Pos­i­tive Judaism: For a Life­time of Well-Being and Happiness

  • Review
By – March 23, 2020

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if not now, then when?” Over two thou­sand years ago, the rab­binic leader, Hil­lel, bold­ly chal­lenged us to be respon­si­ble, vig­i­lant and strong in what is a seem­ing­ly unend­ing quest towards indi­vid­ual whole­ness. For­tu­nate­ly, in Pos­i­tive Judaism, Rab­bi Dar­ren Levine pro­vides a mas­ter­ful guide­book to chart the path for­ward. Draw­ing upon his own painful expe­ri­ences of divorce and job loss, Levine seam­less­ly blends the wis­dom of Judaism with cur­rent psy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture focussing on devel­op­ing and strength­en­ing well-being.

From the out­set, Levine reminds the read­er that liv­ing well and achiev­ing whole­ness does not imply the absence of suf­fer­ing. Indeed, sim­ply liv­ing brings an unpre­dictable con­flu­ence of pain and joy, which can both strength­en and weak­en our emo­tion­al, phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al resolve.

Levine con­tends that Judaism embod­ies five core ele­ments of well-being: pos­i­tive emo­tion, engage­ment, rela­tion­ship, mean­ing and achieve­ment (PER­MA). Each per­son brings what he terms sig­na­ture strengths’ to these core ele­ments, which can be honed to achieve well-being, espe­cial­ly in times when the emo­tion­al immune sys­tem has been attacked. The sci­ence of well-being high­lights virtues that are the sign­posts in the road lead­ing to ful­fill­ment, such as wis­dom, courage, human­i­ty, jus­tice, tem­per­ance and tran­scen­dence. Levine, how­ev­er, does not aban­don the read­er mere­ly to con­tem­plate these virtues in a vac­u­um. Rather, he gen­tly nudges the read­er in the pri­va­cy of their hearts to lay bare what he believes are sig­na­ture strengths. In two decep­tive­ly sim­ple appen­dices, Levine offers the read­er the oppor­tu­ni­ty to quan­ti­fy per­son­al sat­is­fac­tion through a well-being pro­file and then holds up a mir­ror and asks that we assess our sig­na­ture strengths. Engag­ing these exer­cis­es before delv­ing into the sub­stance of the search for well-being pro­vides both focus and opti­mism to the all too human and at times, debil­i­tat­ing com­mon journey.

Levine reminds the read­er that Jew­ish life organ­i­cal­ly cre­ates a cycle of good­ness — one good deed leads inevitably to anoth­er, which has the dual pur­pose of serv­ing oth­ers and improv­ing our­selves. Both the deed and the reac­tion it elic­its ener­gizes us to do more. The act of doing is alive, organ­ic and pro­pels us fur­ther. All of our rela­tion­ships, con­tends Levine, con­tain ele­ments of the divine. Cit­ing Mar­tin Buber’s I‑Thou,’ Levine ele­gant­ly sug­gests that the divine ele­ment, which brings peo­ple togeth­er, is con­tained in the mod­est, bare­ly noticed dash. Buber’s place­ment of the divine pres­ence in our inter­ac­tions cod­i­fies the bib­li­cal imper­a­tive to love our neigh­bor as our­selves. Under­stand­ing that each per­son bears an ele­ment of the divine will, it is hoped, sparks the hon­esty and integri­ty that each per­son is capa­ble of.

Levine does not shy away from pre­sent­ing the sto­ries of job loss, finan­cial ruin, deceit and oth­er of life’s strug­gles and loss­es that are unwel­come vis­i­tors. Yet, through rec­og­niz­ing our strengths and accept­ing that for­give­ness, the core Jew­ish val­ues of courage, grat­i­tude, per­se­ver­ance and com­mu­ni­ty can help to cush­ion these blows. Levine does not present a for­mu­la­ic, quick fix for dif­fi­cult per­son­al cir­cum­stances or com­plex sit­u­a­tions which may have fes­tered for extend­ed peri­ods of time. Rather, he enables us to envi­sion and for­mu­late a clar­i­ty of pur­pose through per­son­al hon­esty and integri­ty in spir­i­tu­al part­ner­ship with the Jew­ish val­ues and ethics that have endured for two mil­lenia. Pos­i­tive Judaism is a seem­ing­ly mod­est book, but its impact has the pow­er to reframe and reshape the course of one’s life with wis­dom and clarity.

Rab­bi Reba Carmel is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in Jew­ish Cur­rents and The Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Jour­nal and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Carmel is a trained Inter­faith Facil­i­ta­tor and has par­tic­i­pat­ed in mul­ti­ple Inter­faith pan­els across the Delaware Region. She is cur­rent­ly in the Lead­er­ship Train­ing Pro­gram at the Inter­faith Cen­ter of Philadelphia. 

Discussion Questions