Category Archives: 1

2000 Years: The Jewish Odyssey – 17th Century CE


Download: 2000 Years: The Jewish Odyssey – 17th Century CE

Shiur Originally Given on 5/18/2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Declaration of Independence acknowledged that mankind is endowed with a number of “unalienable rights,” among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While the first two rights are generally understood in both general and specific forms – government cannot capriciously take another person’s life or encroach on his liberty – it is the third that has proved most vexing to define, categorize, quantify and achieve.  Note, as many have, that there is no guaranteed right to happiness; rather the right is defined as the pursuit of happiness – each person in his/her own way.  And therein lies the hoary problem: if it is a pursuit, how do we know where to find it? In what direction do we turn in order to commence our pursuit of happiness, and at what point do we say that we have found it?

A traditional Torah definition – happiness is the state of satisfaction of a being fulfilling the purpose for which it was created – is both provocative and accurate, but also requires additional explication.  Fortunately, modern man quantifies, analyzes, measures and concludes from an inordinate amount of hard date – even in the realm of happiness – that leaves us capable of finding appropriate guidance.  Thus, for the last 45 years, almost a third of Americans have consistently defined themselves as “very happy,” and despite great fluctuations during this time in income, social trends, and national stability (1972-30%; 1982-31%; 1993-32%; and 2004-31%).  It is remarkably consistent.

These are the findings of a recent book by Syracuse University economics professor Arthur C. Brooks, entitled “Gross National Happiness.” Of course, the most critically important data delineate exactly what each person should want to know – what makes happy people happy? In what realms should we seek to find happiness, and what aspects of life should be enhanced? His conclusions are illuminating, at first glance somewhat surprising, and, upon reflection, most comforting to the Torah Jew.

For example, political conservatives have always polled significantly higher than political liberals on the “very happy” chart – averaging between 10-15% points higher, with the two groups only intersecting in 1974 and 1985.  Equal percentages of secular liberals say they are “very happy” and “not too happy” (22%), whereas religious conservatives are ten times more likely to say they are “very happy” than “not too happy” (50%-5%).  These statistics transcend ethnic groups and income levels.  Religious liberals say they are as happy as secular conservatives (33%).

There are a number of reasons for this, all instructive.  Conservatives generally value the role of the individual in society, and place much more emphasis on individual initiative and personal responsibility.  Liberals tend to focus on the collective.  Conservatives, thus, usually donate more money to charity than do liberals, volunteer more, and even donate more blood.  Liberals generally support government solutions to social problems (health

coverage reform, anyone?), and therefore see their primary role as inducing government to act on behalf of the less fortunate.  What is relevant here is not which group is more politically successful or logical, but that it is much easier to feel successful when one can rely on his own actions than when it is necessary to rely on the actions of everyone else, especially since the acts of the collective (even successful ones) do not necessarily reflect any individual accomplishment.

Furthermore, liberals are generally discontented with the state of society, and see injustice, victimization, and discrimination everywhere.  They are forever, like the mythical Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill and watching it roll down again, and are therefore less likely to feel happy than conservatives who wish to “conserve” the status quo, for better or for worse.

Even more to the point, and most reflective of America’s divisions today, conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to attend weekly religious services, and liberals are twice as likely as conservatives to never attend religious services.  And conservatives are also much more likely to be married (2/3) than liberals (only 1/3), and more likely to have children and to have larger families than do liberals.  (Children, oddly, decrease short-term happiness but increase long-term happiness.) Married conservatives are three times more likely to say they are “very happy” than are single liberals.  Married people generally are six times more likely to say they are “very happy” (they had better!) than unmarried people.  Almost twice as many religious people say they are “very happy” when compared with secular people (43%-23%).  (Interestingly, agnostics are gloomier people than atheists.) Why ?

Religious people are more likely to be part of a nurturing community (social integration is a key determinant of happiness) and people who live in religious communities tend also to be more financially successful – because those communities reinforce a culture of hard work and prosperity.  Religious people also have an innate purpose in life that affords meaning even to the most mundane aspects of life.  It is understandable then that – to take the two extremes – 52% of married, religious, conservative people with children describe themselves as “very happy,” whereas only 14% of secular, single liberals without children describe themselves in that way.  That validates, to an extent, Tolstoy’s observation at the beginning of “Anna Karenina” that “all happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In another subset, people who donate money to charity are 43% more likely than non-givers to say they are “very happy,” and volunteers are 42% more likely to be “very happy” than people who never volunteer.

All these numbers are exhaustively and comprehensively crunched in this engaging book – you can literally look it up – and all to tell us what we already know (!).

The keys to happiness are:

Faith: “Serve Hashem with joy, come before His presence with song” (Tehillim 100:2) and “be glad of heart, all who seek Hashem” (Tehillim 105:3).

Marriage:“It is not good for man to dwell alone, I will make a helper for him” (Breisheet 2:18).

Work: “When you eat the labor of your own hands, you are happy, and it is good for you” (Tehillim 128:2).

To be sure, there are plenty of unhappy conservatives, unhappy religious people, unhappy marrieds, happy liberals, happy singles and happy seculars – so none of this affects the life of any individual person who still must make his/her own choices.  Abraham Lincoln said that “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And, of course, life throws us its curves every now and then that necessitate adjustments, and cause temporary variations in our happiness levels..  But the overall message for us is one that is worth summarizing and internalizing: How does one pursue happiness ? Get married, start a family, stay married, go to shul, do mitzvot, give tzedaka, do acts of chesed, work hard and be a friend to others.

And realize that these are Hashem’s blessings that He bestows according to His will.

Moral Pretensions

“Mr. Al-Magrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power…He is going to die.”

And with that supine rationalization, Scotland’s Justice Minister freed “on compassionate grounds” Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the mass murder of 270 people in the explosion of a Pan Am plane in 1988. The problem is not just the obvious moral outrage, the misplaced compassion for a mass murderer, the anguish caused to the victims’ families who live to witness their loved one’s executioner free, feted and celebrated (a travesty well known to Israelis) or the obvious commercial benefit that will accrue to the UK through increased access to Libyan oil and gas     that makes this mercenary trafficking particularly odious.

Add to that the moral confusion sowed by this Justice Minister by invoking the “higher power.” The implication of the above-referenced statement is that until this killer dies, he cannot face divine justice. This is both false and dangerous. The Torah, for example, clearly posits that G-d elicits justice in this world, not only in the world after life – but in this world, human courts mete out justice. Thus, Jewish courts are explicitly permitted to execute convicts in a variety of cases, and some of them for deterrent and/or educational purposes. Non-Jews, as well, are authorized by the Noachide laws to establish courts of justice in order to administer and enforce the observance of those very laws, one of which proscribes homicide.

Indeed, human judgment is but a prelude to divine judgment – not a substitution for it – although in some cases, punishment by the human court can mitigate one’s subsequent divine punishment. It is not an either/or scenario, but rather both systems work hand-in-hand in order to fulfill G-d’s will for mankind.

There are certain instances wherein human justice is inappropriate or simply incapably of properly dealing with a moral outrage. For example, the Minister’s theological musings notwithstanding, his release of this despicable creature was also a moral offense – for which he too should be judged. And as the move was more crassly commercial and politically motivated than it was sensitive and civilized, it is unlikely that he will ever face human justice (except maybe at the polls). So it is he who will ultimately face justice at the hands of the “higher power,” along with the monster that he released.

I wonder if his theology extends as far as being able to look in the mirror.

In G-d’s world, human justice is not always perfect but it is adequate when fairly and systematically carried out. The notion that we cannot or should not judge evildoers is the product of a faith system that itself brought much destruction and bloodshed into the world. G-d gave us permission to fight evil and thereby bring His world closer to perfection. The reluctance to do that, or the timidity that the weak-willed  demonstrate under the guise of compassion, are both moral weaknesses that also endanger the rest of us, in a very dangerous  world, at a very dangerous time in history.

Moral strength and rectitude beget political strength and courage – and true compassion as well. And all good people should protest, grieve – and pray and work for a better day and a better future.

Blood Libel

      In what sounds like a blast from the 18th century, a Swedish journalist in a Swedish magazine published last week the bizarre allegations that Israeli soldiers routinely kill Palestinian Arabs in order to harvest their organs – even citing the recent case in Brooklyn in which a “religious” Jew stands accused of selling organs (and at a profit of 1600%). Given the number of times that brain-dead Israeli victims of Arab terror donated their organs to save Arab lives, this is a particularly despicable blood libel.

The Swedish allegations are based exclusively on the “eyewitness” testimony of local Arabs, who have never been known either for their keen connection to reality or an acute sense of integrity (see under “Jenin Massacre” and several dozen other outright falsifications). No other evidence was adduced, and even the reporter subsequently stated that he doubts the veracity of what he wrote. But he wrote it, and although the Swedish Ambassador to Israel properly apologized, the magazine has refused to retract and the Swedish government refuses to apologize for, or even criticize, the report, citing the cherished Swedish value of “freedom of expression.”

     That would sound like a principled stand, but for two reasons: firstly, “freedom of expression” certainly allows for critiques, renunciations or denunciations of other expressions – that itself is part of the freedom. They could well have said that he has a right to print what he wants, but we repudiate this Jew-hating drivel because it is wholly fictitious. They did not.

     Secondly, and more tellingly, when a Danish cartoonist published caricatures of Mohammed in 2005, thereby provoking murderous riots from easily-provoked Muslims, the same Swedish government that now wraps its sanctimony in “freedom of expression” led the world in apologizing to and genuflecting before the Muslim world for this offense to the peaceful religion of Islam and pledging its future vigilance against any further offenses of this nature. (Hmm… didn’t the Danish cartoonist also have rights of free expression ? Indeed, the concurrent shame to the pusillanimous Swedes is the cowardice of Yale University Press, which is refusing to publish a book on the Danish cartoon controversy because the author insists, naturally and reasonably, that a scholarly account of that affair should include the cartoons themselves so the reader can judge whether they indeed offend.) So why were the Swedes so craven to the Muslims and so dismissive of the Jews ?

     The simple answer is: Jews do not riot, would not attack Swedish embassies across the world, will not issue fatwas calling for the death of the author and anyone who has ever dined with him, and will not explode themselves in the presence of innocents. The same cannot be same of Muslims, suggesting a macabre paraphrase of the old saw that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” or more accurately stated in this context, “the more volatile religion gets the apology.”

    But there is more to the Swedish hypocrisy than appears at first glance. For Sweden to apologize would require that Sweden actually respect the sovereignty and integrity of the Jewish state. Clearly, they do not, nor do they see any down side in refusing the Israeli demand for a formal apology.

     But why should Sweden show Israel any respect, when Israel – by any standard definition of statecraft – continually evinces a lack of any self-respect ? Israel has been maneuvered into a situation – partly through its own mismanagement – in which the conventional wisdom is that the “settlements” are obstacles to peace and the only remaining impediment to peace. Israel has countenanced this attack on its sovereignty and historic/religious claims to its land, and even fostered it under recent governments. It certainly has not told the world (read: the United States and Europe) to butt out of its internal affairs, nor has it railed against the obvious injustice which precludes Jews from living in a historically Jewish territory – in a land named by it and for it (Judea) simply because they are Jews.         

      International respect needs to be earned, or rights are easily trampled   and sensitivities brushed aside. President Obama’s speech in Cairo, critiqued here ( referenced the Holocaust as the sole reason for Israel’s existence, offending many Jews (including me). But how does that square with Israel’s obsession in taking every foreign visitor to Yad Vashem ? Does not that foster the same conclusion that Obama came to – that the Holocaust is Israel’s raison d’être, and if all the Jews care about is security, then outsiders can send Marines, Mounties, bobbies and (in PM Rabin’s formula) the Palestinian Authority police to guarantee Israel’s security, and then peace will break out ? That lack of self-respect evokes a lack of mutual respect from other nations. A nation that negotiates with foreign governments its rights to its own land and its own legitimacy, and/or a nation that is hesitant to allow its own citizens to live on land it conquered warding off the aggression of its sworn enemies and begs, cajoles, or pleads for a crumb of respect, and/or a nation that cannot or will not say “no” when its vital interests are endangered, will not deserve even that.

     So the Swedes are the Swedes – but we can only expect the same measure of dignity from others that we have for ourselves. Jews, thankfully, will not blow ourselves up just to make a point; but we can insist that those who represent Jews – in Israel and in America – speak with Jewish knowledge, commitment, pride and resolve. Perhaps some of the nations will then fear us, as the Torah promised, but all of them will respect us.