandments and live the life of the Torah.
You may say, hold on, study Torah and keep the commandments? That sounds like the meaning of life for a rabbi. Yes, true, it does, but the Talmud assumes that all Jews aspire to be like the rabbis and accordingly, the meaning of life for the common Jew is the same as for the rabbi.
Putting prudence aside, rather than stop there, I decided to go the Tanach to confirm that this is the message of Judaism for the meaning of life.
There are many competing messages in the complex composite collection of writings of the Hebrew Bible. So I homed in on the one book that seemed particularly pertinent to your question, that is the book of Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes, in the Writings (Ketubim), the third section of Tanach. (Kohelet is the biblical scroll that we read in synagogue once a year on Sukkot.)
Kohelet is known to many of us as that pessimistic philosophical work attributed to King Solomon that ponders, in its own ways, the meaning of life.
You may recall the familiar refrain of this scroll — havel havalim — most often translated as vanity of vanities — applied as an assessment of many aspects of human endeavor. The pessimism of the preacher comes through loud and clear. Some of us listen to the proclamations of the book on Sukkot, or have studied the scroll, and perhaps have decided that it was too much of a downer for us to pay to it serious heed.
In fact, the Mishnah teaches that the sanctity of this scroll was the subject of controversy in the second century C.E. The rabbis were going to exclude the book from the canon of the Tanach. But it was saved. According to Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai, on the day that they elected Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah to the high political position of patriarch of the academy, it was decided to keep Kohelet in the canon as a sacred scroll of the Tanach (Mishnah Yadaim 3:5).
And so, seeking out the meaning of life, to answer your query, I took a fresh long look at this book and found new insights into the work. First, it’s clear to me now that this book is a composite anthology of writings by more than one author. Yes, it is true that the work purports at the opening to be by Kohelet, son of David, King in Jerusalem — that is, King Solomon. But going back to 1898, renowned Bible scholars have posited that multiple sources make up the work. And because of its language and contents, critical evaluations of the work date it to about 250 BCE — many centuries after the reign of Solomon.
In a wonderful recent book, “Ani Kohelet” (“I am Kohelet”), Israeli rabbis Yoel Bin Nun and Yaakov Medan systematically identify four distinct voices in the work. The rabbis characterize the book as a dramatic play, a chorus of these four voices articulated via one character: the hedonist, the toiler, the wise person, and the God-fearing person.
First, these rabbis hear scenes in the book where the hedonist expresses his view of the meaning of life. And right up front, Kohelet derides this choice: “I said in my heart, Come now, I will try thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also was vanity.” (Ch. 2)
Next, in other passages those two modern rabbis hear the toiler opining on his view of the purpose of existence. But that is dismissed in chapter 2: “I looked at all the works that my hands had wrought, and at the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”
They also hear in the book the voice of the wisdom, the wise one, expressing insight into life’s purpose. But at the outset Kohelet summarily dismisses the value of wisdom: “And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ch 1)
And finally, they hear the God-fearer — a voice proclaiming his angle of vision on life’s meaning.
But time and again Kohelet ridicules that angle of vision too, as in this passage likening the fate of humans and beasts: “I said in my heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked … that that which befalls the sons of men befalls the beasts; even one thing befalls them both: as the one dies, so the other dies; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man has no preeminence over a beast: for all is vanity.” (Ch. 4)
You can see from these examples (and others repeated many times over in the scroll) how Kohelet may not provide a satisfying answer to the meaning of life. Many aspects of the book pop out to the reader as dismissive and sarcastic attacks on ways of life, not as a thoughtful philosophical observation.
The scroll verges on insulting the value of the life endeavors of many kinds of people. It is not surprising, then, that some rabbis wanted to prevent the scroll from entering the canon.
My one main positive discovery upon rereading the work was that I found cues in this book for a few rudimentary meditations and visualizations. One of those contemplative passages was made into a song lyric by Pete Seeger and was popularized by the singing group the Byrds in 1965 as the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
“To everything (turn, turn, turn) / There is a season (turn, turn, turn) / And a time to every purpose, under heaven.” (Ch.3)
I reflected on the idea of the meditative qualities of some of the passages and concluded finally that the compiler-editor of Kohelet wanted not to show the value of meditation, but rather to expose the fruitlessness — the vanity — of a meditative approach to life.
Overall, I found on my latest foray into Kohelet that it appears to be a superficial caricature of several archetypes of people — all of whom the compiler of the book decided from the outset to deride and dismiss. The hedonist pleasure seeker; the materialist toiling at work, career, or profession; the academic, student, scholar, writer, thinker; and even the God-fearer, chasid, righteous person. And the first to be dismissed is the meditator, seeking to reach a state of compassion and joy and achieve a better affective mode of consciousness.
Nevertheless, like the Monty Python movie that I cited above, this book ends with an epilogue in which the narrator opens “an envelope” and reads from it the words we were waiting for all along:
“The end of the matter, all is said and done: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for that is the whole duty of man.” (End of chapter 12)
Indeed, that’s the end of the matter, after all has been considered. I wondered then how to answer your query after consulting anew the (now to me more than ever before) puzzling book of Kohelet.
And so here it is, my reply, contrary to Kohelet (and contrary to Monty Python). You can find life’s meaning in many ways — in a pleasure-seeking hedonist life, in a hard-working materialist life, in an inquisitive critical academic life, in a pious God-fearing life, and in a contemplative meditative life.
My advice: Be here and now in every case — be firmly present in your immediate life — whichever path that is — that is the first part of my answer to your inquiry.
And for me (and for you too, if you choose) beyond all that, I seek out another element — namely the opportunity to find some new insight each day in the life that I have chosen. I call this the sheer joy of hiddush — of discovering the novel interpretation, a new way of living the life that I have.
(And by the way, for me this means that once a month I have sought to publish some words describing fresh perspectives on Jewish thought and life, in this Jewish Standard column of talmudic advice.)
That’s my answer for you, based in a new examination (and questioning) of the wisdom of the past. It is what I have to say today about the meaning of life.
To conclude with my wish for this year: Let’s all try to avoid sarcasm and cynical dismissals. Let’s be sincere, and let’s have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019, living fully in the meaningful lives that we have chosen.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic reasoning and wisdom. The author aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find the column here usually on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to email@example.com
Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has published numerous books and articles about Judaism and Jewish law. He’s working now on a genuine study of Kohelet’s caricatures and sarcasms. He has been a professor of world religions, Talmud, Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, Near Eastern studies, and Jewish studies at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Visit www.tzvee.com for more details.