Should Ju­daism make us happy?

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Comment - Rabbi Chaim Stein­metz

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.

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