Below, I argue that the sources do not present happiness as an ultimate goal. Rather, they conceive of happiness as a consequence of a well lived life, as a means towards greater goals and as part of a person’s responsibility.
Happiness as a Consequence:
Some of our sources present happiness as a consequence of a well-lived life. In the view of Saadia Gaon, laughter is a result of a person’s deeper insight into reality. This is consistent with the theme of many psalms:
‘Light is sown for the righteous, and for the straight of heart, happiness.’ (Psalm 97:11)
‘God’s commandments are upright, they bring happiness to the heart.’ (Psalm 19:8)
The difference between happiness as a consequence and happiness as a goal is explained clearly by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in his celebrated Treatise on Loving Kindness. In the view of Rabbi Dessler, when one extends loving kindness to someone else, the person to whom one is giving becomes a part of one’s being. As a result, bringing happiness to another human being actually brings happiness to oneself as the other person’s happiness becomes one’s own. But, Rabbi Dessler warns, this cannot be one’s intention in giving. If one’s intention in giving to another is to bring oneself happiness, this would not constitute chesed (loving kindness). Happiness is the consequence, not the goal.
Happiness as a Means
Other Jewish sources present happiness not only as a consequence but as something for which one should strive. However, in a number of texts the emphasis is not on happiness as a goal in its own right but, rather, as a means to a greater goal.
In fact, this is the understanding of Rabbi Bornsztain as can be seen from a fuller citation of passage we quoted in the previous post:
the essence of the mitzva of Torah study is to rejoice, be happy, and delight in one’s study, for the words of Torah will then be absorbed into his blood, and since he derives pleasure from the words of the Torah, he will cleave to them.(Emphasis added)
Hence, it can be seen that, rather than being a goal in its own right, the happiness derived from Torah study is a means to the greater goal of devotion to Torah. A similar view can be found in the medieval text, Sefer Hachinuch which explains the idea behind the mitzvah of making Kiddush over wine. His answer (in his explanation of mitzvah 31) is that wine improves happiness and happiness improves the fulfilment of the mitzvah.
Happiness as a Responsibility
Despite the aforementioned approaches, there are indeed sources in our tradition which present happiness as an important desideratum. However, the idea here is that happiness is not the ultimate goal but rather a responsibility.
In this vein, Maimonides writes in his Halachic Code, Mishneh Torah:
“The happiness (simcha) that a person experiences when doing a mitzvah and the love for God Who commanded us to do them is a great religious service (avoda). And anyone who holds himself back from this happiness, it’s appropriate that he be held accountable as it is written: ‘Since you didn’t serve God with happiness and goodness of the heart.” (Laws of Lulav 8:15)
The verse that Maimonides refers to here is in the middle of a lengthy rebuke in Deuteronomy 28 that describes the terrible calamities that will befall the Jewish people if they fail to heed the word of God. As Maimonides notes, verse 47 appears to explain such punishment in terms of the failure of the descendants of the Children of Israel to serve God with happiness.
On the one hand, this source clearly establishes happiness as a religious ideal. However, the fact that one is held to be woefully liable for failing to attain happiness forces us to distinguish between happiness as a goal and happiness as a responsibility. The message in Deuteronomy, elucidated by Maimonides and others, is that one should not fulfil one’s obligations with a heavy heart but, rather, should rejoice through an emotional and existential identification with such activity and its underlying meaning. This is the reason that the resulting happiness is considered an essential component of religious performance.
Where does this leave us? I would argue that the sources we have seen imply that our ultimate Judaic aspiration is for a society of people who live in accordance with their responsibility. We must educate and nurture a society in which people carry out this responsibility with passion and commitment and not as a formulaic fulfilment of obligation. Whilst happiness is an important component of this aspiration, happiness must not be conceived of as the end goal.
But how does this ethic of responsibility manifest itself with regard to our understanding of specific Jewish values? How does this grounding that we have established in our understanding of Judaic ethics help us understand the priority that Jewish sources allocate to some values over others? These are the questions we’ll be confronting as we proceed along our journey.
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