The Jewish Case For Not Being Born

Two souls meet, one ascending after a long life in this world, and the other descending to be born. “What’s it like down there?” asks the descending soul.

“Well,” says the ascending soul, “have you heard of Tzitzit? Down there, Tzitzit only cost a few kopecks.”

“Only a few kopecks!” exclaims the descending soul. “Why, Tzitzit are the marvel of heaven, the praise of infinite angels!” The soul throws itself downward, hurtling toward life.

“Wait until you hear what you have to do to earn those few kopecks, though,” cries the ascending soul…

-A Chassidic Tale

The New Yorker has given a platform to the ideas of David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher arguing that it is better never to be born than to live and that the human race should go gently into that good night without having children first. An Indian man has already taken this philosophy so seriously as to sue his parents for the damage of creating him, an extortion tactic reminiscent of the rock star in one of Douglas Adams’s novels who spends a year dead for tax reasons.

Jews are inclined to laugh at this philosophy and the resultant antics. It is hard, in fact, to imagine a less Jewish philosophy that did not involve overt idolatry. We are the faith that brought the world the Imago Dei and the exhortation to “choose life.” G-d is the G-d of life in Judaism, and He commands humankind, before all else, to perpetuate their own presence on earth. Like all Torah laws, this commandment is binding upon the Jew whether they subscribe to trendy philosophies of despair or not.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot, however, does give a mysterious nod to not wanting to be born: “Against your will you live,” Rabbi Elazar HaKappar teaches. And then there is this passage from the Talmud:

[Source]

In this debate between Hillel and Shammai, Shammai wins; everyone agrees in the end that “it would be preferable had man not been created.” Somehow, the great sages seem to have possessed an anti-natalism of their own within the very faith that so values life. How may this be reconciled?

What is so great about life anyway? After all (and contrary to popular myth), Judaism has a rich conception of the before- and afterlife, involving among other things the cleansing of the soul, basking in the revelation of G-d, and eventual reincarnation in the Messianic Age. Our life on earth is, in some sense, merely an interlude between other forms of our soul’s existence. As we have learned before, the physical universe actualizes no potential nor has any inherent value in the eyes of its Creator. The physical universe exists only because G-d wills it needlessly, as it were.

What, then, is accomplished by being born? One old answer expressed in different ways in different places is that we are born for our own benefit, that is, to actualize some potential within our own souls. Being born allows one to be better and more perfect than is otherwise possible, and to achieve greater states of spiritual existence than are otherwise possible. True, the soul may start at a great spiritual level, but life in this world improves upon than level and brings us new perfection. Thus, being born is a gift. Call this answer the old answer.

There is also a new answer, the one that makes room for the anti-natalist position. Of course, anti-natalists don’t argue against being born because they think the alternative is the soul’s perfection before G-d, but because they think it is simply better not to be than to be at all. If we are consigned to existence regardless, whether within a body or abstracted away from one, then being born may perhaps be an opportunity to improve that existence. This is what the old answer said.

But if being born is the very act by which we exist, then how can it be said to improve upon what we were before birth? Before we were born (or conceived, or what have you) we simply did not exist, and after we die we shall not again. Rather, all of life’s benefits must be judged on life’s own terms, not by what life accomplishes for a soul that persists after death, but rather what life accomplishes per se. This is the new answer: being born accomplishes being alive. Astutely, David Benatar assesses being alive, sees a lot of suffering, and seeks a return to non-existence.

The Talmud agrees with neither the old answer nor the new one. As in so many areas, the new answer is right to judge things (in this case, life) on their own terms, but the more superficial ancient reasoning (that life is justified by the perfection of our broader existence) is correct in its conclusion — to choose life!

The houses of Hillel and Shammai argue all over the thousands of pages of the Talmud, and most of their debates share a common denominator[i]: The disciples of Hillel follow the actual, whereas the disciples of Shammai follow the potential. The classic example is in the laws of Chanukah. Hillel says we light one candle on the first night (and this is the law we follow) whereas Shammai says to light eight candles on the first night. The former wants always to act on what has already come to pass, whereas the latter wishes to act on what remains to be done.

So, too, in their argument over whether it is good for man to have been created. Both houses agree that man’s creation, like the rest of the physical universe, brings no perfection to G-d. Their disagreement is whether the soul is G-d-like in this regard, whether the human being benefits from being created.[ii]

The House of Shammai says it is not good for man to have been created, for there is nothing gained for the soul in this world that the soul does not already possess in potential. Their position is more closely aligned with the new answer (unsurprisingly, as Shammai’s way of thinking is described as messianically progressive) — that a human life on its own terms adds no absolute value to the soul. True, the disciples of Shammai do not believe this because they deny the afterlife[iii], but they nevertheless agree that life is not meaningful for purposes of self-perfection. Because we judge things according to their potential, and the soul already in its potential has attained all that being born might accomplish, there is no reason to actually be born. In other words: The atheist’s denial of the spirit and the Rabbis’ utter exaltation of the spirit both lend no meaning to being born.

Hillel, on the other hand, argue it is better for man to be created, that the soul benefits from being embodied, that actualization has inherent value over potential, and we should look at life as an opportunity to raise ourselves higher in ever-greater perfection. This roughly parallels the old answer, which says that embodied creation serves our broader existence beyond the body.

Both Hillel and Shammai, however, believe in being born, as Judaism necessitates, for neither position is ultimately beholden to what is good for a human being. Even though Shammai win and the Talmud expresses a form of “anti-natalism,” never are we directed to pursue merely what is good for us when we are born. The entire debate of Hillel and Shammai concerns only what is “preferable” for man, in man’s own terms, in terms of human self-betterment, and that is why Shammai wins.

Or: If Judaism reduces to a question of self-perfection and self-benefit, there is room to argue for nihilism, to turn to the “Utter futility! All is futile!”, for G-d’s ways are inscrutable and His Torah concludes that we will never in our lives compare to the spiritual state of our souls before we are born.

Or: The “meaning” in a meaningful Jewish life does not necessarily mean very much if that life is a self-actualizing or -fulfilling existence taken on its own terms.

The only matter on which there is no debate is that it is good to be born and to cause others to be born because G-d wills it. It is only when life is for Him that life becomes inescapably meaningful. “Now that he is created, he should examine his actions” — for it is only by acting in service to G-d, our sages knew, that being born is justified beyond the question of potential and actual.

Perhaps most powerful of all, once we see ourselves as existing merely to serve our Creator, we can even admit that the House of Shammai is right, that there is wisdom in David Benatar’s argument. To live life merely for an afterlife is to define life away, and life purely on its own terms may be full of suffering. Perhaps even the House of Hillel came to realize admitting this truth is a step on the path toward a G-d who is beyond potential and outside our contrived “meanings” and is, therefore, the only one who may justify our blood’s warmth.


[i] For all of the following on Hillel and Shammai’s debate, and much more, see Likkutei Sichos vol. XXII, second Sicha of Shmini.

[ii] By “creation” we here refer to the verb used in the above-quoted passage in the Talmud implying creation ex nihilo, existing apart from G-d as an ostensibly separate being. The human being is thus “created” when the soul is embodied, prior to which the soul exists in a state of (at least relative) nullification before G-d. This understanding of “creation” is consonant with the view that, generally speaking, man is a soul in a body. Thus, what exists beyond the body is neither “created” nor “man.”

[iii] i.e. the existence of the soul apart from the body, including the beforelife and the world to come, etc.

An Intervening Tragedy

I died in a flash of screaming light on the highway at the age of twenty-six. My trial was brief and unmemorable. I was sent to hell on the charge that I had never told the truth in my entire life.

Though there was no arguing with it (you understand this implicitly in the hereafter, the way everyone somehow knows not to ask Uncle Louis about his very good friend at Thanksgiving dinner) the attendant was willing to make small talk as he readied the indescribably complex transportation mechanism. “Shouldn’t it just be instantaneous,” I asked him, not speaking, because I was a soul, and he was the platonic form of the smile the nurse gives you on the sick side of the waiting room and did not have ears.

“There are no quick solutions here,” he sniffed. I liked him instantly. I had lived most of my life hating the world from the inside, and here was a guy (or whatever) who looked down on the whole affair of the universe with justified detachment. “Everything here happens exactly as it needs to. We plunge to the depths of Gabriel’s horn.”

I shrugged. He could take as long as he needed to. Hell wasn’t the most exciting prospect. Maybe I could distract him. “The Gabriel?” I asked.

The attendant became nonexistentially indeterminate for a while. I was shocked to recognize, through layer upon layer of ontological, societal, linguistic, aesthetic, and corporeal translation, that he was basically shaking his head. “You weren’t a mathematician, were you?”

“Weren’t you at the trial?” I asked. I remembered him being there, waiting in the wings with a vague aura of impatience. And if he was there he surely knew I was a writer.

“I was,” he said with long-suffering patience. “I thought I’d help you try to distract me.”

“Oh,” I said, taken aback.

“It won’t work, of course. Everything here happens exactly as it needs to.”

“Right,” I said.

“We’re almost ready now.” Strangely, this pronunciation didn’t scare me. Everything seemed so inevitable. Because it was.

“Will I see my family after this?” I wondered.

“You will,” he said. He said it so mournfully that the diffuse light seemed to cower and darkness draw close.

“Will you stay with me?” The question emerged from somewhere deep within a young part of me. I could tell the attendant got asked this all the time.

He shook his head once more. “I’m afraid not. You must travel far beyond where I dare to tread.”

I smiled nervously. “I don’t want to go down there.”

“You’re not going down, my love. You’re going up.”

There erupted from everything a hideous screech-roar as reality elongated and stretched with unsettling determination beyond its breaking point and everything ceased to cohere. The speed of light tumbled; pi came loose of its moorings; 1 + 1 = 2 was suddenly, inexplicably gone, and I felt drawn toward the locus where Euclid’s parallels converged and this statement was false. A tower that stood only on itself rose beneath my feet, its spiraled tiers pushing me up and up, clouds of greater and greater illumination fleeing before me. Just as I began to truly fear whom I would find behind the final veil I was encompassed by the deepest, truest, emptiest silence I had ever known.

I was aware of the silence; intimately aware of it; it was an extension of myself. There were no words, there could be no words; there was nothing, and there could be nothing. I idly wondered if this was the solitary confinement chamber, but I knew that was false even as I considered it, or rather, my considering it made it false.

Hell simply wasn’t.

I simply was.

Well, I was certain there was no time.

So time simply wasn’t.

I simply had been, was, and would be, at once.

I was alone, and everything, and utterly satisfied, and I found, to my surprise, then astonishment, then delight that I knew the entire story. I knew about the beginning, and the end, and everything in between to its infinitesimal details. It was something I did once, or would do in the future. I remembered designing the laws of the universe, elegant restatements of my deepest self. I saw the moment I breathed into a pair of dusty nostrils in the shade of a young sun, and the moment a whale surfaced to offer its dorsal side to me in glory, and the way Borges held his pen. Everything as it should be. Everything the only way it could be.

Everything happening exactly as it needed to.

This reminded me of the attendant, who, like all of creation, was in my head. I saw him both from without and from within; I knew him as speck of dust and as the entire universe from within his head. I knew his entire existence, his programming, his service in bringing souls to their punishment. I knew he would smell of mints and old cigars if he were made physical.

I saw my conception and my own birth, so small, fragmented, temporal. I saw myself grow up and kept myself from harm; watched me curse myself and forsake myself in adolescence. I watched the first time I wrote a story, smiled my own joy, so small and so perfect in its smallness.

I saw my pain, a skinned knee, a broken arm, and I sewed my body back together.

At fourteen, mom caught me smoking and we got into an apocalyptic fight. She cared so much it hurt, which made me hurt. The fight was over the next day when we laughed over eggs, but we were no longer as one, I found other things to lie about, and our love was no longer perfectly my home, and I suddenly knew it.

I knew the darkness.

I knew the suffering, an endless procession of it, the sea of tears.

And I didn’t care.

None of it was real. It was all in my head, memories of something that happened long ago or something that might happen one day. Treblinka was theoretical, the killing fields a sick suggestion I could create, by speaking it.

I considered it all, whether it was worth it, whether it pleased me.

I considered it forever.

I knew that none of them, not a single one, would ever come close to the truth. There would be strong men; I could do anything. There would be beauty; I was ineffable. There would be holiness; I would forever be alone.

I needed nothing. I lacked nothing. I was the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all potential things.

I didn’t need it.

They would spend their lives building towers, but me they would never reach. And the pain it would cause them, only I would ever describe as I formed it and imposed it upon them.

They knew nothing.

They did not need to be created.

It was bad for them.

At the end of an eternity, I said it.

“I will not create the world.”

All receded, and I found myself to be only myself and alone with the attendant once more.

“You have failed,” said the attendant.

“Failed?” I muttered, disoriented. His presence was oppressive; against his otherness a skirling scream begin to well within me. “Failed at what?” My voice was choked with emotion, my words sloughing sideways like bricks from a collapsing wall.

“You have not yet learned to tell the truth.”

I remembered…I remembered! But I could not speak. My words were slipping away. With the force of all my will I managed, “I am the truth.” What a strange tale this will all make one day, I thought. They’ll all love it.

The attendant could only shake his head. “We will have to resort to the river —”

Some messenger, an underling, appeared, out of breath, and said, “Sir, this one isn’t ready.”

The attendant’s eyes would have narrowed if he were not the platonic form of the smile the nurse gives you on the sick side of the waiting room. “Why not?”

“He wants to write a story about it all, sir.”

“Some of them never learn,” said the attendant sadly, and I found myself toppling from heaven, wailing incoherently, my memories stripping away in the wind, a womb fast approaching —

 

Originally posted on Hevria.