+ Positive Judaism

Positive Judaism: A First Glance
An Open Letter to Tamid and The Jewish Community
From Rabbi Darren Levine, D.Min

Dear Friends, for a few years now, I have been working out the theory and practice of Positive Judaism – a new vision for those that are serious about improving their individual lives, their families, and their communities through Jewish living. In my own life, I’ve been searching for a new language to express how to live a spiritual life within a Jewish framework that expands the mind, deepens personal character, strengthens community, improves the world, and adds joy and optimism to everyday living.

As a parent, rabbi, and educator, I’ve witnessed in your lives and my own the deep commitment to Jewish identity but the struggle at times to find a real connection to the traditional ways into prayer, holiday observance, Torah study and to God. We want Judaism part of our lives but we want something richer and more meaningful than the Jewish practice and thought of the 20th Century. We all know that life is complex and challenging and we need a new language for Judaism that clearly articulates a way to enhance our lives in everything we do and everything we are.

Positive Judaism answers the question, “why be Jewish?” For people who are seeking to enhance their personal well-being, for leaders who are seeking to have a relevant and positive impact on the lives of their members, and for congregations seeking have a positive impact on their larger community, Positive Judaism has language that will help you find a compelling answer to the question: “why be Jewish?”

While ancient Jewish texts teach that God chose the Jewish People, in the 21st century it is the People that will or will not choose to be Jewish. It’s not enough to glorify Judaism and the benefits of living a Jewish life. Historical memory, Israel, the threat of anti-semitism or intermarriage, and guilt, are not strong enough motivators for Jewish engagement. We need something new and serious and Positive Judaism is one new construct.

These new ideas for Jewish Living can be applied to how people: Experience prayer, Shabbat and Jewish holidays; pray and find relevance in Jewish life-cycle events; find deep meaning in observing Jewish values like tukkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (charity and righteousness); frame and transmit stories from the Torah and teach Jewish history; parent and live as a Jewish families across multiple generations; engage in shared inter-cultural gatherings and approach communal politics; approach personal and communal struggle, tragedy, and loss; and feel connected to personal Jewish identity in a positive way.

Positive Psychology + Positive Judaism: A Great Shidduch (pairing)

Positive Judaism draws up traditional Jewish thought and practice and the theory and teachings of Positive Psychology. Similar to Positive Psychology which deals with optimal living, well-being, and happiness, Positive Judaism is a framework for Judaism that approaches Jewish practice, Jewish community, and Jewish philosophy from a unique perspective: Optimal living and well-being.

The founders of Positive Psychology include Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who 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.

I was drawn to Positive Psychology during my doctoral studies as a theory that I believed could help me articulate one of my major dilemmas as a rabbi: how to address the negativity in Jewish life – real and perceived – that arise from: historical rejection and destruction (Holocaust, pogroms); political and social threats (anti-semitism, anti-Israel); guilt and shame (“do more/don’t let the candle burn out”). Such negative experiences/attitudes/ideas naturally lead a person to feel depressed, pessimistic, and cynical. People have enough pressure, stress, and insecurity in the 21st century global world, why would they elect to add more negativity?

Similar to the motivation of the founders of Positive Psychology to find a new approach to psychology that focuses not on the problem (mental disorder, interventionism, and psychopharmacology), I am motivated to find a new approach to Judaism that focuses on guiding individuals, families, and communities to enhance their well-being, health, and life goals – to expand the mind, increase optimal daily living, and add joy and meaning to the human condition.  After all, at the heart of most Jewish holidays, ritual practices, prayer, and philosophy is optimism and idealism, not pessimism and hopelessness. Positive Judaism brings attention to the virtues that enhance life and that are at the core of the science of Positive Psychology:

Wisdom: Open-minded, curious, creative, love of learning
Courage: Bravery, persistence, integrity, resilience
Humanity: Love, kindness, social intelligence
Justice: Citizenship, fairness, leadership
Temperance: Forgiveness, mercy, humanity, self control
Transcendence: Appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

Each named virtue and characteristic has corresponding Jewish values, biblical teachings, and Jewish practices to understand the virtue in a Jewish context. This is where Positive Psychology and Positive Judaism intersect. When experienced by an individual or community, the impact will be increased positive emotion, increased communal engagement, improved relationships, and accelerated human advancement. People and communities will be more confident, optimistic, open to diversity, able to learn lessons from hardship, experience work as a calling, act and think with purpose, contribute and help, appreciate family and friends, and act generously.

If you have any ideas for me, suggestions or experience that could help, or would like to serve as a reader to sections of the book as they become available, I would value your input. Please contact me directly at dlevine@tamidnyc.org.

With gratitude and to your positivity and well-being,

Rabbi Darren Levine, D.Min