The psalm goes on to say, “Happy are they who do not follow the advice of the wicked, who do not stand on the path of sinners, and who do not keep company with scorners. For the Torah of Adonai is their delight and they speak of it day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, who bear fruit in season and whose leaves never fade, and all that they do prospers” (Psalm 1:1-3).
Happiness, says the psalm, does not come from arrogance, selfishness or cynicism. Rather, it comes from living a life of wisdom and balance, reverence and appreciation. The psalmist compares a happy person to a tree that draws only what it needs from the world around it, and which produces only what is natural for it to produce in the time that it is meant to produce it. The psalm makes no promises of superabundance, of conquests, or of any pleasure beyond simply living in harmony with ones surroundings.
Does any of this sound to you like a good formula for happiness in today's world?
So many people in contemporary American society feel unhappy and they don't even understand why. A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2006 showed that only a third of Americans consider themselves to be “very happy.” Fifteen percent say they are “not too happy,” and half reside in the murky, in-between place of “pretty happy.” Sadly, the most prosperous and successful society on earth—perhaps the most materially prosperous society in human history—can only get one-third of its population “very happy.” What gives?
The reason, perhaps, is that—as the psalm suggests—we are looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Nearly from birth, the message that we hear in our society is that happiness comes from wealth, status, professional success, and the fulfillment of our desires. How many people pursue that vision of fulfillment only to find that it leads them to emptiness, isolation and a feeling that life is meaningless?
I'm starting this blog because I know that today's Jews need Judaism. They need a tradition that points to a way of living life that leads to happiness. I believe that we are beginning an era in which Judaism will be reborn as a tradition that allows people to find the joy of being part of a community, the joy of celebrating life's sacred moments, the joy of being a part of the natural world, and the deep and difficult fulfillment of finding meaning and purpose in life, even when life is hard.
I know that some are skeptical that authentic Judaism has such a message within it. In previous generations, many Jews ran away from Judaism because they were taught that Judaism was primarily about fulfilling obligations that they found irrational, and of mourning a sorrowful history that left them feeling wounded and depressed. They need to know that Judaism, from its most ancient roots, is not about those things.
In my own generation, I know that many Jews were taught that Judaism was primarily about intellectual inquiry, ethical living, and a scientific approach to our historical past. Believe it or not, that is the primary model of Judaism I was taught in rabbinic school only eleven years ago. We need to remember, that Judaism, at its essence, is more about the life of the spirit and soul than it is about the life of the mind. You don't need to be a PhD to be happy—and happiness, not intellect, is what the psalm says we should strive to achieve.
So, here is my plan. We need a new Judaism that puts joy back in the core of our people's mission. We need religious schools that teach children to feel great about being Jewish. We need synagogue services that make people feel the ecstasy of coming close to God. We need adult education programs that provoke self-examination, and that help people make choices to live more mindful and fulfilling lives. We need life-cycle events—baby namings, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings, and, yes, funerals, too—that make people feel that they have been touched by a moment of ultimate meaning in their lives. That's what I mean by Jewish joy.
I don't think that getting there is easy. Anyone who has ever asked a sanctuary full of Jews to stand up and dance in the middle of a service knows that there is a lot of resistance in the Jewish community to the kind of changes I am advocating. But it needs to happen. I'd like to hear your best ideas on how to transform American Judaism so that it will draw from the sweet waters of Torah and bloom with the fruit of joy.