Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Are the Religious Happy?

Gene Simmons, a lead vocalist with the rock band Kiss, and one who in both lifestyle and music gave expression to the joys of hedonism, was born in Israel. He emigrated to the United States while still a boy. Nearly all of his mother's family perished in the Holocaust. Once when interviewed, he acknowledged that growing up he had considerable contact with the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel. Yet he rejected religious life entirely in favor of the totally secular which he came to represent with his gaudy costumes and shameless antics. When asked why, he responded by noting that for all the certainty and fervor in the Orthodox Jewish world there was a noticeable lack of joy! How could he believe in Torah values and be part of a Torah community absent of joy!

Is he right? Do the religious experience less joy than the secular?
Do those who follow worldly pleasures, like they use to say about blonds, indeed have more fun?

Some years ago I attended a Siyum Hashas, a celebration of the completion of learning through the entire Talmud, together with near 20,000 men who completed the 7 year cycle of Daf Yomi study.
It was held in the largest indoor venue in New York, the fabled Madison Square Garden. It was an awesome spectacle. All these men, and many more who could not attend or could not get tickets, studied a page of Talmud a day. They were not rabbis or scholars. They were accountants and plumbers, diamond merchants and teachers. In short they were every-day people. Yet they were devoted to studying Torah, so much so that they gave at least an hour a day to learn Talmud and the daily page. Here they were in the home of the New York Knicks, and concert venue for the Grateful Dead, and they filled it, not to cheer or smoke pot,but to celebrate the gift of Torah study.

The evening was punctuated by addresses from the leading Roshai Yeshiva in America, scholars all and most revered. Yet as I sat and listened to address after address it was not the profundity of the remarks that struck me. Rather I was struck by how little spontaneous joy seemed evident in each speech. Encouragement? Yes! Challenge? Yes! Admonishment not to forget the learning? Yes! There was lots of those themes in the addresses. But where was the joy? I thought the Roshai Yeshiva should be dancing with glee. What a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d. Committed Jews filled the Garden, the bastion of the secular! A cycle of learning was completed by more Jews than ever before in Jewish history. Why were there so few smiles on the faces of the spiritual leaders? Why did the ambiance feel more serious than happy!

I repeat my earlier question. Are those who take the Torah lifestyle seriously less happy than those who reject it? Does observance compromise our joy?

Its worth noting that in this weeks parsha, that of Re'eh, whilst we are charged in no uncertain terms to a total commitment to keeping the commandments and embracing the life of Torah, we are also mandated to be joyous. No less than 7 times in this week's portion we are charged with the call to be happy.

But lets be honest here. All the expectations that we keep the mitzvot, and they are many and intricate, and that we dare not sin gives us reason to be serious and hesitant to rejoice. If we take the Torah and our G-d given obligations to heart we are more likely to forever be concerned if we are getting it right! We are likely to be more anxious than happy, more sober than exuberant. With all the details of proper observance from the complexities of the laws of Shabbat and making the right bracha to having true 'kavana' when we daven we are forever likely to be self-doubting. Self-doubt rarely leads to joy.

And the confessions we make in our own prayers seem to mitigate against us feeling happy. If one davens nusach Sefarad, twice a day one recites the 'ashamnu' list of sins. And even if one does not, over and over we recite that we are essentially unworthy of the kindnesses we receive from G-d. All that we get and all that we ask for we do acknowledging we are undeserving.If one believes that even the blessings in his/her life come to him/her undeservedly, its hard to be happy. Grateful, yes! But happy, no! In the end, no one can be truly happy with gifts that come to him/her if s/he feels s/he is not really deserving of them.

And yet the Torah commands us to be happy. How can that be?

There is a brilliant and pithy model that someone once used to describe levels of spiritual maturity. They divided the process into 4 components. When one has a totally undeveloped spiritual sense they live life for their own sake. When they get early spiritual yearnings, in the second stage, they pursue G-d centered ends but for their own sake and benefit, meaning because of the rewards G-d promises for keeping and/or the punishment for neglect. At the third level, one pursues a G-d-centered agenda, that means the focus of one's life is on the spiritual, and for G-d's sake. At this level, one's desire to do mitzvot is so as to bring nachas to G-d. And mitzvot are indeed the center of one's life's work. I would think this is the highest level. But there is one stage yet beyond.
And that is to pursue one's own life's agenda, not G-ds, but not out of selfish motives. On the contrary, if you were choosing you would pursue the spiritual agenda entirely. Rather you choose what is good for you, even though you prefer to focus on G-d, because Hashem wants you to, that is Hashem wants your pleasure and joy!
The highest level is choosing to do what is for you but for G-d's sake!

It is in this context that even the most religious person can know,and indeed must know,total simcha. Rebbe Nachamn taught "mitzvah gedola l'hyot b'simcha", "its a great mitzvah to be happy always". What did he mean its a "mitzvah"? Mitzvah is a commandment! Rebbe Nachman should simply challenge us to be happy.
The answer is that Rebbe Nachman knew that for the truly spiritual person its so hard to be happy. S/he knows how lacking s/he is and how undeserving. If one simply is seeking to serve G-d for G-d's sake one is more likely to be serious than joyous, and self-doubt will reign. But simcha is a mitzvah. G-d wants us to be happy! We need to be happy not for our sake but to do G-d's will for us.
That kind of happiness can happen even for the one most skeptical of his/her worth, because that happiness is not about them but about Hashem's desire for them.

Gene Simmons was right. Religious people, those who take their obligation to Hashem most seriously tend not to be as naturally happy as their counterparts who are secular. How can we be truly happy when we feel ourselves so lacking.

But we are called upon to be happy. Its a mitzvah oft repeated in the Torah. It takes a level of great spiritual maturity to forgo our own self critique and be happy because Hashem wants it for us.
Yet that is our mandate. To be candid,I think even great Roshai Yeshiva miss this call. They remind us of our limitations. They talk to us at stage 2 and 3 of our spiritual continuum. But they do not challenge us to attain stage 4 nor do most in themselves reflect the joy it should auger. Too bad!

You and I will have to get it on our own....To be spiritual and full of joy is not only not inconsistent. They go hand in hand. To the extent we lack the joy is to the extent we have not yet matured sufficiently in our spiritual process.
True we have no right to be happy. All we are given is a gift undeserved. But G-d wants us to be happy...And even if I feel unworthy I need be happy because He wants me to know joy!
"Mitzvah gedola lhyot b'simcha tamid!

Shabbat Shalom

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