(A Conversation with my father on his 17th yahrtseit)
Rabbi David L. Kline

On the news this morning, arrests of prominent persons at
the entrance to the New York City Police Department. Last month
a squad of four officers shot forty one bullets into an unarmed
West African in the lobby of his home. Such is the political
atmosphere in New York that the mayor grants the police broad
force to suppress crime. Complaints of police brutality run up
against claims of reduced crimes of violence and the present
protesters are willing to be arrested to call attention to abuse
of power.

Also, this 5th of Nisan morning, rereading some of my
father's sermons brings up strong feelings: were I living in New
York, I should have been one of those protestors. Alexander S.
Kline, a.h., was a thinker and a teacher. His ideas in my life
led to encounters with the law over racial repression and unjust
war. I do my best to continue his emphasis on what he called
"Prophetic Judaism," the centrality of justice and righteousness.

But his writing reminds me that we differ, he the
intellectual and I the pursuer of experiences. From my college
days on, I had such a wonderful time at Shabbat and holidays,
with Hebrew language, at Bible studies, at folk dance and song,
at travels in Israel, that fun occurred to me as the best reason
for being a Jew. My teacher was unamused, and warned me against
trivializing Torah.

He agreed that fun was important, but, in his words, for
"survival value." He was wary of easy gratification. He
esteemed chopped liver and Yiddish jokes and anything that helped
keep us going so as to preserve that which was important: our
mission of perfecting the world.

I share with my father (and mother) a love for good words,
their etymology, their denotations and connotations. I think I
have found the word I needed in our discussion long ago:
"hedonic" (of, characterizing, or pertaining to pleasure), coming
from the Greek hedonikos, "pleasurable." I inherited suspicion
of "hedonist" and "hedonism" for their devotion to pleasure as a
way of life. But "hedonic" is a proper psychological term for an
important area of human experience, and it has lately become a
highly technical word in marketing. As a descriptive, it is more
specific and useful than the usual: Reform, Orthodox,
progressive, gastronomic, cardiac ("I feel Jewish in my heart"),
secular, all of which and more we recognize.

Here's my argument for hedonic Judaism. So much bad
stuff happens to us, to our families, our communities, our nation,
our world. Pain and death, degradation, alienation, despair -- no
one promises us a rose garden. I propose Judaism as the antidote
to all the hurt: the hedonic we can count on for balance,
meaning, purpose, and quality in our lives. Like the arts,
Judaism does not negate evil. Pleasure is neither distraction
nor satisfaction for our unanswerable questions. We can not
avoid suffering but we need not give in to it so long as we can
look forward to, say, Shabbat.
We don't achieve pleasure by pursuing it. Like happiness,
pleasure is our response to certain persons, places, and things
that affect our lives. Short lived and sometimes hard to reach,
the hedonic works not as goal but as operating principle: we go
to temple because we look forward to an agreeable time spent

Of course hedonic Judaism presupposes enjoyable rituals,
pleasant spiritual experiences, and delightful values. I am
professionally and painfully aware that many of our people have
neither experience nor expectation of pleasure from being Jews.
On the contrary, we can more readily list the problems than the
pleasures of our peculiar status. What is more, the surrounding
majority thinks of religion as obligation, as solace, as the sure
answer to questions, allowing beauty only as enhancement.

Judaism, over the millennia, has acquired a rich trove of
literature, values, rituals, music, foods, and arts. I should like to
think that I have over the past seventeen years learned an answer
to my father’s argument of seriousness: Torah operates by
enriching our lives so that when the time comes for personal effort
and sacrifice we have ready reserves of morale. I would call it
“spiritual survival value.” I wonder if my father would accept
this usage of “spiritual.” Maybe he would approve of “hedonic.”

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