By Rabbi Darren Levine, D. Min.
There has been discussion recently about the role of happiness in developing positive Jewish identity among young people. Happiness is important but anyone who is genuinely happy has developed a mindset and lifestyle that is more about well-being, where happiness is one part of their experience. Research has shown that people who are thriving in their lives and score highest in well-being studies are more than happy, they are flourishing. This should encourage us to think more broadly about positive identity development, where happiness is one piece.
For the past few years, I have been teaching and writing about what I call Positive Judaism. Positive Judaism is a mindset that approaches Jewish practice, Jewish communal life, and Jewish philosophy from a positive perspective. It is an approach to Judaism that focuses on gratitude, hope, courage, generosity, love, and kindness with the goal of leading individuals, families, and communities to flourish and to have the most positive impact on their own lives and the world around them.
For 30-years, the field of Positive Psychology has been studying well-being and asking important questions about what people need to thrive and how to help people flourish. There is much that Jewish leaders should know about Positive Psychology as it deals primarily with well-being, happiness, and the proven factors that lead people to living lives of meaning.
At my congregation in New York City, I host a monthly study group on Positive Judaism. People of all ages attend which reveals that no matter the generation or life-cycle stage, people are interested in how to enhance their well-being through Jewish living. I base our discussions on strengths that have been proven to lead people to higher levels of well-being but from a Jewish perspective: gratitude, optimism, courage, appreciation of beauty, hope, humor, forgiveness, kindness, social intelligence, curiosity and creativity. These are also the core strengths that live at the heart of our Hebrew school, teen programs, and congregational ethos.
My belief 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.
Happiness is important. Studies show that positive outcomes occur when people have authentically happy experiences. But what to do when living hurts? We would fail as educators if we had only equipped our people with “happy” because they would not have the tools to face real life challenges. And what about anti-semitism and holocaust education? Not happy topics but essential realities that every Jew must learn to make sense of for themselves. Real life can be messy and it can hurt, but teaching people about resilience and optimism and giving them the tools to face life’s inevitable challenges can stem the anguish and pain – which ultimately adds positive value to a person’s life.
For me, many of my happiest memories come from Jewish moments in my life. Lighting Hanukkah candles surrounded by family in my childhood home, laughing uncontrollably at the Temple Bat Yahm Hebrew School with my best friends, feeling euphoria at Camp Hess Kramer during song session on Shabbat, being lifted high on a chair at my bar mitzvah party, traveling through Israel on a tour bus heading to our next stop while listening to David Broza songs, standing under my chuppah, and being present at my son’s circumcision. These happy Jewish memories sustain me but they are only a part of my total life experience.
On balance, there was also the incessant fighting at home with my sister and parents, the childhood suicide of my friend Ross, getting rejected from UCLA my first-choice college, getting fired from a job I cherished, the family trauma of my nephew Noah’s brain cancer, and living through my divorce. If “happy” was the only strength I had learned from my Jewish life, I would have been unequipped to face these painful realities. But most importantly for this discussion, I would have found Judaism irrelevant to help me face and ultimately overcome these challenges.
It’s at this intersection, where creating happy moments and transmitting the strengths of resilience that Positive Judaism is validated. We clergy, educators, and Jewish leaders have so many options to focus on happiness engagement. But we also have the responsibility to guide and to teach the other human strengths mentioned above with a Jewish lens, that will genuinely develop strong individuals and communities and positive Jewish identities that will last a lifetime.
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 leadership and Jewish living in the 21st Century.
Rabbi Darren Levine, D. Min. is the founding rabbi at Tamid: The Downtown Synagogue in New York City.