Why Be Jewish?

Dear Reader, 

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. Living a Positively Jewish Life will not only guide people to 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 religious 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. 

The founders of Positive Psychology said: 

 “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families and communities.” Unlike traditional psychology with it’s primary focus on treating mental illness through psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and related cognitive interventions, the goal of positive psychology is primarily concerned with optimal living, nurturing genius and talent, and using research to make life more fulfilling. Positive psychology brings attention to the possibility that focusing only on disorder could result in a partial, and limited, understanding of a person’s whole being and life goals. (sourced from wikipedia “Positive Psychology.)

Positive Psychology is pro-religion and acknowledges the added value of cultural affiliation and the spiritual life in a person’s overall health. Numerous studies have examined the relation of religiousness and mental health, psychological distress, and other variables related to well-being using a variety of measures. It has been shown that religious people are happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious individuals most likely because it’s in the religious realm that people can best express their most human values (optimism, hope, love, kindness, gratitude, etc.) and appreciate and develop their psychological strengths (bravery, courage, authenticity, love of learning, humility, forgiveness, etc). Research studies conclude that: 

  • Religious people are happier and healthier, and recover better after trauma than nonreligious people. 
  • The social support, fellowship, and sense of identity allows people to share in one another’s burdens and achievements and helps people feel less isolated.
  • The strong emotional experiences of worship and prayer provide comfort and encourage awe and wonder and the search for the Divine. 
  • Faith education provides the context to ask existential questions: Who am I? What is my life for? Where do I fit in? Who is the creator? How do I live a virtuous life and improve the world around me?”

Now, enter Positive Judaism:

Positive Psychology finds a perfect application in Jewish living. One might say, “everything about Judaism is already positive! Our values, our customs, for 3000 years it has sustained us. We don’t need new, we need tradition!” My response is that Positive Judaism is tradition.  As Ben Bag Bag would say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. . .don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it (Pirkei Avot 5:22).”

Positive Judaism is a turn towards authentic Judaism. It takes the guesswork out of what makes life meaningful because we can now benefit from research in human well-being. We have a new opportunity to “turn it and turn it” again. But now, a turn in with a framework that approaches Judaism with the human science of well-being at its core. When clergy and educators focus on these values in their teachings and use them “religiously” and consistently, I believe the effect over time will help individuals and communities:

  • Find enhanced meaning and value to prayer, Shabbat and Jewish holidays
  • Find enhanced relevance in Jewish life-cycle events and Jewish ritual
  • Find enhanced strength when living hurts during struggle, illness, death, and tragedy
  • Find a deep connection to their authentic Jewish selves and participate more often in Jewish life experiences.

Ultimately, Positive Judaism answers the question, “why be Jewish?” For people who are seeking to enhance their personal well-being, for Jewish leaders who are seeking to have a relevant and positive impact in their ministry, and for congregations seeking have a positive impact on their larger community, Positive Judaism offers a compelling framework for Jewish living in the 21st Century. 

To your wellbeing and happiness,

Rabbi Darren Levine