Pleasure - A Jewish Approach *glossary contents
|Date:||6 July, 2006|
Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. (Isaiah 22, 13)
Who can deny it? Pleasure plays an integral part in our lives.
The Western consumer culture of today urges us to explore sensual gratification in every possible form. Contemporary man indulges himself in an unprecedented variety of earthly pleasures, from the gastronomic and erotic, to the aesthetic and melodic. The devices and stratagems of modern technology have also been employed to push the rapture of our senses still further, feeding an insatiable desire for a greater quantity, frequency, and wider range of sensual delights. The entertainment industry thrives in both its socially acceptable and baser manifestations; subcultures devoted to submersion in particular hedonistic preoccupations proliferate.
In short, and to paraphrase a popular refrain, we want it all and we want it now.
This "pursuit of happiness" is not merely an empirical reality. It has also found its way into the heart of modern philosophy and has become a world outlook in its own right.
Probably the most influential, though widely contested, trend within psychological theory is the psychoanalytical school, which is based on the work of the famous Viennese physician, Sigmund Freud.
According to Freud, the sum total of human motivation boils down to little more than a vulgar lust for pleasure. The core of the psyche and most persistent element within it is an unthinking, animal drive toward the immediate and complete gratification of sensual desires. Human behaviour, then, becomes an anxiety-ridden attempt to satisfy these drives in a way that will not conflict greatly with the external norms of society. Human development becomes merely the successful progression from one source of pleasure to another, from one psychosexual stage to the next. For Freud, a human being is in essence a pleasure-seeking creature.
A less well-known but equally pleasure-centred philosophical view is the theory of ethics advocated by the Englishmen Jeremy Benthan and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism, as they have labeled their theory, dictates that public laws and policy, as well as private morality, should be formulated so as to further one goal and one goal alone - to provide the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest amount of people.
As Mill plainly states,
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure...
But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded - namely, that pleasure, and feedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things... are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as a means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. 
If Freud claimed that the pursuit of pleasure describes what we are, utilitarianism maintained that it dictates how we ought to live. 
This human affinity for pleasure is obvious, well-documented, and has been the target of various religious and moral castigations throughout the ages. But what is the Jewish approach to pleasure?
It is clear that an obsession with pleasure is abhorrent to traditional Judaism. Pleasure is seen as neither the exclusive core of the human mind nor the single principle that should guide our behaviour. The question that remains for us, however, is whether or not we can distinguish a uniquely Jewish approach to pleasure within our traditional sources. With this goal in mind, we embark on the discussion that follows.
Pleasure within Judaism
A preliminary perusal of Jewish lierature reveals a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards pleasure. On the one hand, the Bible places unequivocal restrictions on the range of permissible human pleasures. One is not allowed to eat everything one wants, (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14, 3-21) nor may one sleep with whomsoever one desires. (Leviticus 18, 6-24, and 20, 10-21)
On the other hand, one is obligated at times to indulge in pleasurable acts. For example, regular marital intimacy is a religious duty. (Exodus 21,10 according to B. T. Ketubot 47b; Ibid. 61b) Likewise, one is required to eat matza on Passover (Exodus 12,18), three meals on Shabbat, (B. T. Shabbat 117b, in connection with Exodus 16, 25) various sacrificial foods, to eat meat and to drink wine on the festivals as an expression of one's rejoicing, (B. T. Pesachim 109a) and so on.
This state of affairs implies neither asceticism nor the opposite extreme of Epicureanism, but rather a more sophisticated combination of the two.
Is this, then, to be interpreted as a meagre compromise, a tepid mean struck between alternating indulgence and abstinence? Definitely not. This particular balance is both intentional and meaningful, and it reflects a powerful, positive and peculiarly Jewish world view. We will examine two aspects of this approach to pleasure as they emerge from the writings of our Sages.
Appreciating God's Creation
In the Talmud, the Rabbis deliberated the merit of the nazir. (See Numbers 6, 1-21) A nazir is a person who resolves to abstain from wine and other alcoholic beverages, from cutting his or her hair, and from contact with the ritual impurity associated with a corpse (tum'at meit) for a period of thirty days. Presumably, such a person is a pious figure and is to be viewed in a positive light. Why then does the Bible require that he or she offer a sin offering at the end of the term of abstinence?
Rabbi Elazar HaKappar said in the name of Rebi, "Why does the verse say [regarding the nazir] 'And it shall atone for him for the sin against the soul' - against which soul has he sinned? Rather it is because he has abstained from wine..." If he who abstains from wine is called a sinner, how much more so he who deprives himself of all things. (B. T. Ta'anit 11a)
According to this, unwarranted sensual deprivation is to be considered undesirable, even sinful! This point is emphasised in even sharper terms by the Jerusalem Talmud.
Rabbi Chizkiya [and] Rabbi Kohen [said] in the name of Rav, "In the future one will be held accountable for all [the food] one's eyes beheld but did not eat." Rabbi Leazar was particular regarding this teaching and would collect together small coins in order to eat of all new annual foodstuffs. (JT Kiddushin 4, 12)
Apparently, upon departing this world one will be held in judgement not only regarding the uprightness of one's business dealings and consistent study of the Torah, (B. T. Shabbat 31a) but also regarding one's sensual involvement in this world!
Obviously, the Talmud is not attempting to encourage alcoholism or gluttony; nor do the above quotations extend to foods and experiences already prohibited by the letter or spirit of Jewish law. The lesson is merely that a Jew is required to participate in the pleasurable activities that the world provides, or at least that he not actively and intentionally restrain himself from partaking of them.
Furthermore, one should ensure that the quality of the pleasurable experience is optimised. Thus we learn that it is forbidden to marry on Chol Hamo'ed for we should not "mix one joyous occasion with another." (B. T. Moed Katan 8b) When joyous experiences overlap, they detract from each other. One should rather experience and savour each of them fully and individually.
As a logical extension of this attitude, one should endeavour to develop a sense of appreciation for the beauty and wonder within the world.
A story that illustrates this outlook is related regarding Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, the eloquent and innovative leader of nineteenth-century German Jewry. At one stage Rabbi Hirsch embarked on a vacation to Switzerland.
"God will ask me many questions after death," he explained to those that were surprised at the renowned rabbi's decision to travel. "But what shall I answer when He asks, 'And so, Shimshon, did you see My Alps?'"
This view of worldly pleasure is founded upon a certain assumption regarding the nature of Creation in general. The world and its contents, with all their dangers and pitfalls, should not be viewed merely as some insidious labyrinth of traps and evils that exist only to tempt and to taunt mankind. The world does not exist only as a means to some other end. The world is in itself an expression of God's will.
The Halakhic Man does not lash out at existence or at reality; he reads the verse in Genesis in its simple sense and with pure simplicity, "And God saw all that he had made and behold it was very good." He does not want to discharge himself from this world…
Man lives with his Creator in this world and through this he will merit the World to Come. The creation of the world does not detract from the idea of godliness but on the contrary it is the will of God, that his presence should constrict itself into the realm of tangible reality.
The great promise "And on that day God will be one and His name will be one" refers to the complete realisation of the Halakha in this world, and not to a suppression and annulment of reality. The creation of the world is in essence a revelation of God's will, and not a demonstration of His goodness or kindness. (R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik) 
Man walks through the Garden, tastes of its fruits, enjoys the sweet fragrance of its flowers, and becomes aware of the God that walks at his side. This very enjoyment and appreciation of this world and its contents, awakens within man a consciousness of his Creator.
Our Sages were aware of this effect, and maintained that this was the very means by which our patriarch Avraham encouraged people to become aware of God.
"And there he [Avraham] called in the name of Hashem, the God of the world." (Genesis 21, 33) Reish Lakish says, "Read it not 'called' but 'caused to be called'. This teaches that Avraham our forefather caused God's name to be called by the mouth of every wayfarer.
How was this possible? After they [Avraham's guests] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him. He would say to them, 'But have you eaten from my own? Have you not eaten from that of the God of the world? Thank, praise, and bless He who spoke and the world came into being!'" (B.T. Sotah 10a-b)
We continue in Avraham's way to this day. Our Sages enacted that we recite "blessings" before partaking of many of the pleasures of this world. Pleasure thus not only makes us conscious of God's involvement in the world, but also creates for us an opportunity to acknowledge the "King of the world" and to express our gratitude to Him.
However, the role of pleasure does not end there. Besides the innate benefits of appreciating worldly enjoyment, pleasure may have significance in relation to the context within which it is experienced.
Chiya son of Rav from Difti taught, "And you shall fast on the ninth [of Tishrei, Yom Kippur]." (Leviticus 23, 32) But do we fast on the ninth - surely we fast on the tenth! Rather this teaches you that whoever eats and drinks on the ninth, Scripture reckons this for him as though he had fasted on the ninth and on the tenth. (B. T. Yoma 81b) 
At times God requires us to fast, and at times to feast; the activities are on equal footing. From this we can infer that what truly matters is not so much whether one indulges or abstains. What counts is that one's actions, in the specific context, are in accordance with God's will.
Few things on this earth are intrinsically good or evil. Most objects or abstract ideas are neutral. What decides whether they will add to the upliftment of the world or detract therefrom, hangs on the manner in which we choose to apply them. Or, if you like, "there is nothing either good or bad but using makes it so."
Every human activity can be uplifted in this way. Sometimes all that it takes is a certain awareness on the part of the agent. Thus, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the noted scholar, mystic and poet of the Middle Ages, notes that we do not draw closer to God in our submission during fast days anymore than we do in our rejoicing during shabbat and festivals, provided this rejoicing stems from the proper thought and intention. 
Furthermore, as Maimonides instructs us, even our daily, mundane activities should be performed for the sake of Heaven.
A person should focus his heart and all his actions in order to know Hashem, blessed be He, alone, and his sitting, standing and speech will all further this matter. How so? When he deals with others and performs his work to earn his pay, he should not have in his heart to accumulate money alone but should do these things in order to acquire his bodily necessities...
He should bear in mind that his body should be complete and strong in order that his soul will be upright to know Hashem... A person who follows this path all his days will serve Hashem constantly even when he deals with others and even when he has intercourse, since his intention with everything is to satisfy his needs in order that his body will be complete to serve Hashem... Regarding this matter our Sages commanded, saying, "Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven". This is what [King] Solomon in his wisdom said, "In all your ways know Him and He will straighten your paths." (Hilkhot Deot 3, 2-3)
Pleasure, likewise, is a tool that can be used to enhance the quality of our spiritual lives. By eating delicious foods on Shabbat, and mitzva-related meals, or by buying new clothes for the festivals, we elevate pleasure and make it part of a meaningful act. In this way, we transform mere hana'ah (pleasure) into simcha shel mitzvah, joy that facilitates the fulfilment of God's commands. (see B. T. Shabbat 30b)
This also implies, however, that there are times when engaging in pleasurable activities is inappropriate. Thus, the Mishna declares that one who is learning while traveling and interrupts his studies to admire the beauty of a passing tree or field is considered by scripture to be worthy of death. (Pirkei Avot 3, 9) Although an appreciation of nature is commendable, it should not be at the expense of cutting short one's study of the Torah.
In this manner we add the dimension of sanctity to our earthly lives. Holiness, says Rav Soloveitchik, does not involve escaping the here-and-now for some other sublime and purely spiritual realm. It does not require us to transcend this world and ascend to the abode of the angels. Holiness is achieved when we draw down all of that spirituality and Godliness into our lives here below. This is accomplished by living our lives in accordance with the Halakha, Divine law and values. 
As Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka writes, holiness is
achieved through experiencing pleasure in a meaningful way... Don't eliminate pleasure from life - transmute it into a unique combination of the physical and spiritual dimensions... raising pleasure to a real, meaningful and lasting state of being. 
In fact, continues Rav Soloveitchik, life in accordance with Torah values transforms the experience of the pleasure itself.
The Halakha commands man to take pleasure in the splendour of creation and its brilliance in a measure not less than that of the man of pleasure. However, the enjoyment of the Hallakhic Man is proper, level, and refined - the pleasure of a man who has penetrated the depths of desire and come to an understanding of its nature. It as an element of the aesthetic link of the skeptic, who has had his full of the world and not found satisfaction, and an element of the ethical discipline of the man of law, who feels the pull of his inclination and overpowers it...
The Halakha hates the emptiness of pleasure, when the body is enslaved to Nature and gripped by terror before the gathering of powerful forces of desire, who falls upon pleasure and exhausts it. The Halakha forbids man the hysteria of passion and madness.
The pleasure that the Halakha advocates is devoid of excessive instinctivity, sensual stimulation, and the drunken stupor of the senses. However, it has that beauty of refinement and the aesthetic splendour that is in life. When a man enjoys the world in accordance with the view of Halakha, his pleasure is modest and tender, pleasure free of the frenzy of licentiousness and the feverishness of gluttony. 
A Balanced Life
As we have seen, although pleasure by no means forms the centre of Jewish preoccupation, it nevertheless fulfils an important and extremely positive role in the life of the observant Jew.
This role is twofold. Firstly, pleasure is the experience of the gifts and works of God's creation. It is a part of living in God's world and leads us to a wondrous recognition of and profound gratitude towards the "King of the world."
Secondly, pleasure is a tool that we employ in our service of Hashem. At times this service calls for the banishment of such pleasures, at times for their pursuit. Pleasure, when appropriate, enhances our spiritual lives, and becomes itself uplifted as part and parcel of a meaningful and multifaceted human life.
This approach to life in general reflects a delicate and harmonious balance. Judaism has long maintained that there is a time, place and measure for all things under the sun. Our Sages have decried the uninformed tendency toward extremism.  With God's commandments as our guide, we can live full, colourful, productive, creative, and pleasurable lives. And through this we are encouraged to exercise and actualise the many and varied aspects of our existence as human beings. 
In life we are faced with many challenges, requirements, obligations, and commandments. Undoubtedly, these are extremely important and we ignore them at our peril. However, pitiful is the person that walks through this world of beauty, wonder, and pleasure, oblivious to it all. God has created a wide and full universe of colour and taste, aroma and experience.
To live out one's days with blinkers on, without a sense of appreciation and awe before God's work, is not only a terrible shame and loss, and an act of ingratitude, but a danger to our spiritual well-being as well.
We learn this critical lesson from one of the first events recorded in the Torah. God created man and placed him in the Garden of Eden. Then God commanded him,
From every tree of the garden shall you surely eat, but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad you may not eat. For on the day that you eat from it you will surely die. (Genesis 2, 16-17)
Radak explains that God's words convey, in fact, two commands. Besides the prohibition of the Tree of Knowledge, there is a separate positive command, "From every tree of the garden you shall surely eat!" 
However, instead of channelling his energies into the active, positive commandment, man focused on what was forbidden to him.  The words of the snake, "Has God not said that you may not eat from any of the trees of the garden?" (Genesis 3, 1) found a sympathetic ear. The thought of the forbidden had a certain alure, and invited further speculation. Why did God limit them? What was His "true" motivation?
As a result, Adam and Eve sinned and were expelled from the Garden. Had they had a different attitude, perhaps this tragedy could have been averted. As Rabbi Yehuda Shaviv puts it,
If only man had made an effort to busy himself with the positive commandment that was placed upon him, and had enjoyed himself in accordance with God's will. For then he would have eaten, enjoyed, and lived forever. 
May Hashem guide us to fulfil His will in this world but at the same time to appreciate and enjoy all that He has created. May this, in turn, lead us to sense the closeness of His presence as we stroll along together with Him in the Garden.
- This article was first published in Imkei Torah, Vol. 2, printed by the Bnei Akiva/Mizrachi Bet Medrash of Johannesburg, 2000.
- Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism. Chapter 2; in Ryan, A. (ed.) Utilitarianism and Other Essays. Pg.278. 1987. Penguin.
- In all fairness it should be pointed out that Mill did assign greater value to the uniquely human “pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments” than to the purely sensual pleasures. (Ibid., pg. 279.)
- Soloveitchik, J.B. Ish HaHalakha 1:8; in Ish HaHalakha - Galui Venistar. Pgs 51-52.
- Obviously, one is still obligated to fast on Yom Kippur regardless of one's feasting on the previous day. The intention here is merely that one's feasting on that day is of similar religious value to that of one's fasting on the day of the fast itself. See B.T. Berakhot 8b, Tosfot s.v. ke'ilu (beginning), and B.T. Yoma 81b, Rashi s.v. kol ha'ocheil.
- Sefer HaKuzari, 2:50. Even Shmuel, Y. (Transl.) Dvir Publications. Israel. 1994. Pgs 75-76.
- Ibid., Pgs 46-47.
- Bulka, R.P. Judaism on Pleasure. Pgs 83-84. R' Bulka's book collects together many of the sources referred to in this article, and has been a valuable aid in the writing thereof.
- Soloveitchik, J.B. Ubikashtem Misham 15:2; in Ish HaHalakha - Galui Venistar. Pgs 207-208.
- See Maimonides, Hilkhot Deot ch. 1-3; Shemoneh Perakim ch. 4. Note, however, that many diverse approaches to pleasure feature under the umbrella of Jewish thought. See, for example, Mesilat Yesharim ch. 13. In general, however, asceticism is usually considered valuable only as a temporary and preventative measure.
- See Soloveitchik, J.B. Ibid. 12:1,2. Pg. 190,193: "The actual, colourful personality draws closer to its God when it lives a personal, multi-coloured, original life filled with purpose, initiative, and activity, and frees itself from the semblance of arrogant, brazen independence... man cleaves to the Holy One, Blessed be He, through the complete realisation of his personality, by uncovering all the potentialities stored within the depths of his existence."
- Rabeinu Bechaye offers the same interpretation. Note, however, that others see this as merely permission for man to eat from the other trees (see Rav Sa'adya Gaon, Ibn Ezra).
- Our Sages critically point out that Adam and/or Eve added to the prohibition that God commanded them. Although God specified not to eat from the Tree, Eve mentions to the snake that they were commanded not to touch it either. See B. T. Sanhedrin 69a and Avot DeRabbi Natan ch. 1)
- Shaviv, Y. Seyagim. In Sham'ah, A. (Ed.) Megadim, Vol. 4. Tevunot Publi-cations, Alon Shevut. 1988. Rabbi Shaviv, Shelitah, is a senior rabbi and teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion.