Jewish Journal

One woman’s search for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything

Why are we here?

by Amy Klein

Posted on Sep. 21, 2006 at 8:00 pm

"Why are we here? What's life all about?/Is God really real, or is there some doubt? Well, tonight, we're going to sort it all out,/For, tonight, it's 'The Meaning of Life.' What's the point of all this hoax?/Is it the chicken and the egg time? Are we just yolks? Or, perhaps, we're just one of God's little jokes./Well, ça c'est le 'Meaning of Life.'" -- From "Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life."

"Why are we here?"
It's a hot summer morning in August and I'm sitting in the office with my two editors.
"You told me to come in today so we can talk about the High Holidays," I say. "No," one of my editors says, "Why are we here?"
I look at her out of the corner of my eye, pretending to take notes. Is she having a nervous breakdown? I know the job is stressful around the holidays, but ... no, wait, she's trying to outline a story idea:
"This year in particular, with all the terrible things going on in the world -- Israel and Lebanon, Darfur, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, five years since the World Trade Center -- how do people deal with everything? 'What is the meaning of it all?'"
"Forty-two," I want to say, but I don't, because they probably wouldn't get it if they haven't read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series. If they had, they'd know that 42 is the answer to "the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything," provided after 7.5 million years by the supercomputer Deep Thought, which was created for just this purpose. The problem is, the protagonists have to go back to find the ultimate question to which 42 is the answer.
My editor interrupts my thoughts. What if I were to embark on a quest, she prods, talk to rabbis and philosophers and regular people to find out what they are thinking. "With the High Holidays approaching, I just want to know," she says, "what is the meaning of life?"
shofar Quite frankly, I'm probably one of the last people on earth who should be investigating questions such as "Why are we here?" and "What is the meaning of life?" See, I've given up.
I was a student of these issues for most of my life. After all, what is Orthodox Judaism -- all of Judaism -- if not the blueprint for how to live your life? The Torah, the Talmud, the teachings of the rabbis for the last four millennia have been concerned with those very questions: How should man live his life?
I had been schooled in this from yeshiva kindergarten through high school, topped off by a year of seminary in Israel and peppered by summers in religious sleep-away camps ("A Sports Camp in a Torah Environment"). Even in college, I minored in philosophy. I dabbled in Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Locke, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida (nowadays I ask myself, can a 21-year-old really understand Dasein, existentialism and Nihilism?).
The point is, I cared. I read books like Rav Joseph B. Soleveitchik's "The Lonely Man of Faith," which I think was about the existential challenges of being a religious person, although it was so esoteric I'm not quite sure, and Milton Steinberg's "As a Driven Leaf," a fictional account of the first apostate in the Talmud, a book that had been deemed heretical, which made it an even more appealing must-read in the Modern Orthodox world.
As an English major I was also reading secular books, but at the time I was primarily fascinated by biography and history, such as Golda Meir's "My Life" and Natan Sharansky's "Fear No Evil" as well as all of Leon Uris' oeuvre, including "Exodus."
None of this is to say that I was any great scholar, because I wasn't; but I was intensely interested in all issues related to the meaning of life and my place in and purpose in the world -- so much so and to such a degree that a week after college I moved to Israel. This, I had decided, was where I could best fulfill my life's purpose as a Jew, within the Jewish community.
In Israel I worked for a man who believed he could revolutionize the country and its economy by creating a Free Trade Zone in Israel (don't ask, it's like nihilism). After more than three years, we failed. But I wasn't sure I cared anymore. I decided I was finished realizing other people's fantasies. I was tired of being told what to believe in anymore.
For the next four years I worked as a journalist, mostly covering Jerusalem, the city that really is the intersection of the world's three major religions, not to mention quite a few minor ones as well. I covered Jews, Muslims, Christians, Seventh-day Adventists and millennialists who were suspected of plotting to commit suicide in 2000 (they were deported).
I covered right-wing settlers accused of harassing Palestinians, I covered left-wing secular people staging illegal marches through the city on Shabbat. And I grew tired. I grew tired of all the conviction. It wasn't only that everyone was so sure of everything they believed in, it was the fact that they each believed their way was the only way. In the end it all started to blur.
Had I asked a rabbi or a philosopher, they might have told me that just because everyone believed their way was the right way didn't mean there is no one right way, but I wasn't consulting any of those people. I had come to a point in my life where I was done with the Big Questions. I was done with Asking Why. I was done with Politics, I was done with Religion; I was no longer going to worry about The Meaning of Life. I was going to start living it.
Which is why I might not be the best person to go searching for the meaning of life, because basically, I don't care that much.  
Maybe I'm like Jonah, the prophet whose book we read on Yom Kippur. God wanted Jonah to tell the citizens of Ninveh to repent or be destroyed. Jonah doesn't want to deliver this prophesy, so he runs away and gets on a boat, but the boat ends up in stormy waters because of him, so he jumps ship and is swallowed whole by a "big fish." After three days in the fish, Jonah repents for his disobedience, gets spit up, does his prophesy. The people repent, God, The Merciful One, is happy, and Jonah becomes a great prophet, his book read by thousands of Jews for thousands of years.
Now, sitting in my editor's office, I feel like Jonah before he repents; I have been asked to write about the meaning of life, and although I have been on hiatus from such ruminations for years, perhaps it is time to return to that quest. It is the perfect time to ask these questions, this being the month of Elul, when Jews ponder their lives, repent and prepare for the High Holidays.
Besides, I reason to myself, much in the way that Jonah might have reasoned with himself while in the whale's belly ("I can either stay in this stinky stomach eating fish and drinking seawater for the rest of my life, or tell a few thousand people to shape up..."), maybe I am the right person to do this investigation. After all, I have no stake in its answer, and therefore, I can be what reporters always strive to be but rarely ever are: objective. Call me the reluctant philosopher, in search of why.
If you Google "The meaning of life," do you know how many answers you'll find on the Internet? 119 million. (The World Wide Web is evidence of the fact that many, many people indeed lead meaningless and purposeless lives). Among those answers you will find many references to the Monty Python film, you will see many products and books advertised and you might find one strange guy named Eliezer S. Yudkowsky who has written a very long treatise on how man's purpose in life is to create great technology: "Our role in the cosmos is to become or create our successors."
Still, if anyone on the web is going to have the answer to the meaning of life, it's everyone; in other words, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written by users around the world:
"The question 'what is the meaning of life?' means different things to different people. The vagueness of the query is inherent in the word 'meaning', which opens the question to many interpretations, such as: 'What is the origin of life?' 'What is the nature of life (and of the universe in which we live)?' 'What is the significance of life?' 'What is valuable in life?' and 'What is the purpose of, or in, (one's) life?'"
Googling "The meaning of life" will also take you to Web sites on the Dalai Lama, who has written a book called... "The Meaning of Life," a collection of lectures on the Buddhist worldview, which espouses practicing nonviolence, engaging in altruism, and transforming consciousness. (Amazon Customers who bought the Dalai Lama's "The Meaning of Life," also viewed "The Meaning of Life," by E.D. Klemke, and "The Real Meaning of Life," by David Seaman.) It seems I am the only one in the world who is not reading about the Big Questions. Consider these titles in the business section: "How Full Is Your Bucket?" "10 Qualities of Charismatic People," "How to Get Anyone to do Anything," "The 8th Habit (of Highly Effective People)," "Who Moved My Cheese?" "Why Am I so Fat If I Moved My Cheese Into My Mouth?" (OK, I made that last one up.)
But if I'm going to look for answers, I might as well start at the very top, and way high on the charts of the self-help/religious/inspirational titles is the Rev. Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life." The book, subtitled, "What on Earth Am I Here For?" has sold 20 million copies worldwide. Here's how it begins:
"It's not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind or even your happiness. It's far greater than your family, your career or even your wildest dreams and ambitions."
We were placed on this planet by God, for his purpose, writes Warren, who has a network of tens of thousands of churches from 160 countries and has trained more than 350,000 pastors worldwide.
"You won't discover your life's meaning by looking in yourself," he writes. "You must begin with God, your creator."
If I'm going to begin with God, I might as well start with my own, the "I-am-the-Lord-your-God-who-took-you-out-of-Egpyt-You-Shall-Have-No-Other-Gods-but-Me" God.
Hundreds of books throughout the ages discuss the meaning of life. For golden oldies, see Maimonides' (1138-1204) "Guide to the Perplexed," Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto's (1707-1746) "The Path of the Just" and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's (1934-1983) "If You Were God," a simple parable offering you the chance to be God in order to understand that there is no way to do things differently.
The 20th century saw the advent of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, and entire new schools of thought and thinkers. Here's a few I got my hands on: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's "God in Search of Man: A philosophy of Judaism"; Martin Buber's "I and Thou"; Rabbi Elliot Dorff's "To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics"; "In God's Mirror"; Rabbi Irwin Kula's "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life"; Rabbi Harold S. Kushner's "Overcoming Life's Disappointments"; and Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning." (See page 29.)
OK, to be honest, I'm not going to actually read all these books. I'm guessing many of them espouse different theories on the basic tenets of Judaism, how we were created by God to do mitzvot, to make ourselves and our communities and the world a better place and be a light onto the nations. Even though I'm looking for the meaning of life, I've really only got a few weeks.  
So, instead, I decided to put the word out.
I contact my friend Lori Gottlieb, a writer and NPR commentator who had a baby on her own last year. I figured she might have some insight into the meaning of life, on how it was all purposeless and directionless until she had her baby, and how she believes that "children are the future/teach them well and let them lead the way/show them all the beauty they possess inside..." oh, no, wait, that's Whitney Houston.
But all Lori said in an e-mail was, "meaning? You mean this life's supposed to mean something?" Not coincidentally, that was the same response I got from my friend Ruthie Ellenson, daughter of Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is editor of "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" (talk about meaning).
But maybe their irreverent response suggests, as tradition says, that women are on such a higher plane they don't have time for such narishkeit -- such foolishness -- as philosophy. Busy people rarely do. But then, maybe their answers also are a reflection of my choice in friends.
Obviously, I had to reach beyond my immediate circle, so I began sending out e-mails, asking community leaders around the city to share their thoughts:

  • Marc Firestone, from Aish Hatorah, responded, "When I take my little kids to the beach, they often want to build sandcastles. I've always had a slight resistance to this activity. I think the reason is that everything (but the memory) will be gone by the next tide. I really do like to be involved with activities having more permanent results. It is true that the act of spending my time doing what a small child needs will chip away at my naturally self-centered nature -- this small personal change will endure." As an observant Jew, he added, "I think life is about refining my soul/body to have a deeper relationship with my Tatty in Heaven -- forever."
  • Mark Parades, director of Jewish relations for the Mormon Church in Southern California, wrote that one of the most popular Mormon maxims is, "Men [and women] are, that they might have joy": "God, our loving Parent, put us here on earth not only to learn lessons in life's school of hard knocks, but to enjoy life in the company of friends and family. We all lived together as one big heavenly family before passing through the veil and being assigned to a variety of nations, eras, and circumstances. Our ultimate goal is to live our lives in such a way that we can pass though the veil in the opposite direction and high-five our ancestors who are waiting to welcome us home."
  • Rabbi Zoë Klein of Temple Isaiah believes that the meaning of life is to be God's mirror. She tells a story of how before God created the world, he had to realize He existed. God realized "I am!" and then wondered, "I am what?" God created us as the "what," she wrote. "We are made in God's image so that God may learn about Godself. In that way, we are God's mirror. God looks at us, and sees Godself," she says. "Whenever we fix something, heal someone, embrace someone, we are fixing, healing, and embracing God. Whenever we feel sad, lonely, or insignificant, we must remember that we are here because God needs us; God doesn't know Godself without us! We are God's mirror."
  • Ron Wolfshon, president of Synagogue 3000, has just written "God's To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God's Work on Earth." (Jewish Lights, 2007). He summed his message for me: "Every human being is 'made in the image of God.' Judaism interprets this to mean that each of us has a 'spark of divinity' in us that enables us to emulate God's ways. Acting on our God-given talents to 'be an angel' and do God's work gives our lives meaning and purpose. This is the Jewish answer to Rick Warren's question: 'What on earth am I here for?' Judaism says: 'We're on earth to be God's partner in the ongoing work of creation and repair....'"
  • Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Westwood, also referenced a section of "The Hitchhiker's Guide," and then said in an email, "Our task, through the remarkably various and proliferating paths that life offers, is to take what we were given, polish our souls, burnish them, grow them through failure, through joy, through love, through learning and return them to God deeper and a bit wiser than they were at birth."
  • Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, Rosh Kehilla of Yavneh, said, "You are here because God realizes that the only way you will experience the greatest good is by working hard to overcome your obstacles. He gave you free will, with a desire for both good and for evil, and He gave you a soul to cheer you on and give you the strength to succeed."
  • Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, put it poetically: "We pass through life moment after moment. Moments of joy and sorrow to be shared with family and friends. Moments of quiet and solitude to contemplate the tiny miracles of the world around us. Moments of compassion and concern to imbue our lives with ultimate meaning. Rosh Hashanah is the annual scenic overlook of the moments of our lives. Which moments do we regret? Which moments do we savor? Which moments will we carry into the New Year?"
  • Rhoda Weisman Uziel, the executive Director of the Professional Leaders Project and a good friend, told me in a phone conversation that she thinks about the subject every day: "I spend my time doing things that are meaningful, caring about others, trying to become a better person, more giving. I think it's constantly about giving and receiving and creating. That's it. That's the whole secret."
  • David Suissa, advertising guru and founder of Olam magazine, talked about his children, but when first asked about the meaning of life said, "I have no idea. And I think about it a lot. What does humanity mean? It's not even knowing the meaning of life, but just thinking about the meaning of life that helps pick you up when you're down."

Perhaps the real question wasn't, "What is the meaning of life?" but why is it important to know the meaning of life? I went to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who is not exactly my rabbi, but one of the rabbis I consult for informational, rather than halachic, purposes.
"It's crucially important for me to have meaning in life," he said. "I need that meaning; I want to know what I'm doing; I hate doing things on autopilot, or thinking of myself as a creature of habit, hormones or history," he said. He insists on doing something by choice, things that have real meaning. This is what has allowed Jews who were hated, who were living in poverty, to survive thousands of years, Adlerstein said. "[The Jew] did not choose to opt out, because he saw himself as a private person able to affect the cosmos by his mitzvot."
Man's purpose in life, Alderstein said, was best summed up by Luzzatto's, "The Path of the Just." Basically, as I understood Adlerstein's summary, God created the world in order to bestow his goodness on man, and the purpose of life is to allow human beings to achieve the ultimate happiness and perfection by merging with God. We all have roles as individuals in which we have to maximize our potential, to do something not just for ourselves, but for our community.
And perhaps the answer is as simple as that: Judaism is the meaning and purpose of life.
"I think all of Judaism is based on that," says Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom. "It seems to me this is the heart and soul of the tradition. Am I here simply as a robot doing the will of God, or do I exercise the freedom of my will to make important choices to change the character of the universe?"
For Schulweis, who is also the founder of the Jewish World Watch, a campaign to end genocide around the world whose current focus is the crisis in Darfur, the purpose of man is to repair the world and shape history so it reflects the highest ideals of godliness. Schulweis will be speaking about man's purpose in life and the achievement of happiness on Yom Kippur.
"In Judaism, the key in everything is meaning," he told me. Every religion, every country, every "-ism" has a meaning and purpose, he said. "People cannot live without meaning and purpose," he said. "They go crazy."
Speaking of crazy, I'm embarrassed to admit in the face of such great rabbis and thinkers that I gleaned the most understanding from a psychotherapist; not mine, just an erudite gentleman I cornered at a party, casually asking him about the meaning of life.
"In psychotherapy, the meaning of life is very much important because without meaning there can be depression," said Martin Novelle, a marriage and family therapist, echoing Schulweis' explanation. Connection, he said, is the key to life. "Religion is how you connect with God, and in this world, with love and career and family and friends. When those connections have no meaning, alienation and distance and ennui set in. Depression takes hold and isolation begins. So without meaning, it almost creates a jail cell within."
You cannot care, he said, if there's no meaning.
What he said next threw me for a loop: "It could be relationships with animate and inanimate objects. Art could be speaking to you -- that inanimate painting or page leaps out and creates meaning within you; it becomes a secondary dialogue between the reader and artist."
Eureka! It's not that I don't care about finding the meaning of life, it's just that what I've been taught no longer holds meaning for me.
Consider these last seven years of my life: I left Israel, left New York, left Orthodoxy, left the Orthodox community. I've left, in a way, everything I was raised to believe in, everything I once believed in, everything I was used to, everything I ever knew. If that's not a crisis of meaning, I don't know what is. On the other hand, working in the Jewish Community, living in California, the spiritual capital of the Western World, I've expanded my horizons. I've learned about all different branches of Judaism, about different holistic approaches to life. I took up running, practice yoga, visit an acupuncturist, and am trying -- desperately and pathetically trying, despite all signs of failure -- to learn how to surf.
Most importantly I went back to school to earn my master's in creative writing. There I found a new community of writers, of people interested in the same subjects I am interested in, who are willing to stay up late into the night talking about the purpose of dialogue and setting and scene the way I once pondered the meaning of "Life, the Universe and Everything."
I've started reading books like "The Artist's Way," which counsel things like: "I am a channel for God's creativity, and my work comes to good," and "I am willing to let God create through me."
I've started going to lectures again, finally able to find a subject that interests me. I've begun teaching English, leading workshops, going to all sorts of literary events around the city.
In short, I have found meaning in my life again.
Are you disappointed?
Are you sorry that this story hasn't ended with my return to the religion of my forefathers?
Or finding a different branch of Judaism that speaks to me?
Perhaps that will be one of the endings of my story, but not the ending to this story.
You see, I have come to recognize, in part through this search, that I have found, for now, something that is meaningful to me, something that gives me purpose in life. If some people say this purpose is selfish or silly or not meaningful, well, I suppose I can say only this is my life, and I'm the only one who can really say what is meaningful about it.
Really, I'm sorry I haven't given you the meaning of your life. Did you honestly expect me to?
Maybe some people would say you should join a synagogue, or start a family -- or start spending more time with the family you already have; that you need to love your job a little bit more -- or a little bit less -- or to find a job that you really do love, no matter what it pays.
Or that you need to stop spending so much money, or stop spending so much on the things you don't care about, or to start spending money on yourself, to spend time alone, or with loved ones.
See the thing is: How should I know what you need to do? I'm not a rabbi or a philosopher or even a self-help guru who has sold millions of books. To paraphrase a song lyric -- and I always seem to find inordinate amounts of meaning in songs -- "I'm just another writer/still trapped within my truths..."
What I'm trying to say is this: There is, in a sense, no conclusion to this story. I can't tell you the meaning of life. My life or yours.
The only thing I can tell you is that it's important to look for meaning in your life.
But it's not the answer. It's only one answer. I think the one lesson I've learned from this thing called life is to beware of anyone who says he has the answer, and that there is just one.
Unless, of course, that answer is 42.
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