Is there a Torah of self-actualization?
American tradition, following Ralph Waldo Emerson, puts the individual at the pivot of the world: “When I look at the rainbow I find myself the center of its arch. But so are you; and so is the man that sees it a mile from both of us. So also the globe is round, and every man therefore stands on the top. King George and the chimney sweep no less.”
With one twist of the ego, this turns into an insufferable narcissism. But looked at another way, this idea is the engine of innovation that has driven America forward.
Has Judaism a similar doctrine, or perhaps the same one? Along with many others, I recently read Arianna Huffington’s best-selling new book, “Thrive.” (Full disclosure: I am mentioned briefly in the book in connection with a story about my father.) Many of the book’s reviews have focused on Huffington’s persona and not on her message. More pointed is the question: How do social science, pop bromides and world wisdom, as the book is liberally marbled with quotes from many traditions, all filtered through the life of a phenomenally successful woman, square with Judaism’s approach to a life well-lived?
Huffington’s premise is that wealth and influence are less central to a satisfying life than we are often led to believe. She argues instead that what ultimately will make us happy or satisfied is our relationships, as well as sleep, exercise, meditation, cultivating a sense of wonder and being in touch with traditions of wisdom. We thrive less through accumulation than through giving and growth.
Granted: We should indeed sleep more (wakefulness won’t bend to willfulness). Meditation can calm the mind. Most of us should exercise and watch less TV. Unplug, says the creator of Huffington Post, and she offers some practical and helpful suggestions on how to do it. Fight “hurry sickness” by slowing down (as in Mel Brooks’ immortal advice on the album “2000 and THIRTEEN” — “Don’t run for the bus; there’ll always be another”). Volunteer and give, both because it is good for the world and it is good for the soul. Although the quest for money and power dominates many of our days, they are overestimated as sources of satisfaction or genuine happiness.
There is a great deal of sagacity by social science, and the book does not lack data points. Inevitably, as with all advice literature, this book also includes contradictions. We should care about the globe, but pay attention to what is close by; decrease worry, but be concerned about others; let go of fears and time anxiety, but keep the reality of death before us always; use intuition, but pay attention to all these studies with stats that prove what I am saying. Such contradictions are part of the relentless messiness and glorious variety of human experience. If there were advice that applies to everyone in every situation, there would be just one advice book, and we would all read it and be done. In wisdom, as in diets, the proliferation proves that no single regimen always works.
Through this book and a host of others less adroitly written and sourced, we are told to moderate in a somewhat immoderate world. This is Icarus warming his wings by sunlamp.
Having previously written about our enslavement to technology in these pages (“Am I an E-Slave?” April 11, 2014), I am sympathetic to the “power-off” movement. Of course, here, too, lurks a contradiction, because the same scientific mindset that studies social movement, individual psychology and seeks to make the world better through technology (farming, electricity, vaccinations, etc.) is inextricably bound to the world of the smartphone, to having all knowledge — and every acquaintance — at your fingertips. Having attended several TED conferences, I’m always amused when they ask you to turn off your screens because otherwise you will disturb the people around you, when you know that half of them — and the speaker they are all listening to — make their b/millions by persuading people to turn on their screens.
Still, throughout the “gentle wisdom” movement, as well as Huffington’s books, is a vision different from the Jewish world view. I want to emphasize that to elaborate it is not to diminish the author’s very helpful and readable book. The critique is not about the humane vision Huffington enshrines. Rather, it is the essentially countercultural critique that a truly religious vision of the world requires.
The subtitle of “Thrive” is “The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.” Apart from the jargony “metric” and the oxford comma, what one notices about the title is the book’s aim — creating a life of well-being (presumably both physical and emotional), wisdom and wonder, that is, a lasting curiosity about the world. All noble goals, and surely success defined as attaining these things is agreeable to us all.
Yet, classical Judaism would, I believe, feel estranged from such a definition. Not only for the obvious reason that Judaism mandates conforming to the will of God in any definition of a successful life, but because of what that conforming entails. Ultimately, a successful life is one that transcends the individual who lives that life. Success is measured less in the attributes of the individual — wonder/ wisdom/well-being — than in a life where all those are in service to something greater than oneself. I don’t mean that Huffington is preaching selfishness; she is not. There is a section about giving that is sincere and has practical suggestions. But even giving in our culture is justified by the good it does for the emotional well-being of the one who gives. We circle back to the powerful teaching of Emerson at the top of the article — you stand at the arch, and no matter how the globe turns, you are its pivot.
That is the Torah’s penultimate message, but not its final one. There is a great deal in the Jewish tradition about cultivating wonder, attaining wisdom, being healthy in body and mind. The human being was created singly, the Talmud insists, because we all include a world. None of that is the ultimate purpose of life, however. The end is service of God. In other words, doing mitzvot, improving the world, learning Torah — all of it may bring you great joy and satisfaction and a kind of success, but that is not the subtitle of Jewish life. The subtitle is finding joy in service to something greater than you. The sedate and judicious model in the pages of “Thrive” would never fit the heroes of the Torah — Moses, David, Deborah — or even the great and often-tormented spiritual figures who shaped Jewish history.
Judaism asks for a strenuousness and immoderation that puts it out of step with the modern world. There is an impulse, old but much magnified lately, to reinterpret Jewish tradition as being designed to be good for you — kashrut is about health, and daily prayer about slowing your heart rate, and Shabbat about calming the system and forging relationships that are essential to well-being. But such rationales keep bumping up against the parts of the tradition that cause stress or strife or unhappiness. Suppose that on Shabbat you’d be happier driving to the beach, or what if lobsters are suddenly discovered to be a health food? Judaism makes your life better, to be sure, but it is ultimately about holiness and the guidelines for living a holy life. Our tradition just isn’t completely rational and will not fully accord with any other system.
The deeper message of Huffington’s book is that, ultimately, life is about the well-rounded elaborations of human potential. While not negating — God forbid — the importance of such advocacy, it is not too much to say that Judaism also speaks up for the lopsided, the unbalanced, the passion that crowds out equanimity. Judaism puts realistic breaks on wild fanaticism, but there is a restlessness, an unease, an intensity at the heart of Jewish life that remains ever unquenched. And such will always be the case when the human being believes that the highest use of life, as William James put it, is to spend it on something that outlasts it.
The soldier who fights for his country, the mother who sacrifices for her child, the observant Jew who renounces career advancement to Shabbat observance and easy social interactions to kashrut, all in very different ways, are putting something above their own well-being.
Mission sits uneasily with moderation, and metrics give way to mitzvah.
David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.
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