Boredom — in Judaism and Elsewhere — Can Spark the Flames of Renewal
“Man is the only animal that can be bored.”
— Erich Fromm, The Sane Society.
Psychologists tell us that one of man’s greatest enemies today is boredom. Sometimes — when reading a paper or popular journal; watching television or a DVD; using an MP3 or an iPod; or posting on Facebook every hour to inform our friends of what we just did — we are confronted with the most absurd manifestations of monotony and apathy.
Believe it or not, there are people who spend their time rolling around Europe in a barrel, and couples who dance the salsa for hours upon hours, in order to break a world record. Others seek entry into the Guinness Book of World Records by developing the stunning art of eating more ice cream than any human since the days of pre-historic man.
We common people are obviously deeply impressed that at least some geniuses have grasped the ultimate meaning of life. They have accomplished what nobody ever dreamed was humanly possible.
What is boredom? It is a disorder that has stricken our modern world, as a result of our wishes being too easily and too quickly satisfied. Once the need has been fulfilled, we immediately feel the pressure of new urges because we cannot live without them. We are like deep-sea fish. We thrive on atmospheric pressure, and without it we are lost. Since people in Western cultures are easily able to satisfy most of their desires, they begin to look for absurd pursuits to satiate their new appetites.
It is remarkable that in the last 50 years we have transformed some of the most beneficial occupations into anti-boredom devices. Take the case of brisk walking. This was a very healthy undertaking until we decided to turn it into a contest in which people are forced to walk harder than they are really able to. Even more preposterous is the case of swimmers who try to cross the English Channel between Calais and Dover in record time. They seem unaware of the ferry service that would get them there much faster.
Of course, if this is done because it is great fun and a way to relax or raise money for a charitable cause, it should have our full support; but if it’s done out of sole boredom, it becomes self-destructive.
Even more problematic is the fact that thoroughly bored people often disturb their fellow human beings in ways that are completely distasteful. They make others pay the price for their failure to deal with their own boredom.
It has become a common experience, among people seeking a quiet corner on this planet, that after setting up a folding chair on a tranquil spot at the seashore or in a forest, intending to listen to the waves of the sea or the blowing of the wind, the peace is suddenly disrupted by the blasting of an iPod with speakers turned up to maximum volume. Looking in the direction from which the noise is coming, one sees young people lounging in their folding chairs and smiling as if to say, “Go ahead. Make our day!”
The parents of these teenagers will say that it disturbs them as well, but they’re unable to do anything about it. “But youth, of course, must have its fling!” (Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado) This is the well-known excuse for children who do the totally unacceptable. It tolerates chutzpah, which then necessitates therapy required for the further development of youngsters who will otherwise be unable to become respectable members of society.
It is remarkable how many parents seem to believe that their children should indeed have their fling so as to guarantee their proper development. This is even more surprising since these very people fanatically cut the grass and bushes in their gardens, understanding that otherwise the vegetation would grow wild. It never occurs to them to apply similar standards when attempting to educate their children. When reading about the wantonness of today’s youth, they simply shake their heads in dismay.
Having one’s fling should mean proving that one is a mature human being, as in the German expression ausleben, which means to live out one’s potential. A particular strength people have, potentially, is to care about other human beings. Those who have not made use of this capacity have not yet “flinged,” since one of the most beautiful aspects of humanness has been withheld from them.
Our Sages make a very interesting point (Eruvin 65b) when they say a person’s character can be tested in three different ways: bekiso, bekoso, uveka’aso — by his pocket (Is he a miser or a spendthrift?); by his cup (How does he hold excessive alcoholic intake?); and by his temper (Can he control himself when provoked?). But according to one of the Sages, there is a fourth test: af besahako – by how he plays, meaning how he spends his free time.
One of the great blessings of our day is that more and more young people are starting to realize that life is not just about Facebook. Many of them are showing a keen interest in matters of the spirit. Lectures on religion and philosophy in famous universities and other places of learning are becoming increasingly popular. Young people are looking for existential meaning and a high-quality spiritual mission.
In Israel, we see a large number of secular young men and women interested in studying Talmud, Midrash, and Jewish philosophy, in their attempt to understand what it means to be a Jew and what Judaism has to offer the world.
Most interesting is the fact that young people are finding their way back to Judaism in rather unconventional ways. Official outreach programs are losing their grip on Israeli society. Much of the time they have bitterly failed because they tried to put highly talented and creative people into a suit of armor that didn’t fit them. Some of these outreach programs are being replaced by a new phenomenon: Jewish self-discovery. It is not uncommon to see young, bareheaded men with long hair and earrings wearing tzitzit; others insist on eating kosher but never entering a synagogue; young women light candles Friday afternoon but don’t observe Shabbat. There are even committed atheists who will enthusiastically join prayer sessions.
Surely, not all of this is a sign of maturity; no doubt, in certain cases it is superstition. Still, what we observe is that many people are searching for a sense of authenticity.
It is an aversion to religious plagiarism that keeps these people out of mainstream Judaism and the conventional synagogue. Repetitious prayer is a killer when it is not accompanied by discovery and novelty. By paving their own way, these people develop a fresh approach to what Judaism is really all about — being open to new adventures. They are keenly aware that one cannot inherit Judaism but only discover it on one’s own through an often difficult spiritual struggle, and even warfare.
The religious establishment can make no greater mistake than interfering in this development and giving advice. By trying to force one’s views on these people, it will uproot the seeds that have been carefully planted.
The religious establishment needs to realize that with regard to Jewish practice, many people have generally fallen victim to boredom. Today, show and ceremony have become too much part and parcel of Judaism. Ceremonies are for the eye, but Judaism is an appeal to the spirit. The only biblically required ceremony in today’s synagogue service is the blessings of the priests, and even then members of the congregation are asked to close their eyes.
In biblical days, the prophets were astir while the world was sleeping. Today, the world is astir while the synagogues are sleeping.
Blessed are the young people who are waking up. Facebook is great, but it will not ignite a fire in our souls and will not conquer enduring boredom. Maybe we’ll realize this when the secular seekers show us the way. May they succeed.