I know many hearty souls who love a bracing challenge. They don’t exercise solely to burn calories and reduce risk of death and disease; they actually enjoy that heart-pounding, draining sensation that a run or a climb will bring. They’ll complain when work or school requires insufficient effort. Rather than feeling happy that minimal strain will yield a nice amount of money or a high GPA, they wish they could spend more time at their desks, struggling away at something that feels almost but not quite beyond them.
These same people will often bike on city streets, travelling to all kinds of destinations by pushing away at their pedals. When I point out that, when you balance the risk of an accident vs. the cardiovascular benefits of bike riding, they’re probably putting themselves at greater overall risk by riding that bike on the street with all the crazy car drivers, they tell me they prefer riding their bikes to taking the bus or the subway. They like how they feel when their bodies work hard.
I know someone whose doctor thought she’d be best off avoiding her beloved marathons. Heartbroken, she looked into ways to continue training for and completing them. She’s clearly not doing this for her health. She’s doing it because she loves it. Yes, she loves pushing her body to an extreme level of exertion even if she’s probably incurring more risk than benefit, and she’s far from the only one I know in that camp.
I try to empathize with everyone: I love trying to understand how various people think and feel. But this one is beyond me. I am all about ease, pleasure, and avoiding onerousness. If someone chooses running over relaxing for any reason other than a desire to prolong life, to boost health, and/or to look better, I face complete confusion as I attempt to fathom why.
Even spiritually, I prefer ease, unlike so many of my friends. I know many people who are Jewishly observant, at least on a level. Some are super-strict; others are more lenient. Some will only eat in stringently kosher restaurants; others will eat pretty much anywhere, but they have serious restrictions, typically only ordering vegetarian food in non-kosher places. Some follow stringent dress codes while others don’t consider dress as part of their religious practice. They have varying interpretations of Shabbat, the weekly day of rest: many strictly avoid common daily activities like using electricity, spending money, and driving, but a few others are a bit less stringent.
It’s a fabulously diverse and wonderfully fascinating group. But they all have one thing in common: a willingness to give up basic freedoms regarding behavior, even though it’s not necessary for acceptance and success in the larger world. Often, it hugely impacts the kinds of experiences that are possible. I’ve heard of people traveling to areas that boast famously fabulous cuisine with cans of tuna and energy bars, because they won’t be able to find kosher food. I’ve known many who have turned down thrilling opportunities because logistics would not have allowed for a Jewishly observant life.
Some believe that this is necessary to live out their spiritual mission as Jews. I get that. In fact, I see soaring beauty in the idea that a human being could have a spiritual mission. If you have a spiritual mission, everything is possible. A spiritual mission would mean, by definition, that there are powers and realities that far transcend our meager existence that seems to follow the natural laws of physical need and bodily limitations. I wouldn’t want to give up non-kosher food, but even my pleasure-seeking soul sees that transcendent spiritual forces are greater than spare ribs, even if they’re coated with the most exquisite honey mixed with soy sauce and cooked to a perfect balance of juiciness and crispness.
What shocks me is how many of my Jewishly observant friends don’t have any particular belief in transcendent reality. They tell me they love the observant lifestyle; it requires a discipline that feels right. Or they love observant Jewish communities and know that they can’t fully be a part of that world if they don’t carry the tradition themselves. There’s a camaraderie, so I’m told, in following strict guidelines as part of a tiny minority of hearty, motivated souls. “I have huge doubts about God, but I love my Orthodox life all the same,” a friend recently told me.
There’s an irony here. Orthodox and other spiritually minded religious Jews who do believe in God, particularly those with a mystical bent, likely believe that performing a mitzvah is a holy act that positively influences the world, even if there is no faith behind the act. What one person does to achieve discipline or community is seen by another as a powerful spiritual move.
So… the believers and the non-believers and agnostics can all get along just fine, as long as they follow Jewish law as their community interprets it (or, in some cases, as long as their community is flexible enough to accept people who follow their own idiosyncratic interpretations). The key is behavior, not belief per se, and I totally get that this is a gloriously open and forgiving thing. Most people with enough will can follow Jewish law. The mind cannot be controlled so easily. Doubts and even conviction that the spiritual notions underpinning Judaism are false can creep in. But, if their kitchens are scrupulously kosher, nonbelievers can invite all the rabbis to dine at their tables. If some of my most intimate conversations with Orthodox Jews are any guide, some of these rabbis may actually join them in quiet, or even not so quiet, questioning of the basics of Jewish belief.
But let’s talk about me (part of my terrible attitude is often wanting to bring situations back to myself). I don’t want to follow Jewish law. I just don’t wanna, for the same reasons that I don’t wanna run, swim laps, or work hard at something that doesn’t light my internal fire, like the logistics of jobs and school. Some things are required to get by as a functioning human with a need to support myself financially and physically. Jewish law is not one of them. So of course I don’t follow it.
But what is with all those who follow it for a sense of discipline? My area in Cambridge, MA has a very open Jewish community. I know people who belong to the Tremont Street Shul around here, and, while most of them are observant on one level or another, I’m pretty sure I could get closely involved without changing my observance level one iota… and I wouldn’t have to lie about it. It’s kind of a close-knit group, much closer than most Reform or Conservative synagogues I’m familiar with… and many members consider themselves Orthodox. But involvement does not seem predicated on any particular lifestyle. In NYC, options abound for passionate Jewish communities that don’t expect any particular form of observance.
Because of my terrible attitude, a clear question comes to me: “If you don’t believe that there’s a clear spiritual reason to follow Jewish law, and you can be part of a close community regardless of observance level, why follow Jewish law at all?” It kind of reminds me of a hypothetical question I posed to a friend: “If you could either continue to work at your job, or get the same money but not work, which would you pick?” She chose to continue at her job, which didn’t surprise me, given that it orders her time and provides her with friends. But I was inwardly jumping up and down because I would take the money for no work, without question. I couldn’t understand doing otherwise, just like I can’t understand following Jewish law if there’s no spiritual requirement or specific reward attached.
So what’s going on with me? Am I the laziest person alive? Lately I’ve been hearing buzz over the idea that there is no such thing as laziness. What seems like laziness, according to this conception, actually stems from issues like fear of failure, lack of motivation surrounding a particular task, or even rebellion that could require more effort than the actual work that gets avoided.
One key reason some might want to dodge certain kinds of work is that they would rather put effort in elsewhere. That’s me, to a T. To me, it feels downright spiritual to put effort in where I want, where I feel called by some glorious inward drive. To write something because I feel like it, to consider a question because it compels me with a booming internal voice, to meticulously seek the most perfect pastry and taste it when I’m in the most ideal state to enjoy it… that is how I want to spend my time. To run, to organize papers, to figure out what I can and cannot do on Shabbat… that, to me, feels like demanding work that distracts me from my purpose, my joy, my truest way of life.
Some lucky souls find a happy confluence between desire and necessity. They see the tasks required by their fabulously lucrative corporate jobs as exciting puzzles. Or, like my friend, they’re born teachers who love their colleagues and would miss the chance to hang out on campus with a sense of true belonging if they gave up their jobs…. even if they could receive their full financial compensation without having to work. Or, like some fabulously fortunate artists, they find a way to match their creative interests with paying customers’ and gatekeepers’ desires… so joyful effort and financial need coexist.
I’ve never found that kind of niche, and, while I haven’t given up hope of finding it, I frankly don’t ever expect to. But I’m not lazy per se; I’m simply motivated by my own personal desires and passions.
There’s a bit more to it, though. I know so many who enjoy effort for the sake of effort. One of my friends loves all aspects of travel, including the logistical parts: packing, planning, buying tickets, figuring out what she needs to bring and how to make that happen within the constraints of space and airline rules. I am thrilled to wind up in a new place, able to explore and relish new terrain, but I hate all the work involved to make it happen. Basically, I loathe all effort that doesn’t involve exactly what I adore: thinking about deep questions, eating, writing, and getting to know other people in an intimate way.
I’m almost surely forgetting a few things that I truly do enjoy, but the point is clear regardless: I want pleasure without pain and difficulty… even if the difficulty could inspire a kind of pride. When it comes to the few pursuits that bring me pure joy, I am highly motivated. With every other activity, I whine and complain with each necessary slice of work. I see no happiness in exercising or food restrictions; I’d much rather take a pill that promotes health. If I could pull a lever and watch money pour in, I’d never consider working for pay again. I wish I could snap my fingers and make all my desires come true. Actually, I wish I didn’t even have to snap my fingers; I’d prefer not to put in even that effort. How many out there agree? I have no idea if I’m some kind of sluggish aberration… or a common variation on the human theme.
I love the concept of Moshiach. How about that? I have no desire to follow Jewish law… but bring me the messianic era anyhow! Many speculate about what the era of Moshiach might bring, but of course no one in our current times knows for sure. After immortality and perfect health and strength in all aspects of body, mind, and soul, I hope for ease. To me, a glorious era would have to involve all good things achieved with virtually no effort. No more sweating for 30 minutes on some horrible exercise device to burn 120 calories — not even enough to cover 1 medium-sized cookie. No more unpleasant work for pay: we’d all get to spend our time however we choose, maximizing our talents and passions while supporting ourselves with abundance. No more planning, organization, sweat, or feet raw from too much walking in scratchy shoes. No more work, unless every moment of it feels poised to bring pleasure and a sense of shining accomplishment. No more time wasted on projects that never go anywhere because the right people don’t find them relevant to the times, or commercially viable.
In my messianic era, when you lift a finger, you’d get a wondrous new universe in return… and the process of finger lifting would be fun. May it happen, and may it be fabulous.