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The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham defines the good as the greatest happiness of the greatest number. More than two hundred years after Bentham, it remains, with myriad modifications, a highly influential theory of the good life among academics and policy makers. One great advantage of utilitarianism is its apparent simplicity and appeal to the lowest common denominator: desire for pleasure and fear of pain. Applying utilitarianism presupposes that we can try to measure happiness and ­predict and compare the probable outcomes of our actions and rules. There are many obstacles to a successful calculus of utility, not the least the difficulty of anticipating the true consequences of policies and actions. But above and beyond that, I have been especially confused about why life itself, regardless of its pleasures and pains, is a paramount value from a utilitarian perspective. A life in arithmetical equipoise between happiness and unhappiness is neutral from the viewpoint of this calculus. It should then be neither superior nor inferior to non-being. By contrast, a life in which suffering predominates over pleasure has negative value. Why then do we prefer life, even unhappy life, over non-existence?

For many years, R. Yitzchak Hutner (1906–1980) was head of a Brooklyn yeshiva. He was known for providing substantive, hands-on guidance to his disciples and for the dramatic and complex theological discourses he delivered in conjunction with Jewish holidays. These were rooted in close probing of traditional texts while indirectly addressing significant questions of religious existence. Many were published, at first anonymously, later with their author’s name. Despite or because of their distinctive style, combining legal and ethical sources with speculative insights that often bear a mystical accent, his work has a devoted following. The content and external form of his thought is directed to a sophisticated, perhaps esoteric Jewish ­audience. Nonetheless, one is often tempted to extract from his lectures ideas of universal import—such as what it means to give inherent value to life itself.

R. Hutner observes that we often use the same word in both sacred and profane connections. This may lead to a dangerous confusion of the realms. The German word steigen means to rise or ascend, and also to increase or thrive. In yeshiva Yiddish, shtaygen in lernen describes persistent dedication to Torah study, a spiritual flourishing. Worldly steigen, says R. Hutner, is about controlling worldly possessions in excess of what is needed for life. It involves striving toward mastery over necessity, and it is an ambition that distinguishes the rich from the poor. Do not think about augmenting wisdom along these lines, he warns. Wisdom is not about mastering the world. In truth, the wise person has less control over the necessities of life, because the quest for wisdom makes the Steiger dependent upon his urgent engagement with higher truth. For him, life becomes meaningless, indeed impossible, apart from his consuming attentiveness to wisdom’s sources.

Thus R. Hutner arrives at a paradox. The true Steiger endures the pain that comes from lacking something necessary. He seeks what he does not have—the fullness of wisdom—and it is more necessary to him than food and immeasurably more pressing than the absence of “luxuries,” which is Hutner’s term for things that are not needed for subsistence. And yet the very same Steiger delights in the taste of the wisdom he gains, and this joy is incomparably greater than the satisfaction afforded by the provision of material necessities such as bread. Therefore, those genuinely devoted to wisdom live in a double relationship: On the one hand, their pleasure in the pursuit of wisdom is the highest and most precious form of luxury. On the other, the perpetual spiritual deprivation the Steiger feels—he always strives to advance in wisdom—reflects his hunger for what is most necessary to his existence.

In this discourse, R. Hutner turns to the question of the relation of action and intellect. A rabbinic dictum states that wisdom abides only when one’s actions are greater than one’s wisdom. How can actions surpass wisdom, given that actions, by definition, are limited in scope to particular performances? His solution rests in the idea that total commitment to the service of God is infinite in its reach. The infinity of action is latent within the resolve of obedience, as it were. Thus, an unlimited readiness to obey renders the prospect of action in accord with divine commands tantamount to their execution. Through the disposition to act in accord with the divine, intellectual passion is grounded in action, and thus attains permanence.

R. Hutner’s meditation on the meaning of complete human identification with the fulfillment of God’s will relies on theological concepts bound up with the Sinai covenant between God and Israel. His conclusion, though, returns us to the fundamental question of why life has intrinsic value.

Again the paradox: The searcher for wisdom exper­iences the absence of what he does not possess—the fullness of wisdom—as the absence of something necessary. Meanwhile, the inner enjoyment of the attainment of any measure of wisdom is experienced as the most extreme “luxury,” which is the opposite of necessity. The distinction and opposition between necessity and superfluous goods and the sense of conflict between them applies to the needs and requirements of life. It does not apply to life itself. The will to exist, says R. Hutner, is beyond subsistence and superfluity.

R. Hutner asserts this point. What exactly does he mean by it? His stress on life may be seen in purely ­Darwinian or vitalist terms, meaning that the desire for life is so great that it overpowers all other calculations and considerations. That would be a mistake. I believe that R. Hutner is speaking less about the will to exist as a matter of indomitable effort than about the joy of existence. He offers the example of an individual who has been rescued from drowning. Saved from annihilation, suggests R. Hutner, one’s consciousness and zest for being alive are renewed. Here, he insists, the pain of prospective deprivation of life and the pleasure of existing blend into each other. An outsider may imagine a duality of pain and pleasure, of the exigent desire to fend off death and the “superfluous” pleasure of being alive. For the living individual there is no duality at all: The experience of life as urgent necessity and superabundant gift fuse together. The same holds for a person who recognizes that a degree of spiritual realization is necessary for a meaningful life. The taste of transcendence is not required for biological survival, and yet what the world regards as “luxury” is indistinguishable from necessity.

R. Hutner’s dialectic of necessity and spiritual abundance emerges from his conviction that the individual dedicated to the life of the covenant gains what we might call his “true self” and thus rises above the plane upon which subsistence and superfluity are divided into separate branches, as it were. His teaching explicitly presupposes the world-changing transformation at Sinai. The Torah engenders the identification of each Jew with the work that God has set for him or her and makes possible a sense of partnership with God. Although the metaphysical ­underpinnings are not readily transferred from their Jewish framework to non-Jewish religious life, we can translate R. Hutner’s ideas into universal categories that shed light on the human condition. We are all able to ­experience a life of commitment to ideals and purposes in a way that overcomes the seeming opposition between the constraints of existence and the transcendent vocation that elevates our existence. This is true of unifying communal projects and even more palpably true of the quotidian and godly ingredients in family life and marriage.

Most people, I think, suspect there is something defective and one-dimensional in the ethical system derived from the utilitarian calculus, with its insistence that values and norms, even life itself, can and should be held to the uniform standard of pleasure and pain. It is frustrating that attempts like R. Hutner’s to articulate the alternative by affirming the intrinsic value of life sound recondite. His work appeals to theological insights unfamiliar to those outside Orthodox Judaism and his distinctive way of formulating them. This is unfortunate. The fate of our shared Western culture depends on how successfully we are able to convey to the wider world the noble potential of human life. R. Hutner, by any measure, aimed at the few. We have a duty to do our best to bring his insights, and those of others like him, to the audience outside our study halls. 

Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva College and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.

Photo by IZAK via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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