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Hiding Our Happiness

It’s that time of year again. Yeshiva University students mill about humming happy tunes, perhaps dancing a bit to themselves, smiling a bit wider than usual. Adar brings a time of ribuy simha, increased happiness, that climaxes with Purim, when Orthodox communities across the globe will dress in costume, drink too much alcohol, and dance like they haven’t danced since last year’s hagiga.

And it’s a lot of fun while it lasts. But it also raises a larger question about our community: How much do we value happiness? What kind of happiness do we value and how do we express that? It appears to me that we do not place enough emphasis—institutionally and publicly—on personal happiness, and that this needs to change.

Now, in one sense, it is clear that the Orthodox community places some worth on happiness; every year we cycle through holidays that require simha, whether the wilder form on Purim or the tamer iteration of simhat yom tov, either way drawing out many shiurim and schmoozes about “simha.”

The problem is, though, that this simha invoked by rebbeim appears to be a specific type of happiness: some sort of required happiness, or happiness for religious purposes, perhaps because the Jewish people were saved during this time or because God gave us the Torah. And these are very good and important reasons to be happy. But are they enough? Are these the only things we believe should make us happy in life?

Another type of happiness is ignored in many of our own Modern Orthodox circles. This happiness is more personal, resulting from personal satisfaction, fulfillment, a sense of self-realization. It draws from achieving personal goals, from familial and social relationships, from academic success, from striving towards career aspirations, from engaging in enjoyable and entertaining activities—from living a day-to-day life in accord with what one wants.

I am not claiming that Orthodox people are not happy. And I am not even claiming that Modern Orthodox institutions and leaders do not think that personal contentment matters. But our institutions and rebbeim do seem to shy away from the subject when it comes to public discourse—shiurim, schmoozes, discussions of our core values. A troubled student might approach his mashgiah in yeshiva, and receive comforting words about the importance of his own happiness; but why is happiness pushed underground, never discussed from a pulpit, invoked as something important when facing a crowd of students?

To be fair, valuing happiness can cause problems for a religious person. For one, we believe that people should be motivated to act by God’s will and the halakha, not their own personal whim, or based on what will make them happy any given morning. The pursuit of happiness can lead to a life centered around obeying one’s personal desires rather than God’s command, which even if aligned with halakha, would be a problematic perspective. What’s worse, pursuing happiness can certainly lead to conflicts with halakha; what one wants and what halakha demands are not always the same.

And so, there are legitimate challenges to emphasizing happiness too much. But does that mean we should ignore it and refrain from discussing what is ostensibly a value in our community?

In a practical sense, we must recognize that we live in a secular, individualistic society where want is more important than should. Even people who grow up Orthodox come to religion from a modern perspective of choice, and thus ultimately choose to act based on what will make them happy; in other words, it is worth talking about happiness and how it interacts with religion simply because people will gladly move away from religion if they cannot see how it fits in with their conception of satisfied living.

But in a more ideological sense, if we truly value happiness—think that it is important in it’s own right, crucial to functioning as a religious Jew and, on a more basic level, as a human being—then it is important that we discuss it with our children, our students, and our constituents in a forthright manner, in a public and institutional forum, rather than hiding it under the veil of personal conversations with mashgihim. We needn’t fear the challenges posed by valuing happiness, but rather must include them in an open and honest discussion about the values at stake.

So as we enter Adar and sing our way through Purim, perhaps we should think a bit more deeply about what we mean by “simha” and how this one-month binge of happiness relates to our emotional experience throughout the rest of the year. And, perhaps, our rebbeim and institutions—from elementary and high schools to yeshivot in Israel, YU, and yes, even Modern Orthodox shuls—might reconsider how little they promote a culture of happiness in our community.

And, of course—for what it’s worth—have a happy, frielikhin Purim.