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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Hamlet, or Finding Purpose in an Existential Quagmire


There is an old story, retold many times, of a prince who finds out that his uncle has murdered his father. It turns out that his mother, the queen, was part of the plot, and is married to the villainous uncle. The prince's father's ghost wants revenge.

Things get worse; the prince's two close friends are enlisted in a plot to murder him, the prince. He gets them killed. The prince, thinking he has found his vile uncle hiding behind a wall tapestry, stabs at the wall-hanging and kills his girlfriend's insufferably pontificating father instead. His girlfriend commits suicide grieving her father. Her brother now wants to kill the prince, to avenge her and his father. The bodies are piling up.

In the midst of all this, the prince becomes entirely sickened by life. To distract his uncle (now king) from knowing that the prince is set on revenge, the prince feigns madness. But the madness is real, at a deeper level, because he has discovered the moral rot of the world around him. He contemplates suicide, the futility of life. It is all a lie.

In this swirling rot in which he is drowning, he knows one thing is true: he must avenge his father. He must kill his uncle. He does, and his mother dies, too. And his girlfriend's brother dies in a duel with the prince. The story smells of rot, rot mixed with purpose. Vengeance. Hamlet is a tough play to watch or read. Most of us never get anywhere near the rot at Elsinore, but the odor of the futility of it all sometimes intrudes.

I had a long intellectual, and I guess spiritual fascination with Existentialism when I was younger. I am not sure why so many people, I included, found an odd solace in discovering a teaching that says the world is fundamentally devoid of meaning. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, we discover that "nothing (is) either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Act 2). I don't think it is an accident that Existentialism came into vogue after World War I and was only strengthened after the Second World War.

Who is this barbaric creature that murders so wantonly, so helplessly? Where is this God and his supposed providence?

Existentialism taught me that any teaching that avoids the fact that we are thrown into the world without moral purpose, without meaning, was an act of "bad faith." What a strange term! Good faith, according to the existentialists, is acknowledging the meaningless and futility of it all. Hamlet without vengeance.

One thing that Existentialism has going for its True Believers is the promise of smugness. "All those people who actually believe in something are just frightened dolts," the existentialists say. In a way, Existentialism can give its adherents what any other religion or non-religious religions (like bossy scientific Atheism) can give: A kind of arrogance. "We have the truth. You don't."

I thought my way out of nihilistic Existentialism, by being deeply honest with myself. I reflected deeply. I knew I was Jewish, and practiced Judaism to some degree, but never really was a "believer." What did I believe in, really?

I recall long and hard reflection. I knew that I believed in justice, despite the existentialist embarrassment. I knew that things are not good or bad because we think it so. Existentialism was, in some way, an escape from a deep spiritual certainty. Certainty creates fanatics. Nihilism is better, the Existentialists taught.

I had to admit to myself, in spite of the attraction to existential nihilism, that I was certain that there were better and worse answers to moral questions. Hamlet's uncle needed to be killed. Human rights are real. Those who trample on people need to be stopped, and killed if necessary. For example.

I had to admit that love was real. I recall a rabbi of all people teaching that "love" was just a biological urge dressed up fancy in order to subjugate women. (Her marriage did not last). One way to understand interpersonal love is to see it as the devotion to another person's well being, along with the desire to journey through life together, whether it is marriage, family, friends, or communities. Love is real.

And through deep reflection I knew that beauty is real. I took a class on Aesthetics in college. There was nothing I learned that could be immediately monetized, but it was nonetheless worthwhile. Yes, it is true: we all have different tastes in what is beautiful. But the experience of beauty is something that we all share. When a person has that reverential look on their face and a reverential tone in their voice and says, "It was so beautiful" most of us don't need an explanation.

And truth is real. All opinions are not equal. There are many levels of truth, from empirical truth (Rashomon was about experience and interpretation, not about the reality of things) all the way to philosophic truth. When the Existential Nihilist tells their child to act with honor and dignity because it is a better way to live, they are refuting their own non-beliefs.

It seems to me that Shakespeare clearly believed in the reality of Love, Justice, Truth and Beauty, and he knew of the exquisite pain and comedy of life as we try to live by the urges that these garments of God place within us.

How the certainty of love, justice, truth and beauty led me to a spiritual adherence to a Post Orthodox Neo-Chasidic understanding of Lurianic Kabbalah is a narrative for another time, but for me arriving there seemed just about inevitable. A certainty.


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