Monday, May 9, 2011

In Pursuit of Happiness

Why is it that ultra orthodox Jews (vis a vis the rest of the human race) assume a sanctimonious posture, extolling the virtues of Orthodox Judaism as if they and their belief system are at the center of the universe? Other times I wonder if their obsession to promote their lifestyle is a response to their own deep-seated sense of self-doubt. Judging from what I read and hear one would think that to be an orthodox Jews is the be all and end all and the answer to man’s quest for complete fulfillment and happiness. Jonathan Rosenblum who writes for the ultra orthodox Mishpacha Magazine seems to believe that tired mantra. In extolling the virtues of living the “torah true life” Rosenblum has a compulsion to attack any life style that doesn’t jive with his. His argument is flawed because he chooses to contrast the “torah true life” with the hedonistic happiness pursued by epicurians: comparing the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure with those in pursuit of kavod. Naturally, Rosenblum doesn’t take note of the fact that so many frum Jews actively pursue kavod; that kavod is part and parcel of the religious culture including synagogue life within the “frum” community.

On a typical Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur eve (Kol Nidre) the typical “frum” synagogue will sell honors (keebudim) ranging from opening the ark to aliyot, haftarot and everything in between but the kitchen sink. Just about everything is up for sale, not in the name of charity but in the name of kavod. Had charity been the focus, then they could, like so many non-ultra Orthodox synagogues conduct silent bidding or fund raising drives prior to the holiday. As it is, entering a “frum” shul on Kol Nidre eve is like entering the market place, with the hubbub and din surrounding the bidding for the honors. I only mention this to remind Mr. Rosenblum to keep a balanced perspective and not be so dismissive of other lifestyles in spite of the polls that he cites. Polls as we know are dubious to say the least and subject to any interpretation that we wish to ascribe. According to the polls U.S. Jews should have been extinct by 1960, at the latest by 1980. According to the polls Israel ought to have been eradicated by now. So much for the polls.

However, if you wish to insist on polls I’d like to refer Rosenblum and his readership to Ynet (April 24, 2011) “Israel Ranks 7th in Happiness Index”, where the Gallup shows that 63% of Israelis are satisfied with their lives and beat out the United States and Britain. I doubt if the 63% cited are “frum”. The happiness list was headed by Denmark, Sweden, Canada and Australia. None of these have huge “frum” communities that would have skewed the polls, yet all these “goyim” seem to be genuinely happy, absent of living “torah true lives”, nor is it reasonable to believe that they define their happiness on the scale of hedonistic pleasures!

The two points that Jonathan Rosenblum ought to understand is the following: Religion may work for some, but isn’t the answer for everyone. It may be a source of happiness and fulfillment for some people but a source of unhappiness for many others. The millions of people worldwide who have suffered in the name of Jesus or Allah would agree with me. Unfortunately, I would have to add that there is a growing number of Jews who agree that “torah true Judaism” is a source of unhappiness since it attempts to control their lives – whom they marry and where they are buried. There is a growing number of quasi Jews whose conversions are questioned by the ‘torah true” establishment and they too would join the community of people who believe religion to be oppressive. I suspect that had Judaism’s right wing religious establishment had the political upper hand and wielded unfettered power the suffering at their hands would be no different to that of the Islamist who seek the establishment of a global caliphate or the Church that sought to enforce god’s will.

The second point is its time for Rosenblum and his ilk to respect other cultures and lifestyles. I don’t mean that in a perfunctory way but to genuinely recognize that every culture has its intrinsic and unique qualities. Each of us can learn from others and in so doing we gain wisdom insight knowledge and fulfillment. We Jews do not have a monopoly on happiness, fulfillment or wisdom. Reaching a modicum of happiness or fulfillment isn’t predicated on god, religious rites and ritual. It’s about the individual being able to find his voice and give expression to his creative skills endowed by nature. It’s about the individual pursuing his own dreams. Fulfillment is a long process with no prescribed uniform formulary but is dependent upon the individual to seek out his own personal fulfillment based upon his own unique soul print.