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The First Humanist – Shabbos Chol Hamoed

Today, I’d like to talk about humanism. Humanism is defined by the International Humanist and Ethical Union as: “…a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

Whereas in the pre-renaissance world, meaning and knowledge were defined by scripture, by G-d, in the humanistic era, the modern world we live in, knowledge is defined by personal experience. The humanistic world is one that celebrates the finding of one’s inner voice and personal truths. It’s a world that goes to great lengths to respect the personal truths of others. “My opinion is…” and “I believe X,Y, or Z,” whereas in the ancient world objective truths reigned supreme.

Yuval Noah Hariri, in his bestseller Homo Deus, gives the following example to distinguish between the world we live in today and the world that was. I apologize for the crudeness of the example, but it makes for a clarifying illustration.

Imagine a woman, let’s call her Elizabeth, living in a small town in England in the year 1300 engages in an extramarital affair. She would probably feel strong guilt and confusion. Who would she turn to to help guide her? The priest, of course. He would be well-versed in the Bible and he would tell Elizabeth exactly what she has to do; what type of repentance is necessary, and how to make amends. Lastly, he would tell Elizabeth exactly what would happen to her if she does not follow through; what her afterlife would look like.

If that same woman were living today, in 2018, in that same town, Elizabeth, or let’s call her Lizzy now, would also feel guilt and confusion for involving herself in an affair. However, Lizzy would not turn to her priest, she would most likely go to her therapist. The therapist would not call Lizzy a wicked woman, nor would he tell her that she is going to hell. Most likely, the therapist would have a single question for her, “How do you feel about what happened?”

And while it’s true the therapist may have his own bible of sorts, the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, he may have a type of therapy that he strongly identifies with, but at the end of the day, the most important belief that the therapist holds to is that only human feelings are authorized to determine the true meaning of human actions.

That is humanism. And that’s the world we live in today. Iphone, Itunes, and when they finally came up with a device called a Wii, they put two I’s in it. I am the center of my universe, you the center of yours. You give meaning to your life, I’ll give meaning to mine.

While most people trace the genesis of humanism to the early years of the renaissance, the early 14th century, I would argue that the very first humanist was actually none other than King Solomon. Or perhaps more accurately, he was the first to dabble in humanism. Today we read a book called Koheles, it is a book that has puzzled its readers from the day it was written. It was so controversial and complicated that it almost didn’t make it into the canon of Biblical books.

But it did. And its story is fascinating. The author describes a journey to try to find meaning in his life. He doesn’t look in the Torah, he doesn’t seek out the advice of the elders, and he doesn’t seek out a rabbi. He experiences the world. He experiences wealth, he experiences poverty, he experiences great pleasure, and he experiences asceticism. He’s a real 21st century meaning-seeker; tasting every flavor, trying to find his way.

But at times this journey gets pretty depressing. In Shlomo Hamelech’s attempt to create meaning, he more often than not, doesn’t find it. He gets rather nihilistic, repeatedly describing the world as empty and pointless, as hevel havalim. Even more significantly, he is confused.

I would suggest that the confusing nature of the book is perhaps deliberate, it’s illustrative of the lack of clarity involved in the humanistic philosophy. Because you see Lizzy’s next steps are pretty hard to navigate in 2018. In a humanistic world, we get married for love and love alone, there is no sacredness to marriage. The bond of marriage is created by feelings. And if that’s the case, what if the very same feelings that once drove Lizzy into the arms of one man now drive her into the arms of another? If one’s personal desires and needs are not met by one’s spouse and if the new man Lizzy meets is kind, passionate, and sensitive, and she loves him more… well, then, why not?

Now of course this doesn’t address the feelings of her current spouse. So what happens then, what happens when her good feelings collide with her spouse feeling quite bad – to the say the least. Who wins in the humanistic world?

This is not a joke. This is a matter of much debate among humanistic philosophers; do the amazingly good feelings of her and her new friend outweigh those of their current spouses? Do they outweigh the feelings of the children? Do good feelings always outweigh bad feelings? Do we decide based on how many people are involved?

This is the confusion of the humanistic code and this, I’ve come to believe, is the confusion that King Solomon was attempting to depict. And that’s what makes his conclusion so meaningful and powerful. After exploring his feelings, after searching for meaning, after trying to navigate his inner world and its relationship to others, King Solomon concludes his book with this: “Sof davar hakol nishma, At the end of day, everything is heard.” And what that means is that all of our actions, up to and including every word we say, it all has meaning. He drops his nihilism and speaks fondly of the impact of each person. But then,“Es ho’Elokim yira v’es mitzvosov shemor.” The only way to navigate the complexity of life, the constant moral challenges, the personal biases clouding our judgment, my good feelings against yours – “Fear G-d,” he says, “and keep His Mitzvos.” The only way to transcend the internal confusion; the pushes and pulls in all directions, the only way to navigate my needs and desires with your needs and your desires, that’s where G-d and that’s where the Mitzvos come in; Eternal truths from an Eternal being.

Humanists see the Torah as archaic, outdated, misogynist, and backward. King Solomon, a man who believed deeply in himself, in human reason and personal feelings, concluded that human reason is wonderful but also insufficient. Our lives are as meaningful as can be, Sof davar hakol nishma, everything is heard, we do make a difference, we’re important, autonomous beings, but the very first humanist concludes, that with all its greatness, human reason and human experience also has its limitations.

 

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