“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.