In the Ethics of the Fathers (Wikipedia link) 1:3, the sage, Antignos ish Socho teaches: ‘Do not be like a servant who serves his master for the sake of receiving reward.’
In the next chapter, Rabban Gamliel teaches: ‘Nullify your will before His will’, that is to say, the will of God. (Avot 2:4)
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has noted that this principle underlies a number of principles presented in the Talmud. In the tractate of Bava Kama (87a), we find an important legal principle: One who performs a mitzvah having been commanded to do so is greater than one who performs a mitzvah without having been commanded to do so. It is related in the Talmud that Rabbi Yosef, who was blind, initially states that he would make a party if someone would tell him that the law follows the opinion that a blind person is exempt from performing mitzvot. Rabbi Yosef’s instinct was that a volunteer is more admirable than a person who is required to do something. If he is exempt from mitzvoth but nevertheless performs them he is more meritorious than if he did it through subservience to a command. But after hearing the halachic principle that one who performs a mitzvah having been commanded to do so is greater than one who performs a mitzvah without having been commanded to do so, Rabbi Yosef declares that he would now throw a party when told that a blind person is obligated to perform mitzvot! This teaching underscores the priority of transcendent duty above personal fulfilment in Jewish thought. Presumably, one who isn’t commanded but performs acts in accordance with his personal inclination and, therefore, attains more self-fulfilment than one who is simply commanded, ‘Do this!’ Nevertheless, the halacha ascribes greater value to the latter than the former. It is particularly significant that this idea is not only considered homiletical but also has normative halachic implications. For example, it is the basis for regarding the meal at a Bar Mitzvah and, according to some at a Bat Mitzvah, as an obligatory festive meal (seudat mitzvah) as this is the point at which the child becomes obligated to observe the mitzvot.
A similar idea is expressed in a shocking statement recorded in the Talmud (Eruvin 64a) where a comparison is drawn between a person who says ‘I like learning this halachic section and I don’t like that one’ to a person who consorts with prostitutes! Similarly, the Talmud in Sanhedrin 99b calls one who learns Torah occasionally and doesn’t set fixed times for study as a ‘heartless adulterer’! How can someone engaging in meritorious activitiy (albeit with some inconsistency) be compared to one guilty of a cardinal sin? The answer is that the essence of fornication is self-fulfilment. A person who is in pursuit of pleasure – even spiritual pleasure – has lost sight of the commitment to transcendent values that underlies the Judaic system.
Even Jewish colloquial terminology corroborates the understanding of the centrality of responsibility in Judaism. The literal meaning of the word ‘mitzvah’ is command but, colloquially, the word means ‘good deed’. This is an indication of how deeply the notion of mitzvah is ingrained in our thinking as Jews. We can hardly imagine a non-Jew saying: ‘That’s a wonderful thing to do. Go and do it, it’s a big command.’
For this reason, many contemporary Jewish scholars have decried attempts to portray Judaism as a means to human happiness. It is said that Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik (Wikipedia link) commented on the billboards put up by a Christian group that promised ‘A family that prays together, stays together’. Rabbi Soloveitchik objected that this may be true but it reduces prayer from an intrinsic value into a means for another cause.
In conclusion of this post, it seems that Judaism is much closer to Frankl’s notion of responsibility than to Layard’s aspiration for a life of happiness. As Rabbi Lichtenstein has written:
‘Jewish sensitivity is pervasively normative. The Jew is, first and foremost, a summoned being, charged with a mission, on the one hand, and directed by rules, on the other.’
But how can we square this with the quotations above which underscore the centrality of happiness in Judaism? This will be the subject of our next post.
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