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The Good Life

What defines the good life?

It all depends upon who you ask.

Aristotle believed the good life consists of the pursuit of the greatest virtues for which human beings were created, using our most distinctive trait: our ability to reason.

Confucius believed the good life consists of the pursuit of happiness and the fulfillment of our desires balanced and restrained by our ethics and our moral innocence.

Siddharta Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, believed the good life consists of releasing ourselves from the illusory attachments and grasping desires that bring us nothing but suffering.

As the yearly Torah reading cycle comes once again to the end of Jacob’s life – one that by his own admission was extremely difficult – we might ask what Judaism has to say about the good life and whether Jacob pursued it.

Rooted as it is in the Bible, Judaism up to the time of the great medieval Jewish philosophers mostly avoided asking questions about the good life in direct, explicit ways. The Tanakh and later rabbinic writings generally teach indirectly about the pursuit of the good life, through the media of stories, laws and poetry.

However, there are select texts within the sprawling Jewish tradition that ask the big questions about life’s purpose and the good life in more formal ways.

Let’s consider one of the most interesting of these texts, which is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b.  The setting for this story is an ongoing argument between the two great schools of early rabbinic learning in the land of Israel, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai:

For two and a half years, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed.

One school held that it would have been preferable for humanity not to have been created than to have been created.

The other school held that it was preferable for humanity to have been created than not to have been created.

Ultimately, both schools agreed that it would have been preferable for humanity not to have been created in the first place.

However, now that humanity exists, every person should examine his past actions and seek to correct them.

Others say that now that humanity exists, every person should scrutinize his future actions and evaluate whether and in what manner those actions should be performed, so that he will not sin.  (Translation, with author’s modfications, from Sefaria.)

This is a rare philosophical passage in Talmudic literature, which usually speaks in the language of law and exegesis. Using the classic framework of a Hillel-Shammai debate in which the two schools surprisingly agree, this story conveys quite a dark message about the good life. In theory, trying to figure out the purpose – the good life – for which we should strive is meaningless, because it would have been better for God not to have created us at all. However, this dark message is redeemed by a dose of traditional Jewish realism. The fact is, whatever reason God had, we are here. Since human beings exist, the good life we should pursue consists of examining our past and future deeds to learn from our mistakes and trying to be better going forward. In other words, the good life is simply about trying to be good by doing good.

This teaching is clarified by another rabbinic teaching from the midrashic collection, Genesis Rabbah, a fifth century anthology of ancient rabbinic sermons arranged according to the weekly Torah portions of Genesis.  There we read the following intriguing legend about an argument in heaven about the worth of human beings:

Rabbi Simon taught: When God was about to create the first human, the ‎ministering angels formed themselves into factions and groups.

Some of them said: “Let him be created.” Some of them said: Let him not be created.”

The angel, Lovingkindness said, “Let him be created because he will perform acts of loving ‎kindness.”‎

The angel, Truth said, “Let him not be created because he will be all falsehood.”

The angel, Justice ‎said, “Let him be created because he will do deeds of justice.”

The angel, Peace said, “Let him ‎not be created because he will be all conflict.”

What did God do? God took Truth and cast him to the ground.

The ministering angels said to God: “Master of the Universe: Why do You humiliate Your chief of staff? Lift Truth up from the earth!”

Rabbi Huna the elder of the city of Tzippori said: “While the ministering angels were debating ‎each other, and conferring with each other, God made the human and ‎said to them: “What are you debating? The human being has already been created!”‎ (Genesis Rabbah 8:5)

My teacher Rabbi Burton Visotzky explains that these ministering angels are symbols of four conflicting values that reside “within” God and the world. The storyteller turns them into “arguing” angels as a concrete demonstration of the agonizing complexity and moral ambiguity of the human condition. The four angelic counselors face off in stark opposition: “God, create these humans and you will have Your hands full of their violence and lies.” Or, “God, these humans will have the potential to act with justice and compassion. It is worth it to create them.”

Rabbi Visotzky points out that this story, like the many rabbinic stories comparing God to a king, takes a veiled poke at the leaders of the Roman empire, whose reputations were familiar to the Jews of Greco-Roman Palestine, where this legend originated. Emperors and governors would officially take counsel with their appointed advisors, but it was the worst- kept secret of the empire that these advisors’ roles were a sham. Roman leaders, emperors especially, saw themselves as gods. They worked alone and never took advice from anyone. The Sages’ point was to show how the real Emperor, God, truly works alone. Notwithstanding all of the angels’ vociferous advice for and against creating people, God, the one true Ruler, had already planned to create us, and was so committed to humanity that God even ignored Truth’s pleading about our truest nature.

Yet why had God already planned to do this, knowing ahead of time about human beings’ capacity to do as much evil as good? Implicit in God’s response to the angels, especially the angel, Truth, is another great truth. Like parents who take the risk of bringing a child into the world, not knowing how that child will grow up, God’s love for human beings led to a divine leap of faith founded upon that love. From the most cynical human perspective, our being here might appear to have no purpose, especially when we as a species do the terrible things that we do. Once we’re here, however, we might as well live the good life by doing the best we can, notwithstanding our equal capacity for mercy and monstrousness. Yet from God’s perspective, we humans possess enough potential to be truly great, that God was willing to create us, love us and continue to sustain us. Perhaps these texts are telling us that the good life is about us responding to God’s infinite love for us by living in ways that would make God proud, in the divine knowledge that God’s leap of love and faith was not in vain. Imitating God, we in turn learn to love each other, and to patiently have faith in each other’s ability to do good and to do better.

So, ending as we began, we inquire again: what defines the good life?

It all depends upon who you ask.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. https://jps.org/books/cain-vs-abel/)
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