09 May Does Torah Lead to Happiness?
I. HAPPINESS ISN’T UNIVERSAL
Many people feel that their lives are enriched by Judaism. Their rituals and holidays bring joy and meaning while deepening their marriage and family ties. The intellectual focus animates their conversations. The full Jewish life cycle, from cradle to grave, across the annual season, provides a structure that enables a happy life. Is that a feature of Judaism or a byproduct? Because not everyone feels that way.
Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:34) makes the important point that the Torah’s laws are intended to benefit the majority of people. What leads most people to happiness might cause some distress. Rav Yosef Kafach, in his notes to this passage, offers as an example someone traveling in a wagon on a dirt road during a drought. To most people, rain would be a blessing that satiates thirst and feeds the crops. But to that person traveling on the road, the rain will cause his wheels to get stuck in the mud. In life, some people are road travelers who get stuck in the rules and customs that enhance the lives of the vast majority of people. A Torah life can bring happiness to most people even if not to everyone. Some people will not enjoy a Torah life, although that is not an excuse to abandon it.
II. HAPPINESS ISN’T THE GOAL
More broadly, we have to reconsider the question. Happiness may not be the ultimate measure of a successful life. In a 1958 book, Judaism: Religion and Ethics, R. Meyer Waxman offers an interesting observation. Overall, the book’s first half consists of an overview for beginners of Jewish ritual law and the second half describes Jewish ethics. The section on ethics begins with a survey of the philosophical literature on the subject. R. Waxman claims that, generally speaking, secular philosophers believed that happiness is the proper goal. He writes (pp. 205-206):
“The leading end posited by all ancient and most modern ethical theories is happiness, for all men strive after happiness or well-being. The difference between the theories, and consequently between the judgments pronounced on actions, arises from the different conceptions of what constitutes happiness.”
We can discuss whether this accurately portrays the literature. However, he uses this generalization to propose a bold contrast. Unlike most philosophies, Judaism is not about happiness but about holiness. Put differently, Judaism sees happiness as a means, not an end.
The Torah is intended to raise our lives, bringing us closer to God with sanctity. While Rav Nachman of Bratslav is quoted as saying that it is a great mitzvah to be happy, he probably meant it non-literally. The mitzvah to be happy applies on holidays. Throughout the year, the mitzvah is to be healthy, which involves if not direct happiness then a balanced life of mental health. Happiness can be a means to greater holiness — joy is a good incentive to do the right things. Indeed, an unhappy person cannot achieve the highest levels of sanctity, which is why he cannot receive prophecy. But he can still rise far without joy. People with hard lives, who suffer tragedy and failure, are not bad Jews just because they are unhappy. They can achieve great things despite their hardships.
Orchos Tzaddikim (ch. 9) discusses positive and negative types of happiness. Bad happiness follows includes mockery, frivolity, licentiousness, gluttony and drunkenness. It is better to be sad than to chase happiness through impure channels that drain us of sanctity.
III. WHERE IS OUR HOLINESS?
However, many of us look at our observant lives and wonder where the holiness lies. We see many rituals that fill our lives with religious content but we still feel like we are drowning in mundaneness. Where is this holiness to which Judaism is supposed to lead? Often the answer lies in front of our eyes. We experience holy times on Shabbos and holidays, attend holy places like shuls and study halls, and spend large amounts of time engaging with sacred texts and prayers. The prevalence of holiness sometimes keeps us from seeing it. But on another level, we may be right to question whether our personalities and inner lives reflect holiness. Rashi explains why.
The Torah (Lev. 19:2) commands us to be holy. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that wherever we find care to avoid sin — particularly sexual sins (arayos) — we find holiness. Rashi’s view here is optimistic about human capacity. We are all inherently holy. All we have to do is avoid activities that diminish the greatness of mankind, particularly regarding arayos.
We may lead lives full of commandments but what do we do during our free time? Do our leisure activities maintain our holiness or do they fail to meet Rashi’s criterion? We live in a culture that is seeping with unholiness, particularly regarding arayos. How carefully do we avoid those aspects of secular culture? We can fill our lives with Torah and mitzvos but if we fail to guard ourselves we undermine, at least partially, our own efforts.
Ironically, many of us choose our happiness over our holiness. Yet our happiness is not always complete and neither is our holiness. I mean this not as a rebuke but as an attempt to make sense of our world. We aren’t perfect. If we can recognize that, we can realize that our compromises have allowed us only partial portions of happiness and holiness. Our understanding of proper goals allows us to see where we fall short and how to improve our Judaism and our lives. And until that time, to understand that some of the spiritual challenges of our lives are self-inflicted. How much holiness is in our lives? Exactly as much as we allow to remain.