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Debating the Meaning of Life with Dr. Ronen Shoval

Dr. Ronen Shoval Dr. Ronen Shoval

On December 6, 2022, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, in partnership with the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program, hosted scholar, philosopher and Tikvah Fund dean Dr. Ronen Shoval for an Honors Program lunch seminar entitled "Debating the Meaning of Life, Rambam vs. Buddha." The seminar focused on contrasting Buddhist and Maimonidean arguments regarding life's purpose. However, Dr. Shoval also presented students with a broader range of opinions on the subject, citing classical Greek, medieval Arab and modern continental thinkers.

By way of introduction, Dr. Shoval first presented the approach of the Islamic Kalām school of thought. According to Kalām, creation is an ongoing process. At any given moment, God constantly renews even the most minuscule part of creation. In the Medieval period, this kind of thinking gave rise to an emphasis on determinism, such as in the thought of Abner of Burgos, Hasdai Crescas and others.  Next, Dr. Shoval, citing French philosopher Albert Camus, reflected on the urgency of ascribing significant meaning to life. To that end, Dr. Shoval presented Aristotle's notion of the Telos, the purpose of a thing. Aristotle asserted that everything in life has a Telos, including human beings, and further asserted that people can realize their Telos by exercising their capability to speak and reason.

Dr. Shoval then turned to other interpretations of life's purpose. He briefly noted Max Weber's study of the Protestant work ethic and considered its influence on the modern capitalist approach towards life. According to this approach, life's mission is to fulfill our needs and desires through hard work and determination.

Next, Dr. Shoval explained Buddhist philosophy's critique of the capitalist model. Buddhist thinkers assert that the pursuit of material fulfillment is never-ending and, therefore, is futile. Instead, they argue that life's purpose is to transcend the material circumstances of absence and abundance by eliminating the feeling of desire altogether.

Finally, Dr. Shoval turned to Maimonides. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides summarizes several philosophical models of self-fulfillment. The first model, which considers material fulfillment to be ideal, resonates with the aforementioned capitalist approach. The second model idealizes health and fitness. The third approach insists that people should focus on improving their moral character. To a certain degree, Maimonides appreciates each of these three models. However, Maimonides ultimately asserts that the best route to self-fulfillment is intellectual growth. In developing one's intellectual faculties, a person strives to better understand the divine. According to Maimonides, this effort to comprehend divinity is our true purpose in life.

However, later on, Maimonides seems to contradict this assertion by stating that our mission in life is to practice kindness and pursue justice. Dr. Shoval suggested that perhaps knowledge of God and the fulfillment of justice are intertwined in Maimonidean philosophy, asserting that they might constitute two different aspects of the same goal.

This seminar was the latest in a series of programs sponsored or co-sponsored by the Straus Center and the Schottenstein Honors Program. Recent events have included a conversation with the Jerusalem Post's Zvika Klein, a debate between Tablet's Liel Leibovitz and YU's own Rabbi Daniel Feldman, and a lunch seminar with Adam Kirsch of The Wall Street Journal.

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