Should Judaism make us happy?
In December, the Jewish Education Project partnered with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation to sponsor a recent conference entitled: “Happiness Hacks: Feel Good, Do Good and Stop Obsessing about Jewish Identity.” According to newspaper reports, at the conference, more than 400 educators and lay leaders learned “how to integrate positive psychology into their curricula.” This new emphasis stems from the idea that “members of Gen Z – the cohort right behind millennials – prize personal happiness above all else.”
Happiness is certainly a Jewish aspiration. On Rosh Hashanah, we dip our apple into honey, hoping for a sweet new year. We pray each day for a life of goodness and blessing. We also want our religious experiences to be sweet and happy as well. There was a medieval custom that a child would be taught the Hebrew alphabet by writing each letter in honey on a board, and after learning the letter, the child would then lick the honey. This was meant to symbolize how sweet the Torah is. Happiness is a very Jewish value.
Not everyone wants their religious experience to be happy. It’s easy to see religion as primarily discipline and seriousness. H.L. Mencken once quipped that puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” In our own community, too many forget how joyous Judaism is and that it could be and should be seen as a source of contentment. Our relationship with God is one of happiness, and many Jewish philosophers see creation as an act of love, a gift of joy to mankind. This idea is reflected in a Jewish approach to life. In 2012, the Gallup-healthways Well-being Index found that Jews have the highest well-being and happiness levels of any of the American faith groups. Joy is an essential part of Judaism and Jewish culture.
But it’s a serious mistake to prize happiness above all, and it’s a mistake for educators to follow Generation Z in
It wasn’t always happy to be a Jew, but it was always meaningful.
their quest for happiness. John Stuart Mill wrote: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” This echoes the Mishnah’s teaching that you serve God without interest in a reward and do what’s right simply because it’s right. Even when you have to make sacrifices, you continue to do what’s right, because that’s what makes a man into a mensch. In a choice between happiness and meaning, you choose meaning, because it’s better to be a good man than a happy man.
Even though Judaism cherishes happiness, we know it cannot be the ultimate goal. Had our ancestors decided that happiness was the goal, there would not be any Jews today. It wasn’t always happy to be a Jew, but it was always meaningful.
Prof. Marc Michael Epstein tells a powerful story of his days working in the rare book department at Sotheby’s. Inevitably, elderly people would show up with old books of little value, assuming they were important antiques. One day, one elderly man arrived with a book of Psalms from 1920. Not knowing how to explain that the book had no monetary value, Epstein asked him: “What did you pay for this?” Epstein said “the old man drew himself up to his full 5 feet, 2 inches. ‘For this, I paid seven days’ Auschwitz bread,’” he replied. It seems that the Nazis had caught him with the little Psalm book, and as a penalty for possessing it, imprisoned him without food – only water to drink – for an entire week. Epstein writes that he stammered, until he finally said: “This… is too valuable for us to sell.”
This elderly man offers a timeless lesson, for Gen Z and beyond: what makes us stand tall is not what makes us happy, and what is most precious is often obtained through sacrifice.