The Wisdom of Judaism

Science Confirms What Rabbis Understood: Jewish Practice Makes You Happier and More Fulfilled


Over the millennia, Judaism has had many detractors who criticized our religion for being legalistic, for focusing on minute rituals and nitpicky do's and don'ts. Such minutiae are unimportant, the argument goes, because what is really important is "love" or the "spirit of the law," or "social justice," or simply being a good person.

But observant Jews have throughout history insisted on their 613 commandments, to the exasperation of these Christian, humanist and other critics.

Well, now an entire body of psychological research is coming down on the side of Judaism in this debate.

It would take a book-long treatise to show how recent findings in social psychology are confirming millennia-old Jewish insights, but here is one example that is the mere tip of the iceberg.

Psychologists like Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being are calling for a revival of the old-fashioned concept of "character" because possessing it, in their definition, is the greatest predictor of a successful and happy life.

But what is character and how do you acquire it?  In his recent bestseller The Social Animal David Brooks explains that you can't just say to yourself, "I want to be a good person" or "I want to control my impulses" because "the conscious forces of reason and will are simply not powerful enough to consistently subdue unconscious urges."

Instead, he writes:  

It is not one crucial moment that shapes a character. Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences. This model emphasizes the power of community to shape character. It's very hard to build self-control alone. It also emphasizes the power of small and repetitive action to rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain. Small habits and proper etiquette reinforce certain positive ways of seeing the world. Good behavior strengthens certain networks. Aristotle was right when he observed, "We acquire virtues by first having put them into action." The folks at Alcoholics Anonymous put the sentiment more practically with their slogan "Fake it until you make it." Timothy Williams of the University of Virginia puts it more scientifically, "One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings."

What does this sound like? It sounds exactly like a secular American version of the millennia-old principle of "na'aseh venishma," we will do and we will listen, the words, according to tradition, that the Jewish people said to God at Mount Sinai.

The idea is that in Judaism, practice of a commandment precedes understanding and practice is the only path to understanding.

Jewish tradition also opines that the purpose of the commandments (Judaism's version of what Brooks calls hundreds of "small and repetitive actions") is to refine human character "like silver." However, good character cannot be obtained directly, by just willing it. There is no shortcut. As the Khazar king puts it in Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's classic philosophical treatise, the Kuzari:

Man can only merit Divine influence by acting according to God's commands. Were this not so, most men would attain it, for they all strive to serve God to the best of their understanding, even astrologers, magicians, fire and sun worshippers, dualists etc.

So there you have it. Jewish tradition possesses an insight that is now being touted as the latest and greatest in the psychological literature. The thing is, while the psychological literature promotes the importance of "rituals," "rules and etiquette," and "small habits" in building character and creating a fulfilling life, it does not necessarily specify which rules and rituals one should follow. Fortunately for those of us who are Jewish, we don't have to reinvent the wheel.

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