Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Meaning of Meaning

What is the meaning of life?

At one time or another, all thinking people grapple with a variant of this question. It is a dangerous and subversive question, in a sense; a question that causes one to seek, compels one to challenge, and tears one away from the spider-web of complacency. It is for this very reason that religion seeks to prevent its adherents from asking this question, and it does so by pretending it has the most compelling answer. It is unfortunate to me to see how, as Chasidim, we inculcate our young with the precarious notion that meaning is only to be found in God and religion. An obviously erroneous idea, but so powerful and appealing that once caught, like a virus, it is very difficult to shake.

I've never seen the logic in that claim. How is doing everything that an invisible and incomprehensible sky-monster commands somehow moral and meaningful? You are nothing more than a slave following the whims of his owner, toiling in fear of punishment and in hope of reward, and oh yeah, for the "love of thy master." Where is the morality? How is that the pinnacle of meaning?

"Subverting your desires," the adherents of this mind-numbing atrocity claim, "for the desires of God -- that is the very height of human achievement." How much more so, then, if instead of subverting our desires for the benefit of an imaginary being -- who, even according to believers, has no real needs or desires and can gain nothing from our meaningless actions -- we subvert them for the benefit of very real beings who have real needs and desires and have a tremendous amount to gain? How much more admirable that is! Expending energy placating an invisible bogeyman with ancient rituals doesn't seem especially moral to me. Instead, take away from the time and energy spent chasing your desires and go help the needy, visit the sick, feed the hungry, brighten the melancholy, take out the garbage, and save the world. That is true morality!

"Expressing ultimate fealty to your creator is the height of human accomplishment!" so goes an alternate version of the theory above. But why? Any creator sophisticated enough to create such an amazing machine can have no use for my stupid, vacuous and necessarily limited attempts at fealty. It can have no affect on Her! "It is for your own good, not for the creator's," the hangers-on will argue. How is this a laudable accomplishment, then? For my own good? That is pure selfishness! Fealty should be expressed -- even at the expense of your own comfort -- to humanity as a whole, and to specific humans in particular: friends, family, children, spouse, lover. That is a triumph of the human spirit!

From a very young age, our children are brainwashed to regard any human pursuit outside of Avodas Hashem (service to the Lord) as inherently meaningless. The filthy secular culture, we are repeatedly warned, is adrift in an abyss of purposeless pursuits and worthless endeavors. It is the way of ultimate meaninglessness, darkness, and futility. (Meaning, of course, but never quite mentioning, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.) Only God can add meaning to life.

The tragedy of this lie is not hard to see. What happens when someone fearlessly stares into the mouth of the abyss, and decides he likes it? Rock-and-roll is fun, drugs are pleasant, sex is divine. Never having acquired the skills to negotiate the minefield of self-destructive temptation and never having the chance to rethink the meaning of meaning, mindless hedonism, nihilism, guilt, depression, and aimlessness are his likely lot. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a cruel and terrible lie foisted on the unsuspecting and malleable minds of our youth.

The pure logic of "love others as you would yourself," an eminently reasonable rule once we realize we are all truly equal, is suddenly -- to those who never had the opportunity to think about it in this way -- lost when divorced of the idea of an enforcing deity. Any suggestion that altruism is also possible, nay, only truly possible without a belief in God and an ultimate reward will be met with a look of contempt and incredulousness. A suggestion that real meaning is derived by bringing happiness to other humans and not to Gods will garner the same reaction. Unconscionable!

But you know what? We don't need the promise of ultimate reward and the threat of ultimate punishment to bring meaning into our lives. Basking in the glow of an incomprehensible feminine Deity-figure (Shechinah) for all eternity is bound to get tedious anyway. I bet that after only, say, ten billion years one is bound to die of boredom. Even if, as rumor has it, Her skin never wrinkles. I'd rather take my chances and bask in the glow of a (sometimes) comprehensible feminine deity-figure in this world, not in the next.

And punishment? O Yahweh mighty son of El, whatever I may have done, I have nothing on you. The depths of your depravity is impossible to fathom with our puny human minds. Need I enumerate the destruction you have wrought on guiltless children throughout the ages? Plagues, drownings, burnings, impalements, the blood and guts of innocents. The commandments, proudly inscribed in your magnum opus, to murder and kill for any perceived slight against you. And you go around boasting about our father Abraham, who was all ready and eager to murder his own son on your command. You can rest assured that you'll never get me to do that! Kill? No thanks. You want him dead? Do it yourself, O omnipotent one!

So, in the end, what brings meaning to human life? Remember the golden rule. Do whatever you can to increase human knowledge, so you can leave the world in a better condition than the one you found it in. Be altruistic, so you'll be the cause of more happiness than the opposite. Help others, so you increase compassion in this world. Be selfless, so you, and others, can be content. And do it all without waiting for a bag of candies in the hereafter. Let the human spirit soar; it is the path to eternal bliss.

And what about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll? Of course. As long as you don't hurt someone -- or yourself. In the spirit of Purim, gather your associates and dance a little jig, gather round your family and knock back some drinks, and go have hot and passionate monkey-sex with your lover and best friend.

Simches Peerim