Man, Self Development, Commitment

Body and Soul

1) What makes human beings so special? Aren’t animals also able to love and care, display intelligent behavior and even learn how to speak?

2) Does Man really have freedom of choice as Judaism says? People surely don’t choose who their parents are, what their genes are going to be, which town they are going to be born in, how clever and handsome they will be and what opportunities they are going to get in life?

3) Does not the idea of freedom of choice contradict G-d’s divine foreknowledge?

4) What is the Jewish idea of the Sacred and the Secular, the Pure and the Impure?

5) What is the Jewish concept of the Sinner and the Saint?

Goodness, Commitment and Growth

6) Does Judaism really lead to greater happiness? Frum (religious) people don’t seem happier to me?

7) How does Judaism provide a system for changing and/or modifying one’s nature and character?

8) How does Judaism build one’s self-esteem? We see how crippling it is to have low self-esteem and how important it is in this day and age to learn how to be assertive and to project one’s personality; surely Judaism’s emphasis of humility and modesty undermines this?

9) If I am happy with my life as it is, why change it?

10) Hypocrisy; I’m worse off if i know and don’t do than if i simply stay ignorant.

11) I am willing to do things which make sense to me, but not if I don’t see the logic.

12) Judaism takes you out of the world.

13) Judaism is too restrictive; It will destroy my individuality; It will destroy my creativity; Why does G-d want so many restrictions?

Body and Soul

1. What makes human beings so special? Aren’t animals also able to love and care, display intelligent behavior and even learn how to speak?


Animals are capable of some emotional and intellectual maturation. They are able to have relationships, feel pain and learn simple aspects of language. They can problem solve up to a degree and adapt to new environments. But animals are totally divorced from the moral and spiritual realm. They have no spiritual aspirations, they never suffer from existential crises and they never show any sense of any higher purpose in life. Those animals that show certain types of moral behavior, like loyalty in dogs, or modesty in cats are genetically programmed to be so. So is any apparent evil we see in animals pre-programmed. Only man has the moral autonomy to be truly good or evil. Only human beings ever seem to show any sense of a higher purpose in life and therefore only human beings can invest themselves and the world around them with meaning. Animals do indeed possess some basic life-force which is actually considered, in Judaism, the lowest level of the soul the נפש. But they lack the higher levels of the soul, those that allow us to say of man that he was created in the image of G-d. Man aspires to imitate his Creator and therein lies his own unique creativity, as far from animals as life is from a rock.

    Perhaps the most powerful expression of the differences between man and animal is the fact that animals do not recognize their grandparents [1]
. This is because animals do not build on the achievement of the generations. Animals are always starting over from scratch – basic insects and then a narrow range of learned behaviors. Unlike humans, there is no such thing as animal civilization, no such thing as progression from one generation to the next. For you can only build with spirituality. And that is a gift that was given only to man.

2. Does Man really have freedom of choice as Judaism says? People surely don’t choose who their parents are, what their genes are going to be, which town they are going to be born in, how clever and handsome they will be and what opportunities they are going to get in life?


    It is true that we all are given most of what we are, either by nature (genes) or by nurture (the environment). However, we all have a small area of our lives in which choices can be made. Firstly we can, indeed are forced to, choose our reaction to our given situation. Building on this, we all are given the moral and spiritual imperative to take who we are, our character, and our personality, our creativity and sensitivity - and to grow forward. This part of ourselves (however small it may be) defines our essential self. It is this, which makes us truly human.

    Different people have different choices to make. For one, smiling may be effortless, not something he has to consciously choose to do. For another it may be a huge effort, something which requires commitment and work. But the first person will have his challenges. And in the end, we all get the same amount of choice [2]
. What we make of those choices, we make of our life.

3. Does not the idea of freedom of choice contradict G-d’s divine foreknowledge?


    G-d is above time. Therefore, if He understands anything about the present, (which He certainly does), then He automatically must know about the past and the future as well. It is all one to Him, all appearing to Him in an instant that is above time. But this knowledge of G-d exists in a plane in which freedom of choice cannot exist. The moment reality translates itself into a time-based existence, the plane on which we exist, G-d’s foreknowledge falls away and our freedom of choice begins to express itself. Since we live within time, the plan of G-d’s foreknowledge is unimaginable to us - we simply are not equipped with the frame of reference to understand anything but our earthly past-present-future domain. So we might say that in the dimension that G-d’s foreknowledge exists, there is no choice, but in the dimension where choice exists, there is not foreknowledge.

4. What is the Jewish idea of the Sacred and the Secular, the Pure and the Impure?


    Judaism does not believe in achieving holiness by separation from the physical world. We are commanded to go through the physical world; to use and harness it and thereby elevate it with the spiritual elevation of ourselves. The Secular then becomes that which was not yet elevated by us. Everything actually starts out with a neutral potential, neither sacred nor profane - simply secular. The greater the potential for something to become sacred, the greater the potential for it to become profane.

    The pure is something whose life potential has been actualized, the impure, something which has lost its life potential. The paradigm of something impure is a dead body, a holy corpse which no longer houses the soul which allowed it to continuously grow and to actualize more and more of its potential. A woman in her menstrual cycle is simply reflecting a loss of that same potential on a lesser scale. So is a Metzora (leprosy) whose malicious speech is a socially destructive act.

(For a related insight on the pure and impure, see the section on Women’s Issues, Why a woman is impure during her menstrual cycle?)

5. What is the Jewish concept of the Sinner and the Saint?


    Sin & Saintliness do not exist in Judaism. These are Christian concepts. Judaism has a whole range of words to describe spiritual negativity עבירה, חטא, טומאה,  among others. For us negative and positive spirituality exist on a gradient and cannot be contained by one word. The commonly used word however is עבירה (avayra) which literally means to pass over - i.e. to pass over the opportunity to do G-d’s will. This is also called a חטא, a lack, which means that we have failed to actualize our spiritual potential either by failing to do something or by doing something positively bad.

    So too there are no saints in Judaism [3]
, although there are righteous men and women. These צדיקים are your common man who through working on their characters became holy. No titles are ever given out or awards made. In fact the surest disqualification for the name Tzadik is someone who is trying to consciously acquire the name.

    A (righteous person) צדיק, like you and me continues to struggle with himself, to work on himself, and to grow forward. His greatness lies not so much in the heroic act as in the daily standards of excellence he applies to his life. We all are capable of being heroes, we hope, when it comes to the unusual, to the little old lady who fell down in the street. But real Jewish heroism is expressed in the little act, not as Napoleon on his white horse. At first glance the Jewish righteous man appears to be doing the same thing as everyone else - he tries to give, to be friendly and warm, to pray meaningfully and to keep the mitzvos (commandments). Like the (righteous person) צדיק, we all try to smile at our fellow man and to pray to G-d. The difference between the (righteous person) צדיק and every-man is that whereas we sometimes get it right and sometimes don’t, whereas we sometimes let our moods or simply lack or awareness get in the way, the צדיק (righteous person) manages an amazing consistency. We all have that great pray now and then - the צדיק does it every day. We all occasionally access the inner essence of our souls, overcome our desire to overeat or not get out of bed - we are all heroes some of the time. The צדיק is a hero every day.

(See further below, 
How does Judaism provide a system for changing and/or modifying one’s nature and character?

Goodness, Commitment And Growth

6. Does Judaism really lead to greater happiness? Frum (religious) people don’t seem happier to me?

If what is meant is somebody going “whee” at the fun fare, people walking around without seemingly a care in the world - then frum (religious) Jews indeed don’t make the grade. Jews are serious about life, because they care about it very deeply. But they are definitely happy where it really counts - they have a deep inner contentment in their belief that they are doing the right thing, growing spiritually and acting ethically. The real test comes in old age. Frum (religious) Jews seem to get more content the older they get. Yet old age depression is a massive problem in the secular world - people can no longer lead the lives that were so dependent on their being vigorous and in the prime of their health. These people often long to be young - they are backward looking. Frum (religious) people rarely are. Part of the problem comes from the Western idea of pleasure; a lot of it has to do with escaping. In fact some forms of Western pleasure are deliberately designed to be as different to normal living as possible. A club for example has very loud music, is dark with flashing lights, has dancing - very different to normal types of body movements - all completely different to any normal environment. Movies, videos, theme parks, theatre, Disneyworld and TV are all designed to transport one into a different reality to one’s own [5]
. People talk about “getting away”, perhaps from life itself.

    The epitome of Jewish leisure, on the other hand, is the Shabbat. The Shabbat is held in the same house, around the same table, as the weekday. It is intended not simply to give us a break, but to inform our weekday, provide it with spirituality and meaning [6]
. Jewish pleasure comes from engaging one’s normal environment in a creative and meaningful way. Jews don’t get away for pleasure (though they might for relaxation) they go up for (spiritual) pleasure.

Happiness is a consequence not a goal [7]
. You can’t be happy by trying to make yourself happy or declaring that you have a right to be happy [8]
. You can only be happy because you are feeling good about yourself as a consequence of doing the right thing [9]
. Anyone who looks for something from outside of himself to make him happy finds that it was a quick-lived experience.  We dream for wealth – and find that the moment we have it, it does nothing for us [10]
. We long to be famous, but the famous seem no happier than those without all of that. Hollywood stars, in fact, seem to have miserable lives. This is because the human being is ultimately a spiritual being [11]
. Trying to satisfy the soul with material things just isn’t going to hack it [12].

So Jews live meaningful, fulfilling lives and it is this which makes them happy. But Jews are not happy with any meaning – we are a nation that insists on ultimate meaning – a
faith in G-d and a Torah life which fulfills His will [13]
.  Faith allows one to feel not only that life is meaningful, but that one was given everything that one needs to fulfill it. A Jew who trusts in his G-d does not feel that he is lacking anything.

איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו

Who is happy – he who is happy with his lot.

7. How does Judaism provide a system for changing and/or modifying one’s nature and character?


    Judaism has 3,500 years of wisdom on character development and it shows. Most of us who work on ourselves focus on our strongest assets - the pianist, the athlete, the doctor keep on working away at their piano-playing, running and medicine, especially in this era of super-specialization. If our worst trait is really getting in the way then we will work on that too. If we just lost another friend because our quick temper got the better of us for the umpteenth time then we will have no choice but to try and do something about this.  But most of our potential, in most of us, simply remains underdeveloped.

    Judaism is a system of developing all of oneself, of actualizing all of one’s potential. The annual cycle gets us to focus on freedom and self-control come Passover; our relationship with spirituality and the Torah on Shavuos; self-awareness and judgment on Rosh Hashanah; relationship with the material, faith on Sukkos, etc. The Commandments of the Torah direct us toward a golden mean or path: there are commandments which develop our internal self-discipline on the one hand, and those which direct our focus on giving outward on the other hand; we are directed to be sensitive to our environment, to our physical needs, to our intellectual development, to our communal responsibility - all with the right balance.

    On our own, we are but midgets in the complex maze of our own fabulous selves; with the Torah we can climb a tower and finally view the totality of ourselves.

8. How does Judaism build one’s self-esteem?  We see how crippling it is to have low self-esteem and how important it is in this day and age to learn how to be assertive and to project one’s personality; surely Judaism’s emphasis of humility and modesty undermines this?


    Judaism is not for losers. It is demanding and challenging. It therefore makes a poor crutch. Yet, this is not to say that it does not build self-esteem. On the contrary, somebody who is filled up with the spirituality, sense of meaning and wholeness of the Torah, will have real self-esteem which can only ultimately come from the knowledge that he is fulfilling his mission in life. And he will feel little need to validate himself from the outside.

    Neither humility nor modesty have anything to do with having a positive self-image and the confidence to be able to do what life-situations demand of us. In fact the rabbis would not advise someone with a poor self-image to work on their humility. Humility is the smallness that a person feels when he compares himself to his ultimate potential or when he compares himself to Ultimate Reality. Humility demands that one not belittle who one is and what one has done; even more so it requires one to really understand what one can be.

    Nor is modesty a contradiction to self-esteem. Modesty is the de-focusing from the superficiality of a situation so that the inner essence of the situation can be revealed. In the case of clothing, it is the hiding of the distractions of the purely physical aspects of oneself in order to reveal the true honor and value of oneself. This applies to men as well as to women.

    However, in women, immodest dress impacts more on the situation because men, more than women, are capable of pure, sensual, attraction. Modesty is not only a dress issue it applies to the way one speaks, to all one’s senses, to the way one filters any information. In fact Michah the prophet described modesty as one of the big three keys to unlocking all of spirituality. Since spirituality is always hidden below the surface of things, someone who lacks the focus of modesty will never have an authentic relationship with spirituality. So modesty is really a גילוי כבודו, a revelation of the true honor and glory of the person. Far from being a reflection of a lack of positive self-image, it reflects just the opposite, the confident conviction that we are more, much more, than sometimes meets the eye.

(See further under Women’s Issues, Women’s Clothing)

9. If I am happy with my life as it is, why change it?


    It is true, people do not change if they are completely happy with the way they are. However, in order to make sure that you have assessed the situation properly, ask yourself the following questions:

(i) Based on my present life-style, am I as likely to be as satisfied with my life in ten and fifty years as I am now? Are people of that age who live or lived like me as happy as I would like (them) to be? How do I expect to be different? Bear in mind that now is probably the easiest time in your life to make changes.

(ii) Do I just want to be happy, or do I want to be as spiritually fulfilled as I possibly can be?

(iii) Am I fulfilling all of my potential; not just my best quality, but all my traits? Do I even understand myself well enough to be able to say what my ten best and test worst traits are?

(iv) Is my lifestyle going to give my children the best chance (possible) to live the most moral and fulfilling lives possible?

(v) Are all my current values really true?

    Nobody is asking you to change your life if you don’t want to you. Ultimately that is your choice and only you can make it. What I am asking is that you study - that you know something about the most magnificent body of wisdom ever to exist on earth - and it happens to belong to you. Once you know a little about your heritage, you will be in a position to decide for yourself what you want to do, and I fully respect your integrity to make an honest and independent decision. 

Pop quiz:

Who was the Mother of Jesus?

And who was the Mother of Moses?

Most Jews know the answer to the first but not the second question. That just shows how far we are away from our own Heritage.

    Therefore, to decide now, before you have learned, whether you want to observe Judaism would be to decide by default. That I can’t respect. I can only respect an informed decision. So I am encouraging you to check things out, to give at least as much time to your Judaism, which has inspired millions of brightest and the best Jewish minds through the ages, as you would to any one semester course at college, many of which are probably going to make absolutely no difference to your life.

10. Hypocrisy; I’m worse off if I know and don’t do than if I simply stay ignorant.


    The secular person figures that anyone who is observant but who is not a (righteous person) צדיק, must be a hypocrite. After all, you say that you believe in it, why don’t you do it. Many of their hassles with the frum (religious) community arise from this. But worse than that, they often prevent themselves from getting involved by saying, “I relate to parts of Judaism, but to do it all is too much for me. Is it not hypocritical to observe some מצוות (commandments) and not others?” Here’s one answer:

    Monday: You have just been to a great lecture on keeping Kosher. You come home, throw out the cheeseburger and stock up with kosher goods, although you have no idea what you are going to do about that important business appointment in a treife (non-kosher) restaurant on Wednesday. You agonize over the decision but you end up having that treife (non-kosher) meal. You simply didn’t have the strength to cancel or maybe you were too embarrassed to suggest a kosher alternative. To give in to one’s weakness like this is a problem to be overcome, but it is not hypocrisy. Judaism regards any מצוות Mitzvah (commandment) that a person keeps as being of value - it is not an all or nothing process. A person can do a little, then fall short, that is only human. What is important is that he be committed to the process of growth. He should say, “Although I can’t see myself doing everything now, there is no area of Judaism which I reject from doing one day in the future, even if it is difficult now for me to imagine doing these things.” What for one person may be a piece of cake (e.g. smiling cheerfully in the morning), for another may be extremely difficult. Therefore, what really counts is not where you are, but where you want to be, and how much energy you are willing to put in getting there.

11. I am willing to do things which make sense to me, but not if I don’t see the logic.


    If we were to wait until we understood every part of a system before expressing faith in that system, we might as well not come out of the womb? We fly in things 30,000 miles above the sky, not because we understand every part of an airplane, but because overall we see that it works. So too we do the מצוות (commandments) because overall Judaism makes sense, enough sense to allow us to believe that this mitzvah too will make sense to me when I finally understand it. So - one stops doing if one loses faith in the overall system but not when one lacks insight into a detail.

12. Judaism takes you out of the world


    The list of observant Jews who have reached the top in their respective professions would read in the thousands, covering medicine, law, physics, the arts, and many more. There is even an observant U.S. Senator and at least two observant U.S. ambassadors. In Israel, observant Jews have had amongst their ranks Menachem Begin, Agnon (the only Israeli recipient of a Nobel Prize for literature), two Supreme Court Judges, the first State Comptroller (Dr. Nebensal), a recent President (Moshe Katzav) and many more.  In the area of science alone we can talk about people such as Herman Branover, the world’s leading scientist in magnetohydrodynamics; Alvin Radkowsky, formerly Chief Scientist, U.S Atomic Energy Commission and father of a number of key inventions relating to nuclear reactors; Leo Levi, Rector of Jerusalem College of Technology; Cyril Domb, a fellow of the Royal Society in London and many more.  Historically, this has always been the case.  Maimonides was considered, together with Averroes, as the foremost philosopher of his time; his textbooks on Galen were standard in medical schools throughout the Old World; there have been a number of observant prime ministers like Shmuel HaNagid of Grenada and finance ministers like the Abarbanel to Isadore and Ferdinand Isabella.  Most of them have been great sages, some, the leading sages of their generation.

    What Judaism does is to change our perspective of the world. Priorities do change, and yesterdays burning ambition may be today’s yawn. But these are choices you may or you may not want to make, and you will feel no pressure to do differently. Your life will remain in your hands. May you merit to make the right decisions.

13. Judaism is too restrictive; It will destroy my individuality; It will destroy my creativity; Why does G-d want so many restrictions?


    Though there is certainly a Jewish way of approaching every situation, most of the day of an observant Jew is not explicitly defined by Jewish law. The entire area of the laws between man and man is only defined in very broad outline. The infinite variety of unique human situations require a continuous outpouring of personal creativity.

    At the same time, everything worthwhile in life requires discipline and restrictions.  The great pianist has to follow the restrictions of counterpoint and harmony. There are scales and rules of pedaling. The great gymnast or ballerina require both tremendous discipline and constant practice to free their bodies to glide through the air as they do.                 

    A novice at the keyboard trying to express himself will just make noise. It will take years of hard practice, day in and day out, before he becomes a master. But having mastered the discipline to express himself creatively, he will be able to use his discipline to soar to greater and greater heights.

    The most creative and individualistic personalities in Judaism are usually the greatest.  Like the Olympic swimmer who trained for a decade to glide so beautifully through the water, they seem to effortlessly combine their own personalities with the highest spiritual ideas.  They have harmonized themselves with the Torah which in turn is very finely tuned to the physical world in such a way that they can respond to each situation with maximum creativity.

    But there is more. Not only does Judaism not want you to give up your personality, it insists that you don’t. You owe your creativity to not only yourself but to the world - the world cannot be complete without it.

[1] Different animals recognize one or both of their parents for various parts of their lives, usually only for as long as they need them.

[2]  See קונטרוס החסד, מכתב מאליהו, חלק א’

[3] To be declared a Saint the Catholic Church demands that the person have done two or more miracles. But there is no such requirement to be a Tzadik (righteous person). 

[4] Secular people tend to scrutinize frum (religious) people to see whether they really are happy or not.  Should they see a haggard-looking woman trying to get off the bus with two children and a carriage, they will use this as proof that frum people don’t really look happy. But they do not do this with secular people.  You will not find a secular person looking intensely at his co-travelers on a N.Y. subway to see whether they are happy. But let him or her come to Har Nof (a religious community in Jerusalem) and they will immediately put everyone under the microscope.

The truth of the matter is that you cannot tell whether someone is happy or not by just looking at him or her. People are not happy because they crack a lot of jokes or seem to laugh in public a lot. Suicides often include people who appeared outwardly so happy. Happiness is a function of an inward contentment with one’s lot, serenity, a feeling of being fulfilled and having meaning in life and on feeling adjusted. The few studies that have been done have shown that on these variables, frum (religious) people do better than non-frum people. 

[5] Even reality TV, which is meant to be more real-life, is in fact meant to give us pleasure by becoming peeping-Toms into other people’s lives.

[6] This is not to say that taking a vacation, and experiencing a different environment and pace for a while is not a healthy thing. But this is not meant to be a break from life -  just a break from work, from being rushed, from not being able to think and appreciate oneself, one’s family and the nature around us.

[7] “Like happiness, self-actualizing is an effect, the effect of meaning fulfillment. ...If he sets out to actualize himself rather than fulfill a meaning (out there in the world), self-actualization immediately loses its justification. (Victor Frankl, The Will to Meaning, p.38)

[8] The right to pursue pleasure is one of the supreme values upheld in the American Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are… endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that amongst these are… pursuit of happiness.” Secular humanism leads to a desire by people to be happy here and now. Doing the right thing in this world in order to be rewarded in the world to come is replaced by doing what makes you happy in this world. For those who are intelligent and disciplined, this may mean delaying gratification until they have a job, or until they get married or until they have put their kids through college or even until they retire. This is the “Waiting for Good” syndrome, where people are always waiting for that thing to happen in their lives when they are then really going to start living. For others, the happiness has to be more instant.

Pleasure may mean having fun or enjoying leisure, and indeed Hollywood, theme parks, most of TV, the music and sports industries, as well as most popular literature are devoted to this idea. This idea of pleasure being something instantaneously gratifying is reinforced by a consumer orientation, the labeling of any pain as negative, sexual liberation, a victim rights oriented society, a fast food industry, and a whole host of other factors. Presidential hopefuls now talk in sound bytes and parents feel that their moral responsibility to their children is to condone whatever makes them happy. The idea of real pleasure, a higher spiritual happiness is rarely given equal consideration.

[9] True happiness comes from within. It is a state of being as a result of working on ourselves, of feeling that we have done the right thing, that our lives have meaning and that we are spiritually fulfilled. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that a person only gains true meaning in life when he reaches beyond himself. It is ultimately self-transcendence, rather than simply self-actualization which leads to true self-fulfillment. As Victor Frankl puts it, man must reach beyond himself, “because of the self-transcendent quality of human existence… being human always means being directed and pointing to something or someone other than itself” (The Will to Meaning., p. 25). However, in stating that one must not look outside of one’s self, we meant in the sense of looking for something in the physical world.

[10]  יש לו מנה רוצה מאתיים:

(when a person has 100 he wants 200)

Like nature, the human being abhors a vacuum. We are driven to fill ourselves up. But since we have an infinite, spiritual soul, any attempt to full ourselves up with materialism is doomed to failure. Some people misinterpret this by thinking that the reason they are still feeling empty is because it wasn’t enough. They become millionaires and it still does not do it for them. The reason, they figure, must be because a million is not enough. Another million and that will do the trick. But such notions of instantaneous gratification will simply not work when it comes to real happiness.

[11] Judaism believes that true happiness is not in this world. Rather it is in the World to Come. But, the amazing thing is that the “this worldly” process of attaining the World to Come makes us happier in this world as well.

[12] מהר”ל, באר הגולה באר רביעי (עמ, עה): דע כי השמחה הוא מצב הנפש, כי השמחה הוא כאשר האדם הוא בשלימותו ואין שלימות רק אל הנפש ולא אל הגוף החמרי

[13] אורחות צדיקים  – הבטחון הוא מקור השמחה

Posted in: Jewish Beliefs & Philosophy