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What is Happiness?

The Torah describes the holiday of Sukkot as being especially happy, and commands us to be akh sameach, “only happy” (Deuteronomy 16:15). When we look across Judaism, we find that there are actually three more holidays that are described similarly. Purim is the next one, of which the Talmud famously states that one must “increase in happiness” during the month in which Purim takes place (Ta’anit 29a). This is based on Scripture, where we read “And to the Jews was light, happiness, joy and prestige” (Esther 8:16). The last two specially-happy days are Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, of which the Talmud states “there were never in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 26b).

Why are these four holidays happier than the others? What is their connection to happiness? To answer that, we must first explore a bigger question: what exactly is happiness? Of course, we have all experienced happiness and innately know what it is. The real question is: what is the proper path to attaining true and lasting happiness? If we take a brief trip through centuries of philosophical thought, we will find that there are four major answers to this question. While every philosopher and school of philosophy had their own slight variation, we can group all of their answers into four categories:

Hedonism

The first and simplest answer is that the cause of all happiness is physical pleasure. Archaeologists and historians have found this sentiment in some of the earliest known human texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, where it says “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night… These things alone are the concern of men.” Among the ancient Greeks, it appears it was Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE) who first subscribed fully to this notion. Aristippus (c. 435-356 BCE), a student of Socrates and founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, made this the foundation of his worldview. It would come to be known as hedonism, the attainment of happiness through the pursuit of maximal pleasure.

Asceticism

The second answer is, perhaps ironically, the exact opposite of the first: true happiness can only come when a person detaches from all material things. Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BCE), another student of Socrates and founder of the school of Cynicism, held that the key to ultimate happiness was to be unconcerned with wealth and material pleasures. These are all temporary and fleeting, bringing a person short-lived joy and leading to ever greater addictions that can never be satisfied. Lasting happiness can only come from a simple, ascetic lifestyle. This same view is mirrored by multiple Eastern religions.

A related view is the one first espoused by Pyrrho (c. 360-270 BCE), an intriguing figure who journeyed all the way to India with the armies of Alexander the Great. He taught that happiness can only come after ataraxia, “freedom from worry”. A person does not necessarily have to detach from all material and physical pleasures, but does need to detach from all kinds of fears and dogmas. Nothing can ever be proven to be completely true, so we should stop worrying and stop making all kinds of judgements. One needs to develop a state of being mentally unbothered and at peace.

A bust of Epicurus

Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE) took these ideas to the next level. He maintained that having no fears or worries means not having fear of God either, or any sort of divine punishment. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the Talmudic sages had a particular aversion to Epicureanism, so much so that apikores became the standard Jewish term for a heretic. However, Epicurus did not preach immorality. Contrary to popular belief, he held that one should lead an ascetic life, be of high moral character, and focus on developing healthy and positive relationships with all people.

Virtue

Possibly the most frequent answer to the happiness question lies in developing virtue. This means being of exceedingly good character, and being moral and just. Such was the view of Plato (c. 424-348 BCE), as well as Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who added that virtue meant having a properly-balanced life. Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Stoic school, also held that virtue was the key to happiness. One of the later Stoics, Epictetus (c. 55-135 CE) said that one who has true virtue will be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”

This sentiment is very much in line with the view of our ancient Sages, and the approach of the Torah as a whole. One need not be an ascetic, nor should one descend into hedonism; rather, the Torah way is to balance the physical and spiritual, and focus on fulfilling the law (Torah and mitzvot), while increasing acts of kindness. This was succinctly stated by the first rabbi in Pirkei Avot, Shimon haTzadik, who stated that life is built on “Torah, divine service, and acts of kindness” (Avot 1:2). King Solomon concluded the same thing at the end of his existential Kohelet, where he ponders the meaning of life: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” This brings us to the final key to happiness.

Purpose

Taking what was said above one step further, we find that when we fulfil God’s law, we thereby connect to Hashem. This is indeed the root of the word mitzvah, which literally means to “bind”. Since God is the ultimate source of all goodness, binding to God is the ultimate way to maximize happiness. This view was echoed by Boethius (477-524 CE), among others. Long before them, we find it in the Torah, which repeats multiple times that we will be joyous before God (v’samachta lifnei Hashem, as in Deuteronomy 12:18, 16:11, 27:7, for example), and that we will be joyous when we receive God’s endless goodness (as in Deuteronomy 26:11).

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

This is deeply connected to what psychologists today see as the root of happiness: living with a greater sense of purpose. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) detailed it fully in his Man’s Search For Meaning. It is more succinctly depicted in Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, where physical pleasures are at the very bottom of the pyramid, offering the lowest degree of happiness, while “self-actualization”—living with purpose each day—is at the very top of the pyramid. Living with purpose is the key, and it needs to be a good, meaningful purpose (ie. “making more money” doesn’t cut it).

For a Jew, that purpose comes from God. We have a clear set of missions to accomplish in life, from the most basic being the fulfilment of Torah mitzvot each day, to the more mystical ones like rectifying our souls, and elevating the sparks of holiness trapped in Creation in order to repair the cosmos. This outlook gives a tremendous amount of meaning to each day, and to every moment. Something as simple as eating an apple becomes a world-altering experience: that beracha recited before consuming the apple is as a spiritual rectification that brings the world one step closer to perfection. In this way, one has the potential to be filled with joy at every moment. A person who sees himself as God’s divine emissary will therefore be, to borrow from Epictetus, “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Is this not the reason that Judaism has survived millennia of death, destruction, exile, and disgrace?

David

The perfect model of self-actualization is a person who is intricately connected to the holiday of Sukkot: King David. His Psalms are an incredible lesson in a person who has found joy at each moment by cleaving to God. Take his most famous song as an example, Psalm 23:

A song of David: God is my Shepherd, I shall not lack anything. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in righteous paths for His Name’s sake. Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I dwell in the House of God forever.

In this one Psalm we see the balance between asceticism and hedonism, we see true ataraxia—not from abandoning God, but form recognizing that faith in God means having no other fears at all—and we see the recognition that each and every day is full of goodness and kindness, even in death’s very shadow. In short, of the four answers to the question of happiness, the final is the best for it includes the other three within it. And this brings us back to the four happiest Jewish holidays.

Malkhut

It isn’t difficult to see how those four Jewish holidays described in especially-happy terms correspond to the four paths to happiness: Purim is known for its hedonistic elements, while Yom Kippur is pure asceticism. Tu b’Av is about virtue, as the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b) tells us explicitly that on that day when the men went out to find their soulmates, they were reminded not to look at physical beauty, but for a woman of real virtue. And Sukkot is the last: a holiday where we sit in Hashem’s Sukkah, literally immersed in the mitzvah, and have a chance to feel God’s “embrace”. In the same way that the fourth answer to happiness includes the three previous ones within it, Sukkot has all the elements within it, too.

Sukkot is the culmination of the season of Malkhut, the time when we crown God as “King”. It begins on Rosh Hashanah, when we start reciting HaMelekh HaKadosh, “The Holy King” in our prayers (instead of HaEl HaKadosh, “the Holy God”), and concludes with the last day of Sukkot. On that last day, the Kabbalists tell us that one’s decree for the year is sealed up for the final time, and the angels are given their instructions to carry out.

The last day of Sukkot is specifically tied to King David, who is the final leader of the ushpizin, the spiritual “guests” in the Sukkah. David is God’s appointed king on Earth, reflecting God’s own Kingship above. In the mystical Tree of Life, this is reflected in the fact that the lowest Sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, parallels the highest Sefirah of Keter, God’s “Crown”. Malkhut represents the earthly kingdom, and is therefore associated with King David. And it is in the Sefirah of Malkhut that happiness lies.

What exactly is Malkhut? While the other Sefirot, like Chessed and Gevurah, are pretty straight-forward in their meaning (at least on the surface level), Malkhut is not quite clear. How do we interact with Malkhut? Which character traits does it correspond to, and what exactly are we supposed to learn from it?

In many places the Kabbalists speak of Malkhut as Shiflut, “lowliness”. This is associated with humility, though there is a difference. Shiflut contains within it an aspect of sadness and melancholy. It is related to the ancient concept of a bar nafle, literally a “fallen child” (or “miscarriage”) but more like a “fallen soul”. It is a soul that often feels a sense of inner emptiness, and experiences itself as constantly “falling”. While all humans, at times, experience some inner emptiness, it was King David who was the quintessential bar nafle (see Sanhedrin 96b). Yet, despite this challenging disposition, he found a way to live in joy constantly, as we have seen. How? The secret is in Malkhut.

The six Middot (in red), flow into Malkhut below.

The Kabbalists describe Malkhut as an empty vessel. It is the receptacle at the bottom of the Sefirot, and only receives from the Sefirot above, particularly the six Middot. So, to fill that vessel one needs to focus on those six qualities: to increase acts of kindness (Chessed), and develop self-restraint (Gevurah), to build virtue and lead a balanced life (Tiferet), to persevere (Netzach), to be grateful (Hod), and to have a pure, monogamous, and loving marriage (Yesod). These are the things that truly fulfill a person, and altogether lead to real happiness. This is why the Kabbalists say happiness is in Malkhut.

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) explains that this is all encoded within the letter Shin or Sin (ש), which stands for sasson (ששון) and simcha (שמחה), “joy” and “happiness” (Ma’amar HaGeulah, Discourse 3, Ch. 11). The letter Shin has three prongs, and the Ramchal says that the first Shin in “sasson” represents the first three Middot; the second Shin represents the next three; and the letter Nun is Malkhut. (“Nun” actually shares a root with the Aramaic term for “kingdom”, and is the same root as Nineveh, the capital city we read about in the Haftarah of Yom Kippur.) This is precisely what was described above, as the Middot flow into Malkhut, and fill it with joy. (It’s worth mentioning that the Ramchal says within Yesod lies the greatest source of happiness, which is alluded to by the letter Vav in the word “sasson”)

A four-pronged Shin on the head tefillin.

The Shin itself alludes to the paths of happiness. Shin actually has two forms: the normal one with three prongs, and the mystical one with four prongs (as found on the side of all head tefillins). This represents the three classic paths to happiness, and the fourth mystical one that includes the other three within it. (Something to be mindful of as we place the tefillin on the head!) The three-four arrangement also alludes to the Tree of Life itself, which is described as having three columns, all leading to Malkhut at the bottom. The left column represents the path of asceticism, the right column of virtue, and the middle column that proper balance within the sphere of pleasure. All flow into Malkhut, the kingdom in which we must live with a divine sense of purpose, as commanded by our King above.

In short, the proper Torah way holds all paths to happiness. When we walk those paths, we bring God’s kingship into this world, and as ambassadors of the King, we are privileged to all the honours and benefits that come with the position. Then, like King David, we can happily rest in God’s House all the days of our lives.

Chag sameach!

On That Controversial Blessing of “Not Making Me a Woman”

In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we read about the five daughters of Tzlafchad, named Machlah, Noa, Chaglah, Milkah, and Tirzah. After the partitioning of the Land of Israel, the daughters approached Moses with a complaint. Because their family only has girls, and no boys, the daughters worried about what would happen to their father’s land and inheritance. Moses took the case up to God, who answered that daughters are able to inherit just as sons are in such situations. This is one example in the Torah of what might today be described as “gender equality”. The Torah (and Judaism more broadly) is sometimes criticized for its apparent gender inequality. One of the most common points of contention today is that blessing in Birkot HaShachar where men thank God for “not making me a woman”. Traditionally, women recite the blessing that thanks God “for making me kirtzono”, loosely translated as “like His will” Where did these blessings come from and what do they really mean?

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Why is Judaism Matrilineal?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, God cautions His people about intermarriage (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). Although the Torah is speaking specifically about intermarrying with the Canaanite nations, the verses have always been understood as prohibiting intermarriage with any and all other nations. This is especially true because the Torah goes on to say that intermarrying will lead to the children being led astray and being turned to idolatrous ways. In those days, the Canaanites were not the only idolaters, of course—just about everyone was an idol-worshipper—so all intermarriage was forbidden. The Torah phrases the prohibition in an interesting way:

You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for they will turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship the gods of others…

While the Torah makes it clear that one must not marry their son to a gentile woman, or their daughter to a gentile man, it goes on to only mention that the son will be turned away from God, not the daughter. (The same is true in Exodus 34:16, “And you will take their daughters for your sons… and they will make your sons go astray after their gods.”) The Sages explain that women tend to be of greater faith than me, and as the primary builders of the home, it is the women who set the spiritual tone of the family. A faithful Jewish man who marries a non-Jewish woman will, sooner or later, be led astray. Such was the case with a great many Jewish men following the Babylonian Exile, and when they finally returned to Israel, they admitted (Ezra 10:2-3):

We have broken faith with our God, and have married foreign women of the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of Hashem, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.

“Ezra reading the Law in the hearing of the people” by Gustave Doré

From all of the above, the Sages conclude that Judaism passes on maternally. Scripture makes it clear that only the non-Jewish mother will turn a Jewish man astray, and as we learn from Ezra, only those born to “foreign women” are not part of the Covenant. Aside from this, there are a number of other practical and spiritual reasons why Judaism must be matrilineal.

Since the mother is the one actually giving birth to the child, it is pretty much clear every single time who the child’s mother is. The same cannot be said of the father. Throughout history, when raping and pillaging was unfortunately very common, and there were no paternity tests, only the mother’s status as parent was evident. This may be why the ancient Greeks and Romans tended to be matrilineal as well.

Shaye J.D. Cohen points out (see chapter 9 of The Beginnings of Jewishness) that in Athens, only the offspring of an Athenian man and an Athenian woman could have Athenian citizenship, a law introduced by Pericles around 451 BCE. If an Athenian man married a foreign woman, the children would not be Athenians. Later, the Romans similarly held that only two Roman citizens can have a child who was a Roman citizen, and if a Roman married a foreigner or someone of a lower social class, the status or identity of the child would be that of the mother.

While these rules make sense from a logical perspective, they also recognize the profound connection that a child and mother have—far superior to that of child and father. And this ties into the deeper biological, and spiritual, reasons for why Judaism is matrilineal.

The Genetics of Motherhood

When it comes to the genes and traits of children, people tend to think that they are a 50-50 mix of mother and father. We learn in school how 23 chromosomes from the father (carried by sperm cells) meet 23 chromosomes from the mother (in the egg cell) to produce a new child. We are made to believe that even if the child may look more like one parent, they are nonetheless perfectly half-half. This is completely untrue.

A karyotype showing 23 pairs of chromosomes. (Credit: National Human Genome Research Institute)

First of all, when it comes to boys, the Y chromosome of the father is far smaller and carries significantly less genes than the mother’s X chromosome. Girls do have half of their father’s and half of their mother’s genes (receiving an X from each, along with the other 22 chromosomes). However, this only refers to nuclear DNA. The cell has other forms of heritable genetic material, too, most notably in mitochondria.

The mitochondrion is one of the most vital components of any cell, and provides the bulk of a cell’s energy. The main reason that you breathe is to provide oxygen for mitochondria. They are involved in countless processes, including calcium storage, cell signalling and communication, metabolism, hormone production, the breakdown of wastes (such as toxic ammonia in the liver), and apoptosis, or cellular death. A single cell could have over a thousand mitochondria.

Mitochondria under a microscope.

These mitochondria have their very own DNA, carrying hundreds of additional genes. This DNA, called mtDNA, is passed down strictly from mother to child. A father’s mitochondria play no role. In fact, because of this, geneticists are able to trace a person’s maternal lineage fairly accurately thousands of years into the past by analyzing mtDNA. (My own mtDNA—haplogroup U6a—dates back to a woman who lived in North Africa about 1000 generations ago!)

There are multiple other cellular components that are passed down almost entirely from mother to child. Because the sperm essentially donates only its nucleus (with its chromosomes) to the egg, it is the egg cell itself that begins to divide in producing an embryo. Thus, the bulk of a person’s cellular structure comes from their mother, too. Back in university, I had one biology professor who estimated that inheritance is not 50-50, but more like 80-20. From a scientific perspective, we are far, far more like our mothers.

This is one reason why mothers have such a deep and profound connection to their child. Amazingly, scientists have recently discovered that when a woman is pregnant, DNA (and whole cells) from the child actually goes into the bloodstream and ends up in the mother’s brain! Fetal cells have also been found in lungs, muscles, and heart tissue of mothers. A mother will literally carry the DNA of her children in her body for the rest of her life.

Just as children are physically more connected with their mothers so, too, are they more spiritually connected to their mothers. (After all, one of Judaism’s central principles is that the dynamics of this physical world are only a reflection of the spiritual realms.) And this is yet another key reason why Judaism is, and must be, matrilineal.

What About Conversion?

The genetics perspective brings up an important question: what about converts? A person who converts to Judaism is, of course, a full-fledged Jew. But their DNA hasn’t changed! It goes without saying that Judaism is not genetic, and the discussion of genetics above is meant to only be an analogy for spiritual processes.

Having said that, we have an opportunity here to bust another common myth: that a person’s DNA is unchanging. People are often taught that whatever DNA they are born with, they are stuck with. If they have a defective gene for a particular condition, then they will definitely develop that condition. Today we know that this, too, is not entirely correct.

As discussed before in detail, our body has epigenetic machinery which allows gene expression to be controlled. Just because a person has a certain gene does not mean that the gene will be operational. It can certainly be “shut off”. While it was once thought that our lifestyle choices have no impact on our genes or epigenetics, new research continues to show that the choices we make have a tremendous effect on our genes. We’ve known for a long time that things like diet and physical activity impact gene expression, and now we even have evidence that prayer and meditation affects our genes.

Therefore, a person who sincerely converts to Judaism, and begins to live a Jewish lifestyle, eat like a Jew, think like a Jew, and pray like a Jew, will very likely experience changes on the genetic (or epigenetic) level as well. And these epigenetic changes are hereditary.

This is yet another reason why it is so important to convert to Judaism properly. Converting means not only converting in name, but becoming Torah-observant and living a Jewish life. Otherwise, what’s the point of the conversion? This is precisely why Orthodox conversions tends to be so difficult and time-consuming. The rabbis want to ensure (as much as possible) that the person is serious about becoming a Jew, and will actually live as one.

The process is far from perfect, and sometimes they do make it too difficult and tedious. We have addressed this in the past as well. Some point out that it was never so difficult to convert in past centuries. This is true, as the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) explains the procedure thus:

Once healed [from circumcision], we immerse him immediately; and two scholars stand above him, and teach him a few easy commandments and a few difficult commandments. Once he has immersed and come up from immersion, he is part of Israel for all matters. If the convert is a woman, women sit her in the water up to her neck and two scholars stand outside, and teach her a few easy commandments and a few difficult commandments.

That’s all it took back in those days. A person was just taught a few introductory mitzvot while already immersed part way in a mikveh. They would pick up the rest when going on to live as Jews and marry into Jewish families. Even in the time of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) hundreds of years later, he codifies this exact procedure as law (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 14:6). Yet, in those days just about everyone was religious (whether Jewish or not). This isn’t the case in today’s secular society. A person who converts to Judaism wouldn’t necessarily learn how to be a Jew by simply marrying into a Jewish family. It is necessary to carefully teach them everything beforehand.

It is just as necessary to determine their real intentions, and affirm their absolute sincerity. In a world where people change their identities faster than they change their socks, it isn’t surprising that Orthodox rabbis take conversion very seriously and are extremely stringent about it. It is important to keep this in mind as we continue to hear about intermarriage and the “who is a Jew?” debate in the mainstream media.