August 20, 2011

3 min read


I could scarcely believe my eyes when I read your claim that Judaism teaches that the purpose of life is to seek pleasure. How can you, as a rabbi, be serious?

Judaism teaches no such thing. In the deepest sense, Judaism teaches that the purpose of life - the purpose of the world, the universe, and of God Himself - is ultimately beyond human understanding. In the more mundane sense, people do have a purpose, but seeking pleasure falls far behind doing what is right, just, and kind (whether or not doing so is pleasurable). Judaism does teach that there is nothing wrong with pleasure in itself, but it DOES NOT make pleasure the central point of living!

On what basis do you make this outrageous, unbelievable, and stridently non-Jewish claim?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Perhaps we need to define our terms. What is "pleasure"?

Every creature in the universe is programmed to pursue pleasure. The wolf seeks meat, the bear seeks warmth. That is an indisputable fact, and that's the way God wants it.

Human were created for pleasure, too. But unlike other creatures, humans have the ability to tap into their spiritual soul, and to pursue pleasure which is beyond the physical. That includes love, meaning, power, sacrifice for a cause, goodness, etc.

For example, the fact that a human will choose to give charity (instead of using that money to buy pizza), does NOT mean the person is giving up pleasure. Rather, they are trading a lower pleasure for a higher pleasure. The pleasure of helping others is perceived as having more value than another slice of pizza.

It's interesting that humans are the only species who will trade physical pleasure for a higher spiritual pleasure. (You will never see the wolf saying, "C'mon, guys, let's not push in line. And be sure to save some meat for Charlie, he's not feeling well today.") That's because only humans have a spiritual, Godly soul, which enables us to transcend the finitude of the physical world and to strive for the ultimate pleasure: the unity of One God.

* * *

Yet why is "doing the right thing" so often perceived as non-pleasurable? Because it can be uncomfortable to make such choices.

Pain is actually the price we pay for pleasure. All of life's lasting pleasures - good relationships, successful careers, the pursuit of meaning - require a lot of pain and effort to achieve. When an Olympic athlete pushes beyond the limits of endurance, he's in a lot of pain! But he does so because he is focused on the higher pleasure; in this case, victory.

The proof that humans are made for pleasure is that the Torah says: "And God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden" (Genesis 2:8). The word "Eden," according to the famous commentator Radak (among others), is the "Garden of Pleasure."

You are correct that in the final analysis, the world is beyond our understanding. But the Almighty gave us a measure of intelligence, and He wants us to figure things out the best we can.

So perhaps your question is only one of semantics. For a fuller Jewish definition of "pleasure," read "The Five Levels of Pleasure" by Rabbi Noah Weinberg.

Next Steps