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Religion Library: Judaism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Marc A. Krell

The theological framework for linking human beings with God and each other is the covenant. Whereas Jews have a particular covenant with God as the children of Israel, the rest of humanity is perceived to have a universal covenant associated with the children of Noah. According to classical rabbinic Judaism, this notion of covenant first binds Jews to God because of the assumption that human beings represent the pinnacle of creation and are indebted to their creator.

The rabbis attributed a dual nature to human beings and placed them between earthly and heavenly creatures in the hierarchy of being. They are unlike heavenly creatures whose bodies and souls are both divine, and they are also unlike earthly creatures whose bodies and souls come from the earth. Instead, human beings are the only creatures whose souls are from heaven and whose bodies are from earth. Subsequently, if Jews obey God's commandments, then they act as heavenly creatures, and if not, they act like the creatures below them.

Since human beings were created with free will, God gives them the choice of pursuing "life and prosperity" or "death and adversity," ultimately enjoining them to choose life (Deut. 30:15, 19). Moreover, God entices Israel to observe the commandments, because they will lead to the following three results: they will become godly; God will raise them up above all the nations as God's "Am Segulah," treasured or Chosen people; and they will fulfill God's "holy mission" of being an "or lagoyim," a light unto the nations. Yet holiness is not an inherent status, but fully conditional upon observance of the commandments. Jews are actually required by God to become holy through observance of the commandments, especially by emulating God who "upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing" (Deut. 10:19). For the rabbis, the ultimate purpose of human existence was to praise God as the creator of the universe and to engage in imitatio dei, imitating God.

Observing commandments leads Jews to:
1. become godly
2. be raised up as God’s chosen people (Am segulah)
3. become a light to the nations (Or lagoyim)

However, while the rabbinic Jew was entirely theocentric, Jews in the modern period became much more self-assertive about their role in the covenant based on western Enlightenment notions of self-consciousness and autonomy, at times even supplanting God with human supremacy. Ironically, following the Holocaust—considered by many theologians to be the diabolical culmination of human self-assertiveness in history with Hitler—Jews and Christians, because of their historical sibling rivalry over who is God's favorite child, have both been called to assume greater responsibility in preserving their own related covenants and facilitating the work of redemption.


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