By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Continuing with the New Jersey student’s questions and dialogue:
“One point you made was ‘enjoying life and all its blessing is the theme of Judaism.’ My question is very simple. Alcohol, drugs, girls and honor are some of the greatest attractions of modern counter-culture. These are prohibited by religion. In their place is a 16-hour school day.
Religion is synonymous with limitation. True, religion has its beauties, but they are a whole different world. You can ‘live the American dream’ of 40 years ago (two cars parked in the driveway of a nice, large house with a wife and kids, etc.) as a religious Jew, but can you ‘live the life’ of a 2013 teenager (party time!) and be religious?”
I think it’s pretty obvious that, no, you cannot live the party life of a 2013 teenager and still be religious. I also agree with you that those things are the allure of that life, attractions that many have fallen for from the religious world and have fallen out of religious life because of it.
Although I agree with the above, I strongly take issue with your saying “these are prohibited by religion.” Maybe some religions, but not our religion. The things you mentioned are not going to be permitted the way they are indulged in by the 2013 teenager. However, given the proper parameters, all of the above are not only permitted but considered mitzvos in the Torah.
The key distinction between Judaism and many other religions is our definition of holiness. A holy person is not one who becomes a hermit and separates themselves from the rest of the world, denying the pleasures of this world.
Holiness is defined by infusing spirituality into the mundane pleasures of life, thereby creating kedusha. That’s one reason marriage is called “kiddushin” — through a Jewish marriage the intimate areas of life become kedusha, holy.
A “nazirite,” one who has vowed to not drink wine (among other things) has to bring an offering to atone for the “sin” of denying himself the permitted pleasures of life.
I realize the allure you mention is exactly the opposite; to have all the above with no parameters. That’s how you “live the life” you’re talking about. But you should know, all those pleasures are not only transient, they often make those enjoying them miserable and sometimes much worse.
Take it from someone who grew up on the opposite side of the religious fence. Unshackled, untamed lusts and pleasures might seem to be “the life” by those who have not experienced them. The frustration, embarrassment and self-loathing which is often experienced by the recipients of that “enjoyment” for years to come, and often throughout their lifetimes, (not to mention the physical and psychological impact of drinking and drugs) is not always something to be desirous of.
There’s a much deeper, profound pleasure, which lasts a lifetime, in the ability to be in control and enjoy the pleasures of life around rules that build inner strength and fortitude. Especially when one knows and believes that those rules are part of the “Manufacturer’s instruction manual,” given precisely for the reason of building that inner strength and creating a tikkun in the world.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.