Shiur #18: The Purpose of the World

  • Rav Chaim Navon

A.        The Rambam's View


In chapter thirteen of Book II of the Guide, the Rambam addresses the question of the purpose of the world.


He starts by noting that the quest to discover the purpose of the world is relevant only according to the view that the world was created. If the world has existed forever, then there is no point in seeking the purpose of its existence, for it has none. It is what it is, as it has always been, and as it always will be. However, if the world was created, then there is room to question the Architect and Builder: for what reason or purpose was the world created?


The Rambam's answer to this question is that we have no answer. It is one of those questions that belongs to God's realm; human reason can find no answer.


In this chapter the Rambam devotes most of his efforts to uprooting what he regards as a wrong answer – that man is the purpose of creation. He does acknowledge that some partial degree of purposefulness may be ascribed to specific parts of reality. He seems to agree with Aristotle's view that everything on Earth is meant to serve man. But what is man's purpose? This question remains unanswered.


Moreover, the Rambam emphasizes that it is unthinkable to posit that the heavenly spheres and other creations of the upper worlds could be meant to serve man, since they are immeasurably superior to and more elevated than he is. He concludes:


I consider therefore the following opinion as most correct according to the teaching of the Bible, and best in accordance with the results of philosophy; namely, that the Universe does not exist for man's sake, but that each being exists for its own sake, and not because of some other thing. Thus we believe in the Creation, and yet need not inquire what purpose is served by each species of the existing things, because we assume that God created all parts of the Universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings, that include their own purpose in themselves. In the same manner as it was the will of God that man should exist, so it was His will that the heavens with their stars should exist, that there should be angels, and each of these beings is itself the purpose of its own existence. (III:13)


Each creation has its own purpose; none exists to serve another. This would seem to be referring to the higher creatures, such as man, angels, etc., since elsewhere the Rambam suggests that the creatures on earth are meant to serve man. But the higher creatures have their own purposes, and if we ask why God created them, the only answer we can find is that this is what God's wisdom decreed.


B.        The Purpose of the World: Out of His Goodness or Out of His Will?


As noted, the Rambam actually formulates two separate arguments. First, we cannot know what the purpose of the world is. Second, there is no single species in the world that is the crown of creation, with everything else serving it. Rather, every species has its own purpose.


Let us address the first claim – that God created the world because He chose to do so. This was what His wisdom decreed, and we cannot understand the reason. The following description in this regard is provided by Rav Soloveitchik, as received from his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk:


R. Simha Zelig, the disciple and friend of R. Hayyim, related to me the following incident: Once he and R. Hayyim visited someone’s house in Vilna. While they were waiting for their host to appear, R. Hayyim glanced through some works of Habad Hasidism that were lying on the table. The books apparently discussed the question of God’s motivation in creating the world and cited two opinions: (1) God created the world for the sake of His goodness. (2) He created it for the sake of His grace. R Hayyim turned to R. Simha Zelig and with utter seriousness told him: “Both views are incorrect. The world was created neither for the sake of His goodness, nor for the sake of His grace but for the sake of His will.” This view, set down by Maimonides as a firm principle in the Guide…is the very seal of halakhic man. The world was created in accordance with the will of God, Who wills to contract His Divine Presence in it. Therefore, we are called to act and to arrange our lives in accordance with this fundamental idea.

While the mystic shares in the anguish of Shekhinta be-galuta, of the Divine Presence in exile…halakhic man declares that the true home of the Divine Presence is in this world. (Halakhic Man, pp. 52-53)[1]     


Rav Soloveitchik quotes the Rambam not in the context of the discussion concerning the purpose of the world, but rather in the context of our attitude towards this world. If God created this world as an act of kindness towards us, then from His point of view the existence of the world is a sacrifice: God suffers this world only for our sake. This suggests that our world is not fundamentally a positive and desirable reality. However, if God created the world because that was His will – and His will is concealed from us – then the existence of the world is the realization of a worthy and lofty Divine goal, not just a gesture towards man. Thus, there is room to view this world as a place that has intrinsic positive value.


C.        Man as the Focus of Creation


Let us now examine the Rambam's second argument, that man does not stand at the center of creation. Many Jewish philosophers have disagreed with the Rambam in this regard, maintaining that man is indeed the focus. For example, Rav Sa'adia Gaon wrote:


When we consider the multiplicity of creation, we need not confound ourselves with the question of the purpose of them all, because the natural explanation becomes clear to us, showing what the aim behind it all is. If we examine the matter, we find that the purpose is man. In nature, and in our experience, everything that is more important comes about through that which is less important than itself… We find that the Earth is at the center, with the heavens and the spheres surrounding it on all sides – suggesting that the purpose of creation is to be found on Earth.[2] We then proceed to examine all parts of it and discover that earth and water are inanimate, and the animals are unable to speak, which leaves only man – and thus we conclude that man must unquestionably be the purpose of all that is around him. And if we look at Tanakh we find God's word: "I made the Earth, and I created man upon it" (Yishayahu 45:12). At the beginning of the Torah, likewise, there is an enumeration of all the different types of creations and at the end God says: "Let us make man" (Bereishit 1:15). This is like someone who first builds a palace, decorating it with hangings and forming its windows and balconies, and then brings the owners inside. (Ha-nivchar Be-emunot U-vede'ot, ma’amar 4).


Rav Sa'adia Gaon maintains that man is not only the pinnacle of creation, but also its purpose. In other words, all the rest of creation is arranged around him, so as to serve him and benefit him. A similar idea is expressed by Rabbi Chaim Luzzatto in his Messilat Yesharim (chapter 1): "The entire world was created for man's benefit." Likewise, the Maharal writes:


Just as the sun is king, so is man king, for everything is subservient to him. And it is man's sovereignty that leads all the lower worlds to perfection, since everything was created for man's use and for his service. Thus he gives form to all of the lower worlds and leads everything to perfection, like a king, who orchestrates everything that is under his control (Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 4).[3]


Malbim devotes his commentary on chapter eight of Tehillim ("You have made him only a little lower than the angels…") to proving that man is the choicest of God's creations. He argues with the "philosophers" – including the Rambam – who view man as simply one creation among many others, emphasizing the vastness of the universe, the infinitesimally tiny dot that is Earth, and humbling man upon it:


Some of our sages, too, have expounded at length on this perspective (Guide, Book III, and in the midrashim of Sefer Bechinat Olam)... However, the congregation of believers who believe wholeheartedly in the teachings of the Torah and its ways cannot deny [the centrality of the Earth], for God testifies faithfully that the stars were all created for the sake of the Earth, as it is written: “And God placed them in the firmament of the sky to shine upon the earth” (Bereishit 1:17). And the progeny of the Earth were all created for the sake of man, who was created last of all. (Malbim on Tehillim 8)


The Rambam argues that the story of creation suggests that each aspect of the world has its own purpose. Malbim uses the very same text to prove exactly the opposite: the text states that the purpose of the luminaries is to serve man – "to shine upon the earth." To this the Rambam responds (in the chapter from which we cited an excerpt, above) that the illumination that comes from the heavenly bodies is indeed of great importance from man's point of view, and that this is what the Torah means. But from the point of view of the heavenly bodies themselves, this light is of little significance.


An extreme contrast to the Rambam's view is presented by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in his Nefesh Ha-Chaim. Rabbi Chaim does not deal directly with the question of the purpose of creation. However, he does claim that man is not only the center and focus of this world, but also the focus of the upper worlds:


There is also something else here, which should make one tremble [with awe]. For one’s body is a small-scale counterpart of all the forces and worlds in existence, [and which are concentrated in] the heavenly Beis Hamikdash. The heart – the center of the body – corresponds to the [heavenly] Holy of Holies, the seat of the Shesiah stone, which is the source of all kedushah (holiness)….


Therefore, when an indecent thought enters one’s mind, he is in effect bringing a harlot into the Holy of Holies of the celestial worlds. He releases forces of impurity that pollute the spiritual worlds….


.…that man, with the soul that was already in him, became the living soul of countless higher spiritual worlds.  Just as all actions and movements of the body are made possible by the soul within it, so is man the soul and driving force of the countless higher and lower worlds, so that the [destiny of] all the worlds is determined by his [actions].


….After creating all the spiritual worlds and the entire physical universe, G-d created a marvelous being, namely man, whose physical organs correspond to all the spiritual lights and sublime palaces above that together make up the shiur komah, the totality of all spiritual powers and mystical worlds that are figuratively arranged in the form of man.


(Nefesh Ha-Chaim, gate one, chapters 4-6, translated by Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel.)


Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin goes further than the other sages cited above. The Maharal, for example, emphasized man's superiority over all of the "lower worlds." Reb Chaim argues that man is not only the pinnacle of God's material creation, but also of the "upper worlds," belonging to the world of the spirit: man, according to him, is more elevated than the uppermost spiritual entities, and he influences them. This view has important educational ramifications. The greater the splendor attributed to man, the greater his importance and his authority, the more responsibility is entrusted to him. Rabbi Chaim argued that it was specifically because man recognizes his power that he must know that he is able to do much good, but also much evil; therefore he must take great care and be exceedingly meticulous in his deeds and his thoughts.


This educational lesson was emphasized by some of the mussar teachers. For example:


"The way in which a person conducts himself in life, whether in material or moral matters, and whether in public or private affairs, is based on his recognition of his own worth. One who is poor in consciousness of his own worth will, owing to his low self-worth, hold himself in disdain, and likewise hold all of life in disdain, to the point where he may even sometimes expose himself to danger, without paying the matter any attention – even for the sake of some very slight gain. Not so a person who has a healthy sense of self-worth, and knows his own value. He treasures life, and will try with all his might to elevate himself, and to elevate all of life together with him."


(Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel, the "Grandfather of Slobodka," Or Ha-Tzafun, part 1, p. 270)


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: 1983).

[2] Rav Sa'adia Gaon's words here serve to explain why Galileo's revolutionary hypothesis, which placed the sun at the center rather than the earth, was viewed at the time as such a strange and problematic idea (in addition to the fact that it appeared to contradict verses in Tanakh).

[3]  See also Ramban: "Consider that the Holy One, blessed be He, created all the lower creations for man's benefit and his use, for there is no other purpose in creating the lower animals and plants, which do not recognize their Creator, except for this. And He created man in order that he would recognize his Creator" (“Drashat Torat Hashem TemimaKitvei Ha-Ramban 1, p. 142). Since Ramban speaks only about the "lower" forms of life, it is possible that the Rambam would agree with him.