A Connoisseur Of Life: Judaism's Approach To Pleasure
Imagine inviting someone over for a fancy, four-course dinner. After serving the melon, they thank you and get up to leave.
“Where are you going? We’re just getting started. The best is yet to come!”
That’s Judaism’s view of physical pleasure. If you make melon the staple of your diet, it will never provide all the nutrients you need to be healthy and satisfied. Similarly, materialism is just the appetizer of existence. Don’t make the mistake of getting lost in the appetizer. You will never be fulfilled.
When used wisely, physical pleasure is a steppingstone to higher pleasures. When enjoying beautiful things, our bodies feel relaxed, and we are more ready to tackle deeper life issues. Dealing with problems – crime, unemployment, warfare – requires emotional strength, and the purpose of physical pleasure is to generate that strength.
Get in touch with the longing for eternity that everyone has. We are running after materialism – dong, dong, dong, dong! But true satisfaction is not found in your taste buds. It is a longing of the soul. We want infinity. We want meaning.
When you get energy from the body, it can help open up the soul. This is the pleasure of Shabbat. It’s a beautiful day. Delicious food. You are at peace. The physical pleasure is an incentive. You are taking the body along with you. Then you can open up the soul and get close to the Almighty.
Distinguish one type of pleasure from the next. It’s a sure-fire way to know whether you’re experiencing raw physical pleasure, or a deeper spiritual pleasure.
Physical pleasure is:
- leaves you depressed
- an end unto itself
Spiritual pleasure is:
- a means, not an end
Growing up in Western society, many have the idea that “physical pleasure is evil.” This may stem from the Roman Catholic view, where intimacy, even within the context of marriage, is considered a concession to base instincts, while sacred priests and nuns are celibate.
Secular society, on the other hand, takes the opposite view: Life is the hedonistic pursuit of physical pleasure without restraint.
Judaism takes the middle road: God made a physical world not to frustrate us, but for us to enjoy. Life should be beautiful and engaging. Jewish spirituality is not achieved by meditating for years on a mountaintop, or by fasting in a reclusive monastery. Jewish spirituality comes through grappling with the mundane world in a way that uplifts and elevates. On Friday night, we raise the cup of wine and use it – not to get drunk – but to make Kiddush and sanctify the Sabbath day. Spirituality, says Judaism, is to be found in the kitchen, the office, and yes, even the bedroom.
The Almighty created this world for our pleasure. The Talmud says that if a person has the opportunity to taste a new fruit and refuses to do so, he will have to account for that in the World to Come. What is so special about fruits? God could have created bland oatmeal with all the vitamins and minerals necessary for our survival. But fruits are the dessert the Almighty made. It’s a labor of love, solely for our pleasure. Refusing to taste it shows a lack of appreciation.
The Sages also teach that an elderly person should sit in the sun. No matter how much you appreciate wisdom and learning, you still have to treat the body well. And even when physical strength has dwindled, one can still derive delight from the warmth of the sun.
The Torah also instructs us to recite a blessing of thanks before partaking of any food or drink, or even when encountering phenomenon like thunder or a rainbow. Saying a blessing gives us time to pause and reflect, to remember that everything is a grand gift.
Take note of how many opportunities you have to take pleasure each day. The sunrise, a splash of cold water, a refreshing breeze.
When a connoisseur takes a glass of wine, the “drink” itself is just one aspect of the enjoyment. He sniffs it first, then puts a little in his mouth and swishes it around, checking the fruitiness and bouquet. Only if it passes approval will he swallow.
To maximize every enjoyable experience in life, “identify and intensify” your pleasures. Articulate exactly what is this specific pleasure: What makes it taste good, look good, smell good, feel good? For example:
- Ice cream – cold, sweet, soft.
- Friends – security, connectedness, sense of being understood.
- Torah – clarity, wisdom, transcendence
Be a connoisseur of life. Focus and make sure you’re getting the full pleasure. Swish it around in your mind and prolong its taste. The deeper appreciation will motivate and energize you.
While physical pleasure is an essential part of enjoying life, at the same time, we have to know how to control it and harness it. The hebrew expression for this is b’miut ta’anug – “minimize physical pleasure.” You cannot just eat chocolate bars the whole day long. That is not living.
Human beings are pleasure-seekers. The more pleasure, the more power. Our mission in life is to figure out how to transform the raw physical sensations of our bodies into the deeper pleasures of love, meaning, creativity, and enlightenment. Don’t worry – you won’t lose the physical pleasure. You’ll actually enhance and appreciate it more.