Thursday, March 06, 2008

Nobody Really Believes

(It's been a while since I've written one for the skeptics, the atheists and my other irreligious friends...enjoy.)

I don't think it's possible to really believe and remain religious. Here is why: At least in our religion, we come to the conclusion that there is going to be a Messiah, after which there will be a period where knowledge of God fills the world and then Acharit HaYamim, or the end of days. After this point, considering that we have fulfilled our purpose- we have become these good, transcendent people who realize that God exists and who act with that knowledge- the world no longer has a purpose. And therefore the world cannot be. What happens then I cannot know, but it has always seemed to me that this world would just end and that God would create another one.

This is a major part of the reason that I have never wanted the Messiah as I should. I don't want that ending. It's not so much that I don't want to exist as that I love the world too much for it to all disappear. The thought of that frustrates me, frightens me, makes me angry.

So you know what this means? It means that nobody really believes. We don't believe that we'll ever get to that place, to that point in time where there is a Messiah here and we are living in an earth filled with knowledge of God and the world's purpose has been fulfilled. Either nobody really believes or those who do believe are working for their own destruction.

Because to bring the world closer to fulfilling its purpose is to bring it, and ourselves, one step closer to our destruction. And even if it is for a good cause, or because we are whole, or complete, or otherwise sated, man does not work for his own destruction. We are selfish creatures. We cling to our selfish nature. It is impossible that man would work simply for his own destruction.

And so none of us, none, truly believe! To believe is to be unselfish, to want what God wants more than what you want. To not care if you exist, and to not care if the world exists, if God doesn't want it to anymore. To believe is to accept and allow for things to end. And those of us who are in any way human, or possessed by selfishness, therefore cannot believe...

And so we work for a better world because we do not think we are going to get one. We have the ability to try to better the world or help people because we don't actually think we're going to get there; we are always going to have to contend with what's wrong or negative or impossible, and people's natures will always lead them to do bad things. And that's what we're fighting against- we're just trying to make it a little bit less. But we don't really think that means it's all going to disappear one day. We could not want to advance or further or make things better if we really believed- because our own selves, our own egos, our desire to further the development and growth of our species, of everything that we are- would get in the way.

Unless there is truly such a thing as an unselfish person- but I think that is impossible. For why would such a person live at all? Recall that desire is necessary even to awaken in the morning...

Or as the Devil says in The Brothers Karamazov:

"Well, they've chosen their scapegoat; they've made me write the column of criticism and so life has been made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there'd be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events. So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy."

The Devil must exist and we don't want to let him go! How can anyone really believe? It is an impossibility! People do not work for their own destruction! I cannot work for mine...

This is a damning thought and I hate it but it nevertheless rings as true. We work for what is better, for what is pure, for what is right...precisely because we do not believe that it can actually happen. We do not see a real world in which all men understand and live in the knowledge of God, which is why we strive so hard to make it a little bit better here...but never completely! O God, what a mockery! What a sham! We cannot stand the idea that it might all be better and that all might be perfect, that men might be truly moral, well-behaved creatures- and you know why? Because that means it's the end! It is done, finished, its purpose complete...and it exists no more, and we exist no more, and we care about ourselves more than the ideal. In the end, we do! We are human and we care for ourselves...


Anonymous said...

The Messianic Age
When the messiah does come, he will inaugurate the messianic age (sometimes called the Olam Ha-Ba, World to Come). The Tanakh employs the following descriptions about this period:

Peace among all nations (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)
Perfect harmony and abundance in nature (Isaiah 11:6-9) (but some interpret this as an allegory for peace and prosperity)
All Jews return from exile to Israel (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5)
Universal acceptance of the Jewish God and Jewish religion (Isaiah 2:3; 11:10; 66:23; Micah 4:2-3; Zechariah 14:9)
No sin or evil; all Israel will obey the commandments (Zephaniah 3:13; Ezekiel 37:24)
Reinstatement of the Temple (Ezekiel 37:26-27)

Yair said...

There was a time I would have agreed with this post.

But I have since found upon further research that this attitude reflects a much more simplistic, unconsidered view of our tradition's view of the messianic age - it's one you'd find in contemporary world-rejecting haredi literature, and taught in their yeshivot - they see no value in this world and its peoples, and so would soon see it "end". But this is not what traditional Judaism, which had a lot more respect for the world itself, all God's creations within it, and their potential, to think such a thing. The messianic age, in my eyes, will be very different from what you describe.

I find the idea that all progress, rejoicing in people and God, discovery and wonder suddenly ending - as opposed to flowering in beautiful, unthinkable, unimaginable and unexpected ways - in the Messianic era, to be a failure of our own imagination. A world in which the underlying assumptions of people have changed, in which they understand the purpose of the world and the value in each other, would be one of limitless possibilities. That we have never lived in anything close to such a world is why we cannot truly conceive it. Such an age would usher in completely unparalleled growth in its newfound sense of direction and purpose. We would know where we want to go, and have eliminated those petty interpersonal and societal vices preventing us from getting there. There would be no cap on our potential, no fetters on our creativity.

I'm pretty sure this is what R' Aharon Lichtenstein calls "societal beatitude" and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also sees as where we are heading.

Also, the Rambam (and others) just thinks that the messianic age will be when the Jews are returned to their Temple and land in peace, and are able then to fulfill their spiritual purpose to the world, and continue on their path to God (end of persecution = start to true religious speculation).

Good, thought-provoking post, as always.

Anonymous said...

Be careful in differentiating between what you THINK is the future of jews after moshiach, and what may actually be fact. It's a nice throw-away idea, but you have no idea as to its accuracy (despite the authorotative way that you present it as fact).

Oh and nice ode to your newlyengaged friends in the post below.

SemGirl said...

Chana dear, Im very surprised at this post. I always look up to you, because you present your shiurim and learning so clearly and illuciate concepts well.

First of all if you learned Perek Chelek in Sanhedrin you would see that what you are saying is clearly not the case There is a very argument between the Rambam and the Raavad (H Melochim 12:10) where the Rambam describes what the order of things will be after the Messiah comes, to which the Raavad takes strong exception and calls the Rambam a tipish (a fool) for discussing it, and says no one knows for sure what will happen when, and it is sheer folly to discuss it as it doesnt bring one to more yiras shomayim.

If you are interested see the Rabeinu Bechaya in the end of Bemidbar who goes thru all of the matters you discussed in great detail.

Anonymous said...


SemGirl said...

anonymous, thats right lol... Scraps has met me, if you have any doubts..

Jack Steiner said...

I don't want that ending. It's not so much that I don't want to exist as that I love the world too much for it to all disappear. The thought of that frustrates me, frightens me, makes me angry.

That is a good summation. I have similar feelings.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I find this to be a bizarre description of the purpose of the world: "After this point, considering that we have fulfilled our purpose- we have become these good, transcendent people who realize that God exists and who act with that knowledge- the world no longer has a purpose. And therefore the world cannot be."

I hate to say it, but this seems strange on several levels. Who said the goal of our world is to achieve a certain marked goal of being "good, transcendent people," and then we're done? Where does this notion come from?

Besides which, if the purpose of this world is the glorification and elevation of all that is good, just, righteous, and holy, then how could that purpose ever be fulfilled and done with? Seems very goal-oriented to me. Life isn't a video game.

Chana said...

Anonymous 11:53,

I was thinking of it as mirroring our lives. Each person, theoretically, has his own tafkid or task; he accomplishes it and then his life has no purpose any longer, thus he dies. It seems logical that it would be the same with the world- the world reaches a state of perfection, or as much as it can handle i.e. knowledge of God everywhere- so what would come next? In a way, that seems to be the purpose of the world, as it were, and once fulfilled, one would think the world ought to "die." But I am curious to know what you see as being the function or purpose of the world or how you would describe it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chana,

First of all, very sorry if I was a little too harsh in my last post. I shouldn't post on blogs at night when I'm tired.

I can't claim I know the ultimate purpose of the world's creation. But I can point to statements of Chazal implying that it is for the elevation of the spiritual and the Good/Righteousness that God represents to us, as you also indicated. In the way I see it, though, that isn't just a line that we cross, and then we're done. It's an ongoing state to be desired, and as long as we pursue that state, the world is fulfilling its purpose.

You might be right, though-- but I would still politely take issue with your overall gist. Let's say your analogy between the individual's tafkid and the world's is correct. I would still say that there can be a sense of good and meaning that transcends our physical sense of selfishness. (If we still wanted to put it into cynical terms, we could call it a spiritual selfishness, but I don't know that we have to.) That is, if I believe in the inherent meaning and value of truth, justice, and righteousness, I have achieved something spiritually great if I reach pinnacle of all of the above. I can sense that a glorification of these things transcends my physical being.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, your post reminds me of 'The end of history and the last man' of Francis Fukuyama. He too says that we all fight for a better world, but at the same time argues that this all perfect world will be boring and without purpose.

Although I can see why he (and you) feels that way, I don't agree.

We can't imagine what a world in that situation would look like. Through our biased eyes, that are used to a world of struggle and challenges, a world without having a tafkid or nisyonot would not make sense. I only hope, and believe, that one day we will reach the level on which we don't need those things to lead a fullfilling, happy life.