I’ve been meaning to write this post for a very long time. Perhaps it’s appropriate that I finally got around to it on Thanksgiving.
Among the many mildly insulting things I’ve been told by people trying to explain to me why Judaism is the Truth is the charge that I’m ungrateful. God created us, the argument goes, He provides for us, and we should be grateful to Him and follow His rules, which are themselves only meant help us live better lives.
I’d like to take this argument apart. First, the claim that we should be grateful to God because He created us. This implies that he did so at least partly for our benefit. Yet that is impossible. According to Jewish belief, before God created the world, there was nothing. Not even souls waiting to be born. We, whatever that word may imply, simply did not exist. Therefore the only Being that stood to gain anything from creation was God.
In my experience, many people have trouble with the concept of their own non-existence. They have a fuzzy notion that their consciousness was waiting off in the wings somewhere, waiting for God to call it into existence. With such a model, existence is clearly better than non-existence. The non-existent are condemned to wait forever in the wings while the existent get to fulfill their purpose.
Of course, this model makes a mockery of the concept of non-existence. A consciousness that is waiting must already exist. If God created us, then He was not merely moving us from one state of existence to a fuller, more meaningful state of existence, but was calling us into being ex-nihlo. Had I not been created, I wouldn’t miss my existence. I simply wouldn’t be.
Some concede the point, but then say that although only God stood to gain from my creation before I was created, now that I was created I should be grateful that I exist. But this is missing my point, which is that God did not do something that I need to be grateful for. That once I exist I prefer existence to non-existence has no bearing on whether I was created for my own benefit. And as I showed above, it is impossible that I was created for my own benefit.
To use an often-cited analogy, does a child have to be grateful to his parents because they were feeling frisky one day and got themselves pregnant? They weren’t having sex for his benefit, but for their own. Even in the perhaps more analogous case of a couple who desperately want a child and are deliberately trying to conceive, they aren’t doing so for the benefit of the unborn child, but for their own benefit – to fulfill their need to have a child.
So why do we expect children to be grateful to their parents? Because parents provide for and nurture their children. Someone who was abandoned at birth and adopted is not expected to show gratitude to his birth parents, but to the couple who raised him.
This brings us to the second part of the argument, that we should be grateful to God for providing for us. Even though God created us for His own benefit, now that I exist I stand to benefit from continued existence and should be grateful to God for maintaining my existence and providing me with everything I need.
Our gratitude for what others do for us is usually in proportion to the effort they expend. If someone donated a kidney to save my life, I could be expected to be grateful to that person for the rest of my life. The person who passed me the juice at dinner, not so much.
We are expected to be grateful to our parents because of the enormous effort that goes into raising a child. Yet for God, everything is effortless. Perhaps despite the complete lack of effort, we could be expected to be grateful to God because we are benefiting from his beneficence, but the gratitude expected would be on the level of the gratitude towards the person who passed the juice, not the one who donated the kidney.