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:
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:
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.