If I were asked to identify the greatest Jewish teaching, the most important lesson to be learned from all of Judaism, I would argue that, aside from ethical monotheism, it is that behavior matters more than anything else, and certainly more than feelings.
As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”
This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.
When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.
This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.
The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.
The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act.
In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.
“Social justice” is a politically loaded term. Nevertheless, I will deal here only with the intent of those committed to “social justice” — to helping people who are less well-off than we are.
We have here another prime example of the relevance of the Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters: Making social policies that work is what matters. Too often, social justice policies are enacted because they make their proponents feel good because they think they are doing good, not because they actually do good. To give but one of many examples, everything I have read confirms what common sense suggests: Lowering standards for college admission for blacks has done far more harm than good for black students. But proponents don’t seem to care about that; what they care about is feeling that they are helping a historically persecuted group.
In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.
The rule that one should not rely on feelings to determine one’s behavior even applies to sex with one’s spouse. That is why the Talmud actually lists the number of times per week/month/year a man owes his wife sex. The same holds true for wives. If a woman is married to a good man whom she loves, in general she shouldn’t allow her mood alone to be the sole determinant of whether she has sex with her husband. It is far better for her, for her husband and for their marriage to have sex even on some occasions when she is not in the mood. Of course, it is his obligation to then try to get her in the mood, but she should allow him to at least try to do so even on occasions when she is not in the mood.
Judaism itself is built on this behavioral paradigm. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur only if we are in the mood to do so. A Jew doesn’t observe Shabbat only if he is in the mood to do so at sunset on Friday. One simply does so, and if done well, religious feelings follow.
You want to raise good children? Communicate to them that how they feel is of no concern to almost anyone in the world. But how they act is of concern to everyone they will ever meet.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).