Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy
The Existential Blues
(First published on Aish.com on the 14th of November 2022).
Can you be too smart for your own good?
The influential literary critic Harold Bloom suggested that you can. If we consider the Western literary canon, we often consider Hamlet the quintessential overthinker. But actually, Bloom says, Hamlet’s big problem “is not that he thinks too much, but that he thinks too well. His is simply the most intelligent role ever written for the Western stage.” Why would intelligence make you anxious or miserable? Sure, being smart is no guarantee of success and happiness. But surely it doesn’t hurt? Maybe Hamlet’s intelligence lets him perceive some terrible reality that the rest of us are too dimwitted to see. That was certainly Nietzsche’s position. The truth is too terrible to bear, and life is short and often ends in pointless suffering. And morality is just something we made up to create meaning in an uncaring universe. In fact, there’s a long tradition associating intellectual acuity and refined feeling with misery and existential pain. As the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky pithily put it, “pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
Maybe all these thinkers have a point. Perhaps the truth is terrible, and the best way to muddle through is to try not to think about it too much. Ok, life is meaningless, but we can distract ourselves with whatever gives us a little joy before we meet our inevitable end.
Consider Dostoevsky’s best-known sentiment: “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” Great people do whatever it takes to achieve immortality - ethical niceties be damned - while the rest of us are doomed to lead lives of mediocrity, comforted by fairytales.
But nihilism isn’t the only option. There is another approach to counter the existential blues. Faith. A sense that the universe is more than cold atoms and mysterious quantum waves; a belief, an inner conviction, that morality is not a sentimental fiction.
But what is faith, at least in the Jewish tradition? Religious belief is often described, somewhat patronizingly, as an unerring source of comfort. As King Solomon put it: “I said I will be wise, but it is far from me. That which is, is far off and deep, exceedingly deep.” Even for the ardent believer, “man cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
Even for the wisest of all human beings, the essential nature of reality remains unknowable and unfathomable. Assailed by existential despair, Solomon intuited great mystery in the universe and felt great pain in not being able to grasp it.
And yet, there is release in surrendering to the mystery. “When all has been considered, revere God and keep His commandments.”
To be clear, surrender doesn’t mean paralysis, and sublimation doesn’t entail resignation. Judaism is not a tradition of passive reflection or robotic servitude. We are commanded to act.
In other words, Jewish faith is more than the mere rejection of the nihilist’s creed that “God is dead.” It is about actively working to embody the Living Torah, the blueprint of creation that contains the deepest secrets of existence. And we don’t simply bask in its reflected glory. We act on its precepts.
Belief in a redeemed world is one of the fundamental articles of Jewish faith. We know redemption is coming, but that doesn’t mean we drink the Kool-Aid and expect to wake up to a transformed reality.
Instead, we practice Tikkun Olam; we heal the broken parts of the world around us. We know we can never complete the job; perhaps we’d never bother to get started without our faith. Belief in the Divine can enrich these experiences and give purpose to our struggles and mundane realities.
But the Jewish way of life offers something more subtle. We are not simply guided by faith. Through our Divine service, through the good we sometimes achieve in making the world a better place, through prayer and Torah study and deep reflection, through dance and celebration and song, and especially through channeling these holy endeavors through the medium of community, occasionally, we get a spark of insight, a glimpse at something bigger than ourselves. We sense the Divine presence among us.
In classic Jewish dialectical fashion, it’s not simply that faith guides us but that our work produces a kind of transcendent joy, the stuff that faith is made of, a joy that ultimately animates all of creation.
So next time you encounter a melancholy prince of Denmark or a tortured artist or world-weary intellectual, consider inviting them over for a festive Friday night meal and some sweet challah. They might find that life isn’t so bad after all.