Sunday, October 09, 2011

Taking the Fun Out of Our Lives

Is it OK to have fun if you are Jewish? That may seem like a ridiculous question but in some Charedi crcles the answer may surprise you. Rafi Goldmeier recently posted a story on his blog that would seem to indicate that having any fun at all is forbidden by Jewish law.

He describes how a Charedi company outing for its employees was canceled because of some complaining employees:

A number of women , after the fact, went to the rav of the Mekraz HaTaasuka and complained that shocking things happened on the tiyul. The rav looked into it and decided nothing unusual happened. A year later the same women came and complained again, even though some of them no longer work in that office, and applied pressure to have the fun tour canceled. Caving in, the rav told the company not to take the employees on a jeep tour, rather they should go to Tsfat and tour the kivrei tzadikim. Employees complained about the change in the plans, to no avail.

Kivrei Tzadikim. The Charedi idea about having a good time is going to a cemetery. I agree with Rafi when he says: I just find it disheartening that according to some people there can be no such thing in the frum world as having fun and enjoyment. Everything must be a religious experience of sorts.

He bolsters this idea by what happened to him when he was a freshman in high school. The Rosh HaYeshiva once gave a speech to his students and railed against the very idea of having fun.

I have to wonder however. Is that the bottom line? Did that Rosh HaYeshiva actually imply that fun is Assur?

I don’t think so. I think what he probably meant is that Judaism is not about ‘If it feels good – do it’. That was the mantra of my generation in the hedonistic sixties. On the other hand one is not required to make every single experience a religious significance either. I do not believe that his Rosh HaYeshiva meant that. I think that he meant that there must be at least some purposeful goal to having fun - such as relaxing and thereby renewing their energy for constructive activity.

He also was probably wary of the fact that some forms of 'fun' can sometimes be destructive and wasteful. One must have ethical behavior even when having fun. Fun cannot be at someone else's expense. It also may not have any sin attached to it - not Bein Adam L’Makom and not Bein Adam L’Chavero.

Much of what is called fun today is at the expense of others. One can for example pull practical jokes on people who do not appreciate it. Or one can riducule others just to make their friends laugh. It may be fun but its not right. In fact it is just plain disgusting to do - and Assur.

Having fun for fun’s sake is not a Jewish concept. Judaism is a religion of purpose and meaning. It is not a religion of time wasting. If one has fun for rehabilitative purposes it might even be a Mitzvah – or at least a Hechsher Mitzvah. Refreshing oneself for an hour by doing something relaxing and enjoyable can easily enhance one's learning or one's job. But overdoing fun can be destructive.

For example playing computer games is fun. If on the other hand one spends too much time on a leisure activity they may end up neglecting their responsibilities. One thing is certain. Fun should never be the primary goal of a person’s life. It should be seen as a means to a positive end.

Fun need not be limited to leisure time. Work can be fun. Certainly learning Torah can. Parenting can be fun too. In fact a truly good parent will enjoy spending quality time with their children. If one truly enjoys what they is doing –if it is fun.

Which brings me back to the cancellation of an annual company trip by a Charedi rabbi. As Rafi explained, there was nothing untoward that happened at past company trips. Certainly those trips had a positive end in that it boosted the morale of the employees which problay made them more productive. But it was canceled anyway. How does this benefit anyone?

Unfortunately this seems to be the trend among Israeli Charedim in general. There is no better place to see it happening than with young Charedi children. There is practically no area of fun left for them to enjoy during their leisure time. No movies. No TV. No internet. No I phones. No concerts. No radio. No amusement parks. No sports - participatory or spectator.

A child needs to have fun. He needs to blow off some steam. For boys especially with their long days and constant preoccupation with learning. And yet without it he could easily crack or go off the Derech. Aside from riding a bicycle (...girls are not even allowed to do that!) how is a young boy supposed to spend his leisure time? Visiting grave sites?! Hanging out on street corners?!

That is the story in Israel. Can American Charedim be far behind as they continue to move to the right? In fact most of the fun I listed is already forbidden.

I know Mitzvah observance is hard. I know how important learning Torah is. And I know how serious we should be about our Judaism. But taking the fun out of our lives is not what Judaism is all about.