Nicolae Tanase: Dr. Levin, what is the meaning of life?
Jeff Levin: What is the meaning of life? That is the sort of question that brings to mind the stereotypical spiritual seeker trekking up a mountain in Tibet to enter a great temple and sit at the feet of a wise guru. For Judaism, the religion of the Jewish people, our sitting-at-the-feet-of-a-guru-on-a-mountaintop advice is found in the words of one of the most beloved texts of the rabbinic canon. It is the closest thing that I know of, as a semi-informed Jewish layperson, to an answer for us to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Its guidance is especially resonant for a people socialized to a religion whose normative expression is focused more on praxis than on creed.
This text is Pirke Avot, a document constructed from the five chapters of the Mishnaic tractate Avot plus a baraita, or extracanonical text, known as Kinyan Torah. My two favorite pasukim, or verses, in the whole of the rabbinic literature are found here. Rabbi Shimon the Righteous tells us, “Upon three things the world stands” (P.A. 1:2), as in a three-legged stool. These three things are torah (learning), avodah (worship or service to God), and g’milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). Later on, another Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rabbi Gamliel, also tells us that the world stands upon three things (P.A. 1:18), but they are a different set of three things: din (one of the words for justice), emet (truth), and shalom (peace). How can this be? How can there be two entirely separate “three things” upon which the world stands?
The fact is they are not separate. The first set of three things could be thought of as our divine mission, the second set as its idealized result. If we pursue learning, there will be truth. If we are steadfast in worship and service to God, there will be peace. And if we pursue righteous acts, there will be justice. The first three things are how each of us can love God, the second three things are the consequences for humankind. How we live out our faith, as Jews or otherwise, matters—not just for the course of our life, or the fate of our soul, but for the destiny of this planet and of the sentient beings with whom we commune and share fellowship.
The purpose of life, then, is to earnestly pursue truth and peace and justice, using all of our cognitive and emotional resources and through our behavior, personal and interpersonal. I suspect that most of us, Jewish or gentile, already recognize this intuitively. Moreover, in the Torah we are told that to fulfill our covenant with God we must do so with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might (Deut. 6:5), words that Jesus later recapitulates for Christians (Luke 10:27). Through a dedicated effort to utilize the entirety of what and who we are as human reflections of God in service to divinely given ideals that bless the lives of other sentient beings, we meet our obligations to the One who gave us life. That is why we are here.
~Jeff Levin, PhD, an epidemiologist and religious scholar, holds a distinguished chair at Baylor University, where he is University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health, Professor of Medical Humanities, and Director of the Program on Religion and Population Health at the Institute for Studies of Religion. He also serves as Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, and as an Affiliated Member of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. He is author or editor of over 200 publications, including 10 books, the latest of which is Upon These Three Things: Jewish Perspectives on Loving God.
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