Ask the Rabbis // Happiness
Should Jews strive to be happy?
No. Jews should never strive to be happy.
Happiness should not be something to strive for. It should be solidly entrenched deeply within us, born of a sense of mystery, a sense that defies reason and definition. We are here for the very purpose of not knowing why. And in the not knowing, we rejoice and laugh in the face of every imaginable fate. This is the audacity of Torah, which challenges us to dance on Simchat Torah with numbers etched into our arms, to dream tenaciously about Jerusalem in spite of 2,000 years of exile, to sing joyful melodies on Saturday even if we know a pogrom is pending on Sunday. We are a people that has been subjected to unimaginable tragedy, genocide, expulsion and conquest for longer periods and with far more frequency than any other group in human history. Yet at the same time, we are a people known for our humor, our laughter, our joy. Happiness for us is much more than an emotion. It is a theology, an essential and enormous divine imperative (Likutei MoHaRaN Tanina, ch. 4). Without it, we risk slip-sliding into subjection to a finite, mortally fashioned reality along with all of its empty promises, painful disappointments, disempowering illusions and short-lived exaltations. Happiness, Judaism teaches, is knowing that you don’t know.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
The first really big thoughts I ever had were as a young child pondering the possibility of life both before me and after me. How, I wondered, could there be a world without my existence? Who hasn’t had similar questions?
The corollary to the “before” and “after” query is what to make of the “during”—the in-between. What, we ask, is the goal, aim or purpose of life? Some people aren’t bothered by these questions—or don’t have the luxury to sit and reflect on them. Others lose sleep over them. Life, they say, must be more than just survival or making a living. Happiness and self-worth must mean more than the material possessions and wealth we acquire.
I believe that for Jews and Judaism, happiness is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, it is the reward for doing deeds of loving-kindness (loving our neighbor as ourself); performing acts of justice—(“Justice, justice you shall pursue”); learning for learning’s sake; thinking critically, staying true to our values and celebrating our heritage. Follow this path and happiness will come as a matter of course, along with dignity and a worthwhile sense of purpose.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches, “If you don’t feel happy, pretend to be. Even if you are downright depressed, put on a smile. Act happy. Genuine joy will follow.” While at first glance this might appear to be disingenuous, the Rebbe is inviting us to be fully human. Joy, once activated, opens us to our aliveness, our chiyyut. It draws us to the state of mochin d’gadlut—spacious mind—from which we can see things from a G!d’s-eye view.
Putting on a smile is not intended to cover over anything but rather to make room for what is here—the presence of Yah—in each breathing, sacred moment. The smile which leads us to joy, which leads us to wonder, calls upon the child within to live with curiosity and creativity.
To “strive to be happy” is the response to G!d’s call, U’v’acharta b’chayim, l’ma’an tichyeh, “Choose life so you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19) so that we may, with G!d’s help, be fully alive.
Rabbi Mark Novak
Minyan Oneg Shabbat
Real happiness is profound. Beyond smiles and good feelings, it denotes meaning and purpose, as in the opening of the familiar prayer “Happy [Ashrei] are those who dwell in Your house” [Psalm 84]. So Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was right: “Mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simcha tamid, the overarching Jewish imperative is to strive always to be happy.” Likewise, for Mordechai Kaplan, being happy is truly divine: God is “the Power that makes for Salvation [i.e. deep happiness, fulfillment of potential].” Pursuit of happiness, an inalienable right, is ingrained in human nature; simply, we’ll do what it takes. That self-centered impulse, our yetzer hara, is actually deemed “very good” in our tradition. But it must be constantly balanced with helping others be happy, too. That ethical impulse is our yetzer hatov (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7, as taught by Ira Stone).
When it’s grounded and meaningful, indeed, as Pharrell Williams’ hit song has it, “Happiness is the truth.” Yet its evil twin, immediate gratification, gives happiness a bad name. Seeking happiness exclusively for oneself, or too impulsively, is destructive. Defined broadly, however, pursuing everyone’s happiness for the long haul is our mitzvah gedolah, our purpose. Everything we hold dear—family, Torah, self-actualization, tikkun olam, art, education, truth, peace, you name it—it’s all about striving toward our own happiness, and that of others, simultaneously.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with a group of high school students who were debating the question, “Do we have control over our own happiness, or is that something for which we must rely on others?” Maimonides teaches, “It is natural for man’s character to be drawn after the thoughts and actions of his friends and associates, and for him to follow the norms of the people of his country. Therefore, one must associate with the righteous and be constantly in the company of the wise, so as to learn from their deeds” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, ch. 6:1). Maimonides proves this point with a text: “Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked… rather, the teaching of Adonai is his delight” (Psalms 1:1).
In other words, achieving happiness requires action, doing righteous work for the benefit of oneself and others and surrounding oneself with a community of shared values. If those around you are happy, you will be too.
Of course we should strive to be happy. Is happiness in our control? Our tradition affirms that happiness comes from the choices we make each day, how we live and with whom we are in relationship. Those choices are surely in our control. I encouraged those students to adopt such a mindset and to strive for happiness in that way each day.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Happiness can have many meanings: serving God with joy, rejoicing on special occasions, appreciating small pleasures, feeling happy or contented. Let’s focus for now on practicing Judaism with joy.
Our Sages declared that we should strive to bring simcha (happiness) to all Jewish living—worship, observance of mitzvot and study—and serve God with joy. The Sages argued that commandments should be performed with joy (simcha she’ mitzvah). Indeed, the Sages argued that one can develop a close relationship with God only by bringing joy and happiness to the performance of the commandments. Similarly, it was considered important to study Torah with a positive attitude and a sense of joy.
The great medieval commentator Rashi suggested that God does not reside with a person unless that person is joyous in fulfilling God’s will. When the Hasidic movement was founded in the late 1700s, its premise was that Jewish life was parched. Jewish observance had become tedious; there was no joy in serving God. The early Hasidic rabbis strove to infuse joy and spirit into all expressions of Judaism.
The first chief rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), is quoted as saying “Delight and joy must accompany your every spiritual endeavor.” If we strive to make this so, Kook argued, we will strive to live a better life.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
What kind of question is this? Striving to be happy is a universal human phenomenon. Why should Jews not do the same? Would you ask: Should Jews strive to breathe? Should Jews strive to eat?
Maybe you meant: Is there a distinctive Jewish way to be happy? I doubt it. Jews, like most people, are happy when they are given the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This last phrase means that most people are happy not so much when they are in an actual state of fixed or permanent happiness, but when they are striving for happiness. Most people tend to be happy when they experience love or are treated with dignity, when they are physically healthy and well fed, clothed, sheltered and have constructive work to do. There is nothing particularly Jewish about these conditions.
The question does draw attention to the fact that happiness is highly rated in Jewish tradition. Yes, Virginia, joy and not guilt is the top Jewish message. However, usually the reference is to the joy of fulfilling a mitzvah or doing a good deed. The Psalmist says, “Serve God with joy; come before God with shouts of gladness” (Psalms 100:2). Maybe Rabbi Nachman of Breslov put it best: “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of happiness, always.”
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
How could we not try to be happy? Of course, being happy is not the only value—there are lots of things we should be doing—but happiness is certainly a value to pursue. I’m very fond of the beginning of Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just), a great Hebrew literary classic written in 1740, in which Moses Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, begins the first chapter, “Man is created to take pleasure.” He then, cleverly, once he has your attention, says that the real pleasure in life is closeness to Hashem and that nothing can compete with the pleasure of being near G-d, who is the source of all pleasure. But he does take it for granted that the idea of pursuing pleasure is going to resonate with traditional Jews who are turning to his book to learn how to pursue the ethical high road.
An important distinction can be made between pleasure and happiness. At least the way we use the word in English, pleasure can be transitory and ephemeral, something that is stimulating or even titillating in the moment but quickly vanishes. Happiness is usually something you have to invest in, that grows slowly and takes a good deal of work and sometimes sacrifice and even pain to achieve. But the pursuit of happiness is something so natural that we have no recourse but to presume that G-d engineered us in order to pursue it and then gave us the guidance to pursue it ethically.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA
Happiness is usually understood in the context of pleasure derived from a goal achieved. As Jews we are an or la’Goyim—a light to the nations—striving to bring about a perfected world. Not all that much to be happy about. Yet the Torah complains that “you did not serve the Lord, your G-d, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything” (Deuteronomy 28:47).
When we are conscious that we are working as part of G-d’s plan, trying to bring the world into alignment as well, then we have personally achieved the goal of oneness with the divine. So, as Jews, we should be happy to strive.
Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski
Chabad of South Denver