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The Reason Behind History

The Reason Behind History

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:10 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftorah: Amos 2:6-3:8
Havdalah: 5:14 p.m.

Does history have a purpose, a desired end to which fate and circumstance inevitably tend? Or is there only fate and circumstance, mere random causality that makes us all just insignificant accidents in time? Is history only (in Shakespeare’s words), “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

Human consciousness has consistently resisted that dismal possibility. Aristotle set the tone by positing a final cause, a teleological end toward which things ultimately head. Hegel concurred by describing history as the slow but steady march of spiritual purpose toward a glorious predetermined conclusion.

The Rabbis, too, were convinced of a better world to come, the transformation of history into a messianic era of redemption. 

By contrast, we have science, the Newtonian variety, anyway, which predicts a predetermined future on the basis of preexistent states of being, with no regard whatever for some putative desired outcome. Darwin, too, proclaimed an evolutionary “Descent of Man” through random mutations that condition some life forms for success and others for failure. He saw no need to imagine a sacred purpose behind it all.

With some exceptions — Maimonides, for instance, who knew Aristotle’s work and wrestled with it — rabbinic tradition has remained relatively oblivious of the Western philosophical debate on the extent to which history has purpose. But independently, it staked out Jewish points of view that remain compelling. Take the Malbim’s commentary to the story of Joseph. 

The Joseph narrative begins this week with copious specificity on how Joseph ended up in Egypt. But the Malbim warns us against taking this detail as the final word. In the end, he insists, Joseph went to Egypt not because his brothers were jealous or because they sold him to a caravan of slavers, but because God’s plan (announced to Abraham) was for Israel to spend 400 years in bondage there. Israel would have gotten to Egypt one way or another.

The jealousy and the slavers were immediate causes (what Aristotle called “efficient” causes) of it all. But God’s will was the ultimate (or “final”) cause. Forgetting Aristotle’s categories, we can say, more simply, that the jealousy and the slavers were the causes; God’s will was the reason behind them.

There is reason behind history, therefore, not our own but God’s; history has an ultimate end.

We can have our cake and eat it, too: the scientific doctrine of purposeless cause and effect does hold; so, too, does our experience of free will (we can do whatever we want). But in the end, God’s will gets done.

The Malbim says it clearly: “We don’t control the general decrees of God (which we cannot annul), but the specifics remain open to free choice, for the overall goal can be established by many means. … Even though our forebears’ descent into Egypt was a matter of Divine providence, the means by which it was accomplished (the selling of Joseph, and so forth) were matters of free choice.”

With this commentary in mind, I retain my faith in a positive future. As much as we are products of the unthinking laws of evolution, we also work in league with them, helping the world evolve to a higher state of being, but only over the long haul. Along the way, the many details of getting us to that end fulfill the equally iron law of human free will, so even though the end is not in doubt, any given stage along the way may help, hinder, or be neutral toward the final destination to which we all aspire.

Like everyone else, I, too, tire of the headlines that make me wonder if the world is getting anywhere. But I believe it is, or, at least, it will; if not now, then someday; if not by these means, then by others. And in the meantime, in my own little way, I exercise my own free will to push our progress forward just a little.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of 35 books, including “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights). 

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