What is the Jewish Take on Happiness?
In trying to divine an answer to that question, I decided to examine what the Bible says on the subject. But first, I asked around to get a sense of what my fellow Jews thought.
“Who was the happiest character in the Bible?” I asked.
“Somebody was happy?” went a common reply.
“Define happy,” went another.
Here the problems start.
The Jewish tradition as presented in our founding texts, the Bible and the Talmud, is not a philosophic, reflective tradition. Generally speaking, Jewish scholars began to theorize on such subjects when confronted with the Greek philosophic tradition. Our greatest philosopher, Maimonides (1135-1204), openly admitted his debt to Aristotle and the Greek tradition. The Jewish tradition has a lot to say about “happiness,” but for definitions, we should start with the Greeks and their interpreters.
The Greek word most often used for what we would call happiness is eudaimonia, which literally translates as “good spiritedness” but is often interpreted as “human flourishing” or “spiritual well-being.”
There is an ongoing study of “happiness as spiritual well-being” today that one could say is flourishing. The “Pursuit of Happiness” course at Yale University, developed in response to the perceived unhappiness of the student body, contains an excellent history of how happiness has been understood across cultures and throughout history. The course, a version of which is available online, reaches back to the thoughts of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; contemplates the philosophy of Buddhism; analyzes the views of American psychologist Abraham Maslow and Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl; and probes recent research rooted in neuropsychology, among other things. It then recommends practices that will lead to happiness.
The consensus gathered by the course is that happiness as well-being is not found in a passing moment of pleasure or gratification, but rather is derived from a sustained sense of living a life of meaning and purpose through some activity “generated from the soul.” In other words, those who profess deep well-being don’t arrive there only from good fortune or anything generated from the outside world. A person can be wealthy, loved and admired, but despite it all, be miserable. Good fortune might set the stage for deep well-being, but does not guarantee it.
The biblical adjective ashrei and hence the noun osher line up very well with the greatest teachings on authentic happiness, how authentic happiness has been understood through the ages and to the “positive psychology” movement today.
One of the most important contemporary thinkers on happiness, psychologist and educator Martin Seligman (whose teaching is rooted in Aristotle), says happiness consists of finding your “signature strengths,” honing them and using them effectively in the service of some higher purpose. For example, a person might discover that they find their greatest meaning in life through parenting. Being a good parent is not easy; great wisdom and virtue are required. There are pleasurable and even blissful moments, but a person’s signature strength as a parent might be manifested in how they handle moments of upset, disappointment or crisis. Having a sense of purpose and knowing that you are channeling that purpose into your life and the lives of others with wisdom (knowing what to do) and virtue (being able to do it) can create a life of extraordinary well-being.
The Hebrew term for what Seligman calls “Authentic Happiness” (one of his book titles) — is osher (rhymes with kosher). In fact, the Hebrew translation of his book is titled “Osher Amiti” — “True Osher.”
However, the word osher is rare in the Bible; much more common is the adjective ashrei.
From the Bible’s perspective, who has achieved the attribute ashrei? Anyone familiar with Jewish liturgy knows the answer: “Ashrei yoshvei veitekha” — “Ashrei are those who dwell in Your abode.” (Psalms 84:5)
Ashrei is usually and inadequately translated as “happy,” “fortunate” or “praiseworthy.” Let’s dig into the use of the word a bit, and then venture a translation.
Let’s start with who “dwells in God’s abode.”
“Oh God, who shall dwell in Your tents; who shall inhabit your Holy Mountain? One who walks unblemished, doing justice, speaking truth in his heart . . .” (Psalms 15:1-2)
Who else bears the attribute?
“Ashrei is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is absolved. Ashrei is the one to whom God does not ascribe iniquity, and in whose spirit is no deception.” (Psalms 32:1-2)
“Ashrei is the one whose strength is in You, (Your) set paths are in his heart. For those who pass through the Valley of Thorns, He has placed a wellspring; enveloping it with the blessed pools of the first rain.” (Psalms 84:6-7)
“Ashrei are those on a wholehearted path, who walk in the teachings of God. Ashrei are those who guard God’s testimonies, who seek him with all their heart.” (Psalms 119:1-2)
A couple dozen more sources could be adduced, but the constellation of biblical verses containing the word ashrei suggests that dwelling in the abode of God refers not, of course, to actually living in the courtyards of the Holy Temple but to a type of spiritual consciousness. In that state of consciousness and generated from that state of consciousness, one lives a wholehearted, righteous and moral life. In that “abode,” one seeks and lives by the moral teachings of God. In that state of consciousness, one’s inner state is not defined by the outside world. The world out there might be dark and scabrous, but deep within, one lives wholeheartedly with the Divine.
It should be clear: Ashrei does not (except in two cases) refer to the ritual law. As we know from Isaiah Chapter 1, God is disgusted with a person who observes the Sabbath and new moons, but who tramples on the poor. Ritual observance might be true, but it might only be superficial. Ashrei refers to a person who seeks God in the heart and whose inner life is connected with the moral law. God sees through superficial lip service. Whatever one’s level of observance, the appellation ashrei refers to moral character.
“The path [to happiness] I teach involves four elements: vision, focused intentionality or will, skill and enlightened reflection.”
The biblical adjective ashrei and hence the noun osher line up very well with the greatest teachings on authentic happiness, how authentic happiness has been understood through the ages and to the “positive psychology” movement today. Moments of gratification and joy in life are good, but authentic happiness is defined by living in a sustained way with a sense of meaning and purpose, and living out God’s moral law. Ashrei, then, refers to something like this: living consciously and actively aligned to God’s teaching.
The biblical notion of ashrei does seem to go against the grain of some of the more exalted religious ideas of happiness, reserved for the elite. Buddhism and the religious teachings of Al-Ghazali, Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas refer to a transcendent experience of ultimate reality. The adjective ashrei seems to eschew that notion. Ashrei refers to something that is not mystical and is not reserved for the elite. Ashrei means speaking truth in the heart, being moral and being conscious of the Divine, even in moments when life is especially hard.
Ashrei is about you.
* * * * *
With all this in mind, let’s return to my opening question: Who was the happiest character in the Bible?
The answer seems clear: Job.
Let me explain.
First, please understand that I see the Book of Job, and the Bible in general, as literature, not a chronicle. Even the historical sections are written with the pen of literary genius. The Book of Job is such a literary gem, and was written with a purpose. The characters — God, Satan, Job and Job’s erstwhile friends — are literary creations, created to reflect something profound about the human condition. Job, in his suffering, represents every person who has suffered terribly and been told that God (or the Universe) is just, and that therefore they must have done something wrong.
Job is introduced to us as being from the land of Utz (Advice). He is blameless and upright, reveres God and turns aside from evil — in short, ashrei.
From reading Chapters 1 and 2, we know that Job has not sinned. The profound sorrows inflicted upon him are the result of a wager between Satan and God. Satan bets that Job is moral and reverential only to derive God’s blessings (Satan seems to have read the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs). To prove that Job will remain moral and reverential, God permits Satan to afflict Job by taking away all of God’s blessings. After suffering unspeakable catastrophes, Job endures the eloquent if misguided arguments of his friends that he must have sinned. Job argues back over some 30 chapters (see Chapter 13 for the summary). Job insists: Yes, God is just, but I have not sinned. Job finally demands that God must answer (Job 31:35).
Job did not fold — he insisted on the truth that he spoke from his heart.
God finally does speak, out of a whirlwind. However, God sidesteps the question as to whether Job deserves his misfortune, and instead questions Job, saying, “Who is this who gives darkened counsel (machshikh eitzah), words without understanding?” (Job 38:2) God then fulminates about God’s own power and wisdom. After this magnificent oratory, God asks, “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty give instruction? The one who reproves God must answer!” (Job 40:2)
Job admits he is deficient in knowledge (that’s his whole point): “What can I answer God? I’ll put my hand over my mouth and say no more.” Job said it once and he won’t say it again. It might have ended there, but God, is not done with Job and goes back to the awesome-power theme. God wants Job to admit that God has fearsome power — which Job does not deny. And God seems to want Job to infer from that power that he, Job, must have sinned. Job makes no inferences; he wants the truth and holds the line.
Job finally takes his hand down from his mouth and issues his challenge. Now, what follows here are some of the most misinterpreted lines of the Bible. I want to thank Jack Miles, in his masterful book “God: A Biography,” for helping me to see these verses clearly, thereby changing the way I read the book of Job.
In Job 42:1-6, Job begins: “You know that you can do anything, and no purpose of yours can be withheld.” (The original Hebrew text says “You know,” not “I know.”)
Job then paraphrases God’s ridicule of Job back in Chapter 38:2: “(You, God, ask:) Who is this who gives darkened counsel without understanding?” I, indeed, said things I did not understand, mysteries of which I had no knowledge.”
Job says, “Listen, and I will speak! (Job is paraphrasing himself from Chapter 13:6-7.) Job, now mimicking God from 38:3, says, “I’ll ask the questions, and you answer!”
So Job now answers, in perhaps one of the most breathtaking verses in the Bible: “I heard about you, but now my eye has seen you. And I am disgusted, and I pity humanity.”
The Hebrew: Al ken em’as (“Therefore I am disgusted”), ve-nichamti (“and I pity”) al afar ve’efer (“upon dust and ashes,” a biblical metonym for mortal human beings).
Job has seen God, and seen through God. Job realizes that God cannot provide an answer as to the reasons for his suffering. Job realizes that, at least in this case, God is not just. Job is disgusted, perhaps for defending God so passionately. And Job pities the humanity subject to this God.
How does God respond to this stunning and stinging rebuke? God says his wrath now burns against those who argued with Job! God tells Job’s interlocutors that they now must offer sacrifices and that Job will now pray for them, “for I will favor him because he did not join in your perversity, for you did not speak to me correctly, as did my servant Job.”
In essence, God finally admits that all those who said God was just and Job must have sinned were wrong, even perverse. The truth is extracted from God because Job, despite horrible calamity and suffering, does not “curse God and die” (as Job’s wife had recommended). Job holds the line. Job has honed resilience in the service of truth.
There is another chapter in the Bible where God submits to a challenge — in the story of the daughters of Tzelofachad in Numbers Chapter 27. The daughters argue that the Torah’s inheritance laws are unfair. God accepts their claim and changes the law. As is written in the Sifrei (a midrash on the book of Numbers and Deuteronomy):
God says, “The Daughters of Tzelophachad did well in bringing their claim, for this is how the text is written on high. Ashrei is the one whose words are admitted by God.” (Sifrei on Numbers 27:7)
We can add to our definition of who merits the term Ashrei: one who demands of God an answer, and God answers.
Job was fearless and relentless. Job walked through the valley of death and darkness. Job traversed the Valley of Thorns. Job was indeed blameless and upright. He revered God enough to demand an answer. Job turned away from evil, but evil pursued him from an utterly random encounter between God and Satan. Job did not fold — he insisted on the truth that he spoke from his heart.
By any definition, ancient or modern, Job is the happiest character in the Bible.
In sum, what is authentic happiness from a Jewish perspective? Living by your values, no matter what.
* * * * *
Yale’s Pursuit of Happiness course provides great wisdom on the nature of happiness and the practices instituted to achieve it. The Jewish tradition provides profound guidance on cultivating authentic happiness, as do other spiritual and religious traditions. So why are so many people so unhappy?
We know that internal happiness ultimately does not come from anything outside of us. Knowledge about authentic happiness won’t make you happy. Even the practices themselves won’t produce happiness, in my opinion. For example, one can act kindly but unconsciously expect gratitude. One might be committed to a full night’s rest but be deprived of it by night terrors. You may be committed to mindfulness and transcendence but have your thoughts interrupted by constant and painful distractions.
During my life, I have seen many wisdom and happiness programs come and go. I sadly predict that, five years from now, Yale’s approach will produce barely a yawn and most people will be working on the next new thing.
What is missing from all the wisdom and happiness programs that I have seen, ancient to modern, is this: attentiveness to the problems of psychological resistance and inner destructiveness, and to the deficiency of the will to fight them.
If we look at the Book of Job as an allegory of the inner life, we all have a God and a Satan — divine and destructive elements — within us. Sometimes our inner lives resemble the specter of Job. We aim to be upright and blameless, yet carry within us forces that can destroy us and hurt others.
In sum, what is authentic happiness from a Jewish perspective? Living by your values,
no matter what.
As Genesis 6:5 tells us, our inner lives are continually influenced by thoughts shaped by evil. I list 10 such forces in my basic teachings in spiritual psychology: anger, resentment, unresolved grief, despair, guilt (including irrational obligation), shame, fear, anxiety, envy and destructive desire. I can list 10 more, but you get the idea.
What is it that banishes us from the house of God, makes us unable to transform the Valley of Thorns into a wellspring, makes us afraid and alone in the valley of darkness and death, stops us from living moral and upright lives, and prevents us from speaking the truth and standing up for it at all costs?
Solve that, and you can write a manual for happiness.
We, the non-elites who are unable to detach from all into a life of compassion, or achieve bliss by pure knowledge of the Divine, will have to muddle through. You might aspire to the middle path between the extremes, as Aristotle and Maimonides suggest, but those extremes don’t let go so easily.
I’ll share with you my approach to authentic happiness, to osher, eudaimonia.
The main practice — one not covered in the happiness course — is struggle, spiritual warriorship. If you don’t face and fight the destructive forces within, and if you don’t fund your decisions with prodigious amounts of will, all this work will get archived to some neglected corner of consciousness.
The path I teach involves four elements: vision (chazon), focused intentionality or will (kavanah), specific skills (m’yumanut) and enlightened reflection (haskel).
Vision: First, one must have a clear, detailed vision of the person one wants to become. We ought to be able to list the virtues we want to acquire or strengthen, and the flaws we hope to diminish. “Wanting to be a better person” is not enough. We can yearn for authentic happiness, but we have to acknowledge in a detailed way the flaws we want to diminish. We should also have a clear and honest understanding of what our envelope for transformation is, and what that transformation would look like in relevant situations. In our tradition, the literature of Mussar (roughly, Jewish moral psychology) is a treasure house of wisdom regarding virtues to hold and flaws to release.
Intention or will: One must have a clear, strong intention or will to acquire those virtues and to struggle against forces within us that want to keep us trapped in our patterns of destructiveness. As in most difficult work, the will evaporates when we encounter resistance. We have tremendous will for so many things that might come easy to us — our work, our leisure, our political passions, controlling (or hiding from) others. The will to be a better spouse or parent, for example, often dissipates in the face of hurt, difficulty or the complexity of being morally present, in a sustained way, to another human being — or to God. Mastery of the will is required.
Specific skills: One must acquire the specific skills for acquiring or strengthening virtues, weakening flaws and facing down the shape of destructiveness within. There are specific interventions for each of the 10 flaws listed above, but these interventions and rewiring of consciousness require daily, sedulous work. I have notified many counseling clients that if they don’t engage in a daily practice, I can’t work with them anymore. They can’t just stand there peering through the window of the house of God. They must batter down the wall impeding their entry.
Enlightened reflection: And last, for now, we need a certain enlightened, evaluative reflection, the practical knowledge to set markers of behavioral change, inner and outer. We must be able to measure and reflect on our work, to protect us from yet another act of self-delusion.
There is a Jewish idea of authentic happiness, and there is a path — often rocky and dark and inhabited by demons that will our demise. Find your inner Job and suffer through the pain of resistance to live a life of truth. That is the Jewish path to happiness.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.