Existence Precedes Essence: The Torah’s Philosophy of Individualism

In the Torah, the book of  Exodus is essentially the “Book of Freedom.” Both that which philosopher Isaiah Berlin deemed as “Negative Liberty,” – freedom from external political coercion, and also “Positive Liberty,” – the freedom to grow in soul, and to lead an elevated life of growth and altruism. From all the manifold Biblical figures who facilitated the exodus from Egypt, one person looms large in her singularity, audacity and majesty – Pharaoh’s daughter, chillingly and metaphorically nicknamed “Hitler’s daughter,” by the late and righteous Rabbi Sacks.

The Pharaoh conceptualized and spearheaded the first genocidal campaign in collective recorded memory, by decreeing the systemic murder of all Jewish male infants, whereas his daughter, named by our sages “Bat-Ya,” meaning “God’s daughter,” exhibited the call of conscience and compassion, and proactively decided to save a Jewish infant, and raise him in the despot’s palace. To this day, many thousands of Jewish women are named after her as “Batya,” the daughter of the monstrous tyrant, the woman who personified humanity and humanism at the heart of genocidal darkness and atrocities.

This striking fact is exceptionally philosophically noteworthy. For it teaches us a sublime and invaluable lesson in Jewish philosophical existentialism. Namely – that our personal fate and destiny are not solely determined by our socialization and socio-economic upbringing. Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, is a magnificent epic representation of philosopher Sartre’s assertion that “existence precede essence.” That our upbringing, socialization and DNA, precede, rather than entirely determine, the full-fledged scope of who we are, and who we can ultimately become.

Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, whom I was privileged to meet, was the son of a cruel Nazi. He converted to Judaism, served as a physician in the IDF, made Aliyah, and rejected his father’s genocidal legacy. The great Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish, had a highly dubious previous preoccupation. He was a notorious highway robber, before transforming his ways, and becoming a sagacious giant. Jephthah, who ultimately led the ancient Israelites as judge and warrior, started his life as the destitute and wild son of a prostitute. Rabbi Akibah, the towering sage of his generation, came from an intellectually meek and destitute milieu. He was virtually illiterate in the Hebrew, until well into his forties. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the most encompassing and original Talmudic commentator the 20th century had known, grew up in a staunchly atheistic household, and autonomously became observant during his adolescence. And Rabbi Jonathan Sacks did not attend a Jewish day school as a child and adolescent, and decided to learn Judaism systemically and institutionally for the first time in his life, only after having achieved an advanced degree in secular academia, whilst well into his twenties.

From a more global perspective, our world has seen drug dealers transformed into rehab counselors, and individuals convicted of grave crimes, who later on became true clerical leaders and authentic guides and inspiration for the young, in very challenging and troubled urban environments. Against the defeatist and hyper-deterministic cult of strict causality and rigid determinism, which the bulk of the Western philosophical canon seems to preach and imply, from the ancient Greeks and also Buddhist concept of “eternal recurrence,” – the notion that life is cyclical and that fate is inevitable and a-priorly sealed, all the way to modernists such as Spinoza’s dogmatic determinism and Nietzsche’s dubious ‘amor fati,” (“love of fate”), there shines the Judaic philosophical anthropology and supernal vision of life as destiny, of an existence replete with authentic human agency and veritable inner freedom, championed by the proponents of Jewish spirituality, spanning from Abraham, to Pharaoh’s daughter, to Rabbi Heschel and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, in more recent times.

To be a Jew, not by way of mere ethnicity – but by way of true and authentic ontological essence – entails a constant and steadfast refusal to accept our personal, national and international status quo as perpetual, immutable and inevitable. From Abraham, who saw this world as midrashcally akin to a “burning palace,” aflame in the darkness of wars, maladies, ignorance and malice, to survivor Elie Wiesel fighting genocides throughout the globe, we are the people who endeavor to change and grow for the good and the sublime. In an age fraught and pervasive with nihilism, radical hedonism, and solipsistic hyper-individualism, Judaism at its best carries an ancient, yet timeless and perpetual message of hope for us Homo sapiens. We can change and grow for the better. We need not succumb to existential defeatism and passive resignation. We can surmount our innate circumstances, grow in soul, and be a blessing to this tormented and sublime world of ours. For Judaism, taught me Rabbi Sacks of righteous memory, is no less than “the redemption of solitude.” Our cosmic solitude, in a seemingly oblivious and apathetic physical universe, as well as our personal and soulful solitude, in an age pervaded by the communal and spiritual deficits of secular modernity, coupled with a consumerist society, typified by a “maximum amount of choice, and a minimum amount of meaning.” I leave you today with RFK’s hopeful vision for humanity: “Some look at the world the way it is and ask ‘Why?’ I look at the world the way it could be, and ask ‘Why not?’”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler


  1. Reply
    Mireille MATHALON says

    What a great sermon . !!
    See u at 4. Shabbat shalom

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