For two-and-a-half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel debated. These said, "It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created"; and these said, "It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created."

Talmud, Eruvin 13b

Is it possible to envision a Judaism that views the creation of man as a negative phenomenon? Is not the basis of the Jewish faith that human life is a meaningful, purposeful and joyous endeavor?

The Torah tells us that man is the apex and crown of G‑d's creation. That through our observance of the mitzvot we are "partners with G‑d"--the implementors of His purpose in creating all of existence. That our lives are therefore to be permeated with a sense of pride and joy at the specialty of our role.

And yet, the sages of Shammai are of the opinion that man would be better off not to have been created—an opinion which the Talmud cites as a legitimate Torah viewpoint. Indeed, it is regarding the debates between the schools of Shammai and Hillel that the Talmud declares: "These and these are both the words of the living G‑d"!

First Things First

To understand the significance of their debate, we must first examine another point of contention between them that is recorded in the Talmud:

The School of Shammai says that first the heavens were created, then the earth... The School of Hillel says that first the earth was created, and then the heavens (Talmud, Chaggigah 12a).

The teachings of Kabbalah describe G‑d's creation as a gradual unfolding from spirit to matter: first G‑d emanated a series of divine attributes (sefirot), out of which He proceeded to evolve a chain of "worlds" and realities, each further removed from His utterly abstract and intangible being. In other words, G‑d began by creating all existences in their most sublime and spiritual form; He then caused them to evolve and metamorphose, in many steps and stages, into their more concrete incarnations, ultimately producing our physical world, the final and most tangible embodiment of these realities.

According to this, the spiritual heaven preceded material earth. The debate, then, between schools of Shammai and Hillel is not which came first in sequence, but which is the primary focus of G‑d's creation. Did G‑d create all of existence, including the physical universe, for the sake of the spirituality of the heavens? Or, does the Divine purpose in creation lie in the existence of material life on earth, and everything else exist to serve this end?

Final in Deed, First in Thought

But in this, too, there seems to be a prevalent view: That the entirety of the created existence, from the most sublime spiritual entity to the most corporeal creature, was created so that physical man should implement the Divine will in the physical world by observing the mitzvot of the Torah.

It is to this end that the soul of man, which the Zohar describes as "carved out of the heavenly throne of G‑d" descends to earth to assume a physical body, character and life. It is to this end that the Torah, which originates in the heavens, has not only been revealed on earth but has been given over to man; after Sinai, the Torah "is not in heaven" but in the hands of its earthly students and observers (Deuteronomy 30:12; see Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b).

The following passage in the Talmud says it all:

When Moses went up to heaven, the angels said to G‑d: "What is a human being doing amongst us?" Said He to them: "He has come to receive the Torah." Said they to Him: "This hidden treasure, which was hidden with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generation before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood? ... Place Your glory upon the heavens!"

Said G‑d to Moses, "Answer them."

Said [Moses]: "Master of the Universe! This Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it? 'I am the L-rd Your G‑d who has taken you out from the land of Egypt.' Have you been brought down to Egypt?" asked Moses of the angels, "Have you been enslaved to Pharaoh?

"What else does it say? 'You shall have no alien gods'---Do you dwell amongst idol-worshiping nations? ... 'Remember the day of Shabbos'---Do you work? ... 'Do not swear falsely'---do you do business? ... 'Honor your father and your mother'---Do you have parents? 'Do not kill,' 'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not steal'---Is there jealousy between you? Do you have an evil inclination?" (Talmud, Shabbat 89a).

The Midrash puts it this way: "G‑d desired a dwelling place in the lowly realms." He desired that there be a realm that is lowly and distant from Him, a world that is inhospitable to His presence—in other words, a mundane, physical world—and that man transform this world into an abode for His manifest presence. "This is what man is all about, this is the purpose of his creation and of the creation of all the worlds, supernal and ephemeral," writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya.

So the objective of creation lies in our earth-bound existence. Indeed, it is to this very purpose that G‑d first created the spiritual heavens: so that they yield a physical world that is a "descendant" of a higher, more G‑dly reality, and that thereby possesses the potential to transcend its lowliness and corporeality and become a "dwelling" that houses and expresses the Divine.

Which comes first, the heavens or the earth? In sequence, the heavens; in essence, the earth. That much is clear. So what is the dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel?

The Cosmic Experiment

But there are two ways in which the Divine desire for "a dwelling in the lowly realms" may be understood.

A muscular fellow lifts a barbell at a weightlifting competition. A scientist conducts an experiment to prove the accuracy of his calculations. What is the purpose of these acts? Is the objective to lift a few hundred pounds of lead several feet off the ground, or to push up the mercury in the scientist's thermometer that many millimeters? Obviously not. These things are being done not because we wish for certain physical developments to take place, but in order to establish the truths they reflect: the strength of the weightlifter or the validity of the scientist's theory. Here, the actual deed is not an end in itself, but the means by which to express a potential.

The purpose of creation may be seen in a similar light: as G‑d's desire to express His infinite potential. The intensity of a lamp is measured by the farthest point its light reaches; the true mark of genius is the ability to explain the most profound idea to the simplest mind. In the same way, a physical world that conveys the Divine truth is the most powerful indicator of G‑d's infinity and omnipotence. If G‑d is truly infinite, then His light can extend everywhere, even to the darkest corners of finiteness and corporeality; if the Divine truth is truly absolute and unequivocal, then it can manifest itself everywhere, even in the brute physicality of our existence.

This is the Shammai perspective on reality. What is the primary element of G‑d's creation? The spirituality of the heavens. True, the soul and the Torah descended from heaven to earth, but this a "descent for the sake of ascent"---a descent whose objective is to manifest their heavenly potential. True, our material world is the arena in which the Divine purpose is realized. But what is this purpose, if not that the material itself should be made to express a higher truth?

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov expressed this concept thus: "G‑d makes the spiritual physical; the Jew makes the physical spiritual." When a Jew does a mitzvah, utilizing his physical faculties and elements of his physical environment to fulfill G‑d's will, he is, in effect, reversing the Divine act of creation. G‑d first projected from Himself the spiritual potential of creation and then embodied it in a physical reality; conversely, a mitzvah penetrates the mundanity of its object to reveal the spirit within; it redefines reality in terms of its Divine essence and function.

Simple Desire

The school of Hillel disagrees. Does G‑d "need" to prove or express His potential? Indeed, can there be any rationale for His desire, any motive that drives Him to want something? Ultimately, not. If "G‑d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms," then this is what He desired, period. No reason or utility can fully describe this desire, much less cause it or define it.

G‑d created the heavens and the earth because He desired that His will, as expressed in the mitzvot of the Torah, be implemented by our physical selves in a physical world. If this is G‑d's desire, it is an end in itself, not an exercise in the fulfillment of some other goal.

The fulfillment of this desire may also prove the infinity and the all-pervasiveness of His truth; but this is not its ultimate source and objective. On the contrary: the spiritual dimension to creation—its potential to express the Divine—ultimately exists to serve this desire, by aiding and inspiring our observance of the mitzvot.

From the Hillel perspective, the ultimate purpose of creation is not to "spiritualize" the material existence, but that the material existence, as it is, should serve the Divine will. Everything else is of secondary significance.

Being or Naught

This also explains the debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel on the issue of whether "it is better for man to have been created" or not.

Before the soul of man assumes a body and physical identity, it is a wholly spiritual entity---that is, an entity devoid of ego and individuality, one whose very being is defined solely as an expression of its supernal source.

So from the Shammaian perspective, the soul would indeed have been better off not to have fused with a body and become "man." If, as the School of Shammai maintains, our mission in life is to divest ourselves and our world of their material nature, then the initial state of our soul is also its most perfect state. Its corporeal embodiment is truly a "descent"---a departure from its true essence and function.

True, the soul endures this "descent" in order to carry out the Divine objective in creation. But this objective itself is defined as the endeavor to regain its initial spirituality. So there is no intrinsic value to the material: it is only the testing ground upon which the Divine potential invested in the soul and in creation "proves" itself by making the journey to mundane earth and back.

Thus, according to the School of Shammai, the stated aim of creation is its reversal. Every mitzvah is an exercise in nullification: that man "nullify his will before G‑d's will" (ethics of the Fathers 2:2), that he establish the truth that "there is none else beside Him" (Deuteronomy 4:35) by demonstrating that everything exists only to serve the Creator. In a Shammaian world, man is created so that he can uncreate himself; spirit evolves into matter only so that it can revert to its quintessential insubstantiality.

Born to Be

The School of Hillel, however, maintains that "it is better for man to have been created."

True, the soul in its "uncreated" state is more spiritual than when saddled with a materialistic self and character. True, the self-focusing human ego is far less expressive of the Divine truth than its selfless spirit. But only through its "descent" into being and individuality does the soul of man come to relate to its Creator in a far more meaningful way: by implementing His will.

For it is a "dwelling in the lowly realms" that G‑d desired. Not a dwelling that transforms the lowly realm into a lofty realm, but a dwelling within the lowly realm itself. The ultimate purpose of creation is realized specifically in the physical reality, as it retains its physicality and realness—and specifically by the human being, as he retains his humanity and beingness. G‑d wanted this "lowly" world—as it retains its "lowliness" and worldliness—to welcome Him and house His truth.

From the perspective of the Hillel school the ultimate function of a mitzvah is to involve the physical creation, as it is, in the fulfillment of the Divine will. For a "dwelling for G‑d in the lowly realms" means more than physical deeds and materials being used to fulfill G‑d's commandments. It also means that the very essence of physicality—the very features which render it lowly—are also enlisted to serve this end. Ego, individuality, pride—the antitheses of the soul's affirmation of the Divine truth—these, too, are forces to be harnessed and directed to drive our efforts to build the world that G‑d desires.

The Dichotomous Soul

Which are we to adapt, the vision of the School of Shammai or that of the School of Hillel?

Which should come first in the "miniature universe" that is man, heavens or earth? Should we see our world as spirit or as matter? Should we grant validity and significance to the material demands of life or view it all as nothing more than a test of our spiritual integrity?

Should we strive for self-abnegation or for the constructive application of ego?

"These and these are both the words of the living G‑d."

The Torah instructs that when there is disagreement among the sages in a matter of Torah law, the majority opinion is to be followed. Indeed, when it comes to halachah, the pragmatic "bottom line" of Torah law, only one of two differing opinions can be implemented in actuality: the hundred dollars belongs either to the plaintiff or to the defendant; the piece of meat is either kosher or it is not.

But when it comes to the spiritually nebulous world of the soul, we have no such limitations; here, conflicting perceptions can exist side by side and be constructively applied in unison. Here, we can embrace both the perspective of Shammai and that of Hillel and apply them both to the manner in which we view ourselves, our world and our mission in life.

Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's "Hadran on the Mishnah 5748"