Positive Judaism from the Pulpit

For 20 years, the field of Positive Psychology has conducted longitudinal studies on human behavior, achievement, and character strengths. Today, the tenets of Positive Psychology are the heartbeat of professional coaching, leadership, behavior modification, and self-help. The popularity in human development on resilience, optimism, well-being and happiness, all stem from the field of Positive Psychology.

Rabbi Darren Levine

There is much that Jewish professionals should know about the field of Positive Psychology as it deals primarily with research and findings related to well-being, happiness, and the proven factors that lead people to living lives of meaning. Since clergy and educators have the well-being of the individuals and communities we serve at the center of our work, a knowledge of this field is critical.

My belief is that Judaism and Positive Psychology make the perfect pairing. Both are focused on living a life of meaning and achieving higher levels of well-being. I use a set framework called the VIA Classification of Strengths as the basis for the core traits and values of Positive Judaism. I have paired each virtue and strength in the VIA Classification with their corresponding Jewish values, biblical teachings, and Jewish practices to present the VIA Classification of Strengths  from a Jewish context.

My theory is that when clergy and educators let these values guide their work with individuals and communities, the impact on people will be increased positive emotion, improved relationships and accelerated personal achievement. People will not only be more confident, optimistic, open to diversity, and able to learn lessons from hardship, but they will also experience their work as a calling, act and think with purpose, contribute and help, appreciate family and friends, and act generously. As as result, our communities will become more vibrant and engaging – full of thriving people seeking to grow themselves, their families, and our communities from the place of Jewish values.

This is not the first time a code of virtues (10/613 Commandments, Shulchan Aruch, Mishneh Torah, Mapah, etc.) has attempted to enhance Jewish living, but it is the first time that psychometric research and the science of human flourishing has been brought together b’dibur echad, in one breath.


Here are ten suggestions of how to implement the traits and strengths of Positive Judaism:

Focus on a trait of strength in a personal story, biblical story or character, or contemporary issue to show how the strength was employed to overcome a challenge, improve the situation, or to achieve the goal. “Once he was able to change his perspective, he used his creativity and his perseverance to accomplish his dream.”

2.Pastoral Visits
When visiting the sick or comforting the bereaved, draw upon the traits of courage to help a patient or family pass through a liminal moment. “It seems to me that you have been very courageous. I imagine it has been scary time. What is the source of your bravery? How do you find the resilience to keep going?”

3.Shabbat Gatherings
During prayer gatherings, seek moments for authentic social interaction, meditation, and use teachings to guide people to express their most human values like optimism, hope, love and kindness and to appreciate their love of learning, authentic selves, humility and forgiveness.

4. Shabbat Meals
Infuse each symbol on the shabbat table for people to consider and/or share a personal strength. “As we kindle these shabbat lights, let us take a moment to think about when we brought light to the world this week with an act of love and kindness. As we say this blessing for wine, let us remember a sweet and humorous moment this week that made you laugh. And before we say the motzi, let us each share something we are grateful for in our lives tonight.

5. Jewish Holidays
Throughout the calendar year, the natural themes of the major holidays lend themselves perfectly to developing traits and strengths. The themes of Hanukkah, Passover, and Purim, are perseverance, bravery, teamwork, and hope. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we focus upon forgiveness, justice and and humility. Sukkot and Tu b’Shevat tends towards gratitude, contentment and appreciation of beauty and humility. Finally, Shavuot, a focus on love of learning, judgement, and curiosity.

6. Life-cycle ceremonies
Life ceremonies are heightened moments to draw upon specific traits and strengths. Baby namings are new beginnings where hope and love for the child is paired with gratitude, awe, and humility for the parents and family members. B’nai Mitzvah teachings can focus on what it means to be a Jewish adult focused upon justice, fairness, prudence, bravery, and resilience in life. Weddings invite a focus upon hope, love, gratitude, awe, and especially forgiveness. Funerals naturally lend themselves to being grateful for life, for the love we shared with the departed, along with forgiveness, hope, and humor which can be cathartic and healing.

7. Classroom Activities
The Jewish classroom is a laboratory for teaching the traits and strengths and working to instill positive character development. Over the course of one academic year, each week could be dedicated to a different strength – “24 weeks of Positive Judaism.” Classroom management and the behavior contract between students and teacher/students can draw upon fairness, forgiveness, resilience, justice, teamwork, leadership, and kindness which all lead to enhanced social awareness in the group setting of a classroom and school.

8. Family and Relationship Counseling
With a focus on well-being and personal transformation, Positive Judaism provides a framework for clergy and communal professionals to support individuals, couples, and families in a counseling setting. Pastors and counselors can reflect upon any of the core strengths and traits and transmit them through Jewish stories, teachings, and wisdom. This unique perspective can offer healing and optimism in difficult moments for example, “my heart goes out to every family in trouble. If it brings you any comfort, yours seems to reflect the truth of the human condition. Even in the Torah, it seems that every person had major trials and tribulations. Sarah was barren until her old age. Joseph was cast away by his brothers. Moses was given up by his mother at childbirth. And the list goes on.”

9. Organizational Management
Staff systems are human systems. Similar to the classroom, the organization is a professional laboratory to develop people and support their achievement through identifying and nourishing the strengths of individuals and groups. Acknowledging the importance of teamwork, perseverance, honesty, fairness, and kindness can support healthy work cultures and ultimately lead people to higher levels of social intelligence and productivity. Leaders say, “our goals are great. If we act as a team, working together, I believe we will reach our goal. As Jewish wisdom teaches, ‘you are not obligated to complete the goal, but you are also not free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:21).’”

10. Communal Leadership
Jewish professionals and leaders have the historic responsibility to advance society and societal achievement for all. Finding regular opportunities for tikkun olam, mitzvah days, and serving the needy allow people to perform just work. Positive Jewish strengths can also be used as a framework for communal planning. “What are our social goals and how to we develop leaders that will guide our community to achieve the best for all? How do we instill hope, optimism, bravery, love, justice, fairness, a love of learning, perspective, etc. into every layer of our community so that we may raise up each person and rise together?”