Why did God create the world?

The most we can do, as the Abarbanel points out, is work backwards; now the world is created, what is our role and what does it look like its purpose is?

god.body 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
god.body 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
At the risk of stepping on many a philosopher’s toes, allow me to ask a classic question: why did God create the world? From a philosopher's standpoint, with only one's own logic to work with, this has been a contentious subject for time immemorial. I shall present the Jewish approach to this question, via the framework of tradition and wealth of sources to draw on, as the Kuzari highlights several times. Of course this does not absolve us from thinking and understanding ourselves, but it does provide a clear framework and serves to filter elements of subjective logic and garner accuracy and handed-down tradition.
On a note of sensible humility, we cannot fully fathom any of God’s actions or thoughts; the finite understanding the infinite is futile and impossible: many sources state this expressly in this area. Isaiah, citing God, writes that 'My thoughts are not your thoughts' and the Rambam writes in his Laws of Repentance that we cannot fathom God's knowledge for it is part of His essence. In short, the finite cannot fully fathom the Infinite. Thus, as the Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed writes that we cannot work out why God would want to create a world. The most we can do, as the Abarbanel points out, is work backwards; now the world is created what is our role and what does it look like its purpose is? As Rabbi Joseph B Soloveithcik would put it, 'we can rarely ask why when it comes to God, but we can ask what'. To put this in parable form, imagine a factory created to make plastic bottles. We see what the factory produces, but labelling ‘a love for plastic bottles’ as the reason the factory was created would be far off the mark; the owner probably created the factory to make money, to provide jobs, etc. All we can do is describe the factory’s output. So too, when looking at the world we cannot gain a complete understanding of why God might have decided to make a world (no less than we can gain a complete understanding of God Himself). But we can work backwards: we can see how the world functions and learn about God and our mission from this. As the Rambam and Radak write, examining the world should lead us to some understanding of and both love and awe of God, whilst the Ramchal goes further in writing that we can understand God’s attributes via the way He set up the world. So, with the preamble over and the framework and context laid down, we can ask: why did God create the world?
The classic answer to ‘why was the world created’, as outlined by the Ramchal, is that God is goodness embodied, and something that is good by nature bestows good upon others. In other words, God created this world in order to give us reward. But in order to give us true non-fleeting eternal spiritual reward, we need to earn and acquire it ourselves. This way, we would not be receiving a free gift, and crucially, we’d have become more like God who is completely independent: to be compatible with Him and thus be able to receive reward from Him, we'd need to perform good out of our own volition and 'earn it ourselves.' Thus, this world was created with its accompanying freewill so that we could choose to perform godly acts, thereby becoming godlier and acquiring merits for ourselves without depending on others for such merits.
In brief, this world was created for our benefit: to allow us to earn reward, which will be given to us in the World to Come. This, however, seems to conflict with several sources that paint a rather different story.
The Netziv, in his introduction to Shemos, writes that this world was created to give God honor, and cites a wealth of sources as proof. In our daily uva letzion tefillah (prayer) we say ‘blessed is our God who created us for his honor’ (‘baruch Hu Elokeinu shebaranu lichvodo’). And the final sentence of the sixth perek of Pirkei Avos reads: “Everything that God created in this world was created for His honor” – with the same sentiments echoed in the Gemarra Shabbos. Indeed, no less than the prophet Yeshaya declares (43:7) “Everyone who is called by My Name and whom I have created for My glory.” Not only are these two approaches different, they could not be further apart. The Ramchal would have us believe that the world was created for us, whilst the Netziv and his sources seem to say that the world was created for God. And the Ramchal certainly has no authority to argue against the caliber of the arsenal of sources brought by the Netziv: how are we to reconcile these two positions?
As is often the case in Torah, and especially in matters of such depth and centrality, if we look deeply enough we will see that there is no argument whatsoever. Let’s examine the Netziv’s ‘world created for God’s honor’ idea. It is axiomatic in Jewish thought that God is all-powerful and lacks nothing: such is the notion of an Omnipotent God. Yet surely the Netziv et al have gone against this: for if the world is here to give God honor, this suggests that God is lacking – before the world came about, He lacked honor, which he had to fill by creating this world? Rav Chaim Freidlander provides the missing link here.
Rav Freidlander writes that essentially both the Ramchal and the Netziv’s positions are true: one touches on the underlying cause whilst the other outlines our mission in this world. God lacks nothing: before the world was created He lacked no honor whatsoever. And God did create the world to give good to us – so we could perform godly acts through our own choice. But in order to facilitate this, God created a mechanism whereby we could give honor to Him, so to speak – every godly act we perform would give Him glory; we reflect Him in this world. Therefore, in essence, in order to give us good God allowed us to give Him honor via our actions in this world. So both the Ramchal and the Netziv are correct. The reason the world was created was for our good; but our mission in this world -- and the mechanism through which we earn this good -- is via giving honor to God. Thus, in Da’as Tevunos (58) the Ramchal also mentions that this world was created for God’s honor – for this is our goal here.
One can ask further. It’s interesting to note that the wealth of sources seemed to focus on the ‘giving glory to God’ concept. If, as we explained, the underlying reason for the world’s creation is to give us good, why do the sources focus on the secondary concept of giving glory to God?
The idea seems to be that philosophizing about why God created the world is all very nice, but at the end of the day given that we know what we are supposed to do here, such philosophy makes little practical difference to our lives. In fact, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler used to rebuke some of his students for engaging too much in philosophical endeavors at the expense of more practical disciplines. Therefore, the weight of sources swings towards the ‘giving God honor’ angle, as that’s our practical goal in this world. Pythagoras of Samos was once caught acting in an immoral fashion, and was asked how such a great philosopher and mathematician could behave in such an undignified manner. He wittingly responded that he is not a triangle and thus does not need to obey any of the rules he laid down. The Jewish approach is that knowledge does not live in a vacuum. Knowledge is there to be acted upon and to affect and ultimately uplift our lives. Philosophical pondering must thus be grounded in action.