Transforming Synagogues With Jewish Joy

Embracing the Jewish emphasis on joy would bring about a change to American-Jewish life throughout the year, not only on Rosh Hodesh Adar or Purim.

Michael Knopf
Rabbi Michael Knopf
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Michael Knopf
Rabbi Michael Knopf

On Sunday, Jews are observing Rosh Hodesh Adar, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar. During Adar, we celebrate Purim, a boisterous holiday marking the saving of the ancient Persian Jewish community from near-extermination. In anticipation of the holiday, the sage Rav taught, “When Adar begins, we increase joy.” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 29a). Similar to how Christmas decorations start going up in the United States after Thanksgiving, Jews start getting into the Purim spirit early.

But a careful reading of the Rav’s teaching offers an important insight. Rav did not say that one should start being joyous on the first of Adar. Rather, he taught that one should increase his or her joy when the month begins. His statement only makes sense if one is already joyful. The difference between one’s emotional state during Adar is one of degree, not of kind, from the emotional state one is supposed to have during every other month of the year. Jews are always supposed to be joyful; it’s just that during Adar, we turn our joy dials up to 11.

Judaism requires joy. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a Hasidic master, teaches, “It is an important commandment to always be joyful.” Ecclesiastes puts it succinctly, “there is nothing better than to rejoice and do good in one’s life” (3:12). The Jewish challenge is to live joyously as constantly as possible and to maximize our opportunities for joy.

Of course, if joy were something that came naturally, it wouldn’t need to be commanded. Many of us allow ourselves to be brought low by external forces. We focus on desire, not gratitude; we complain more than we praise. This broken attitude is bad for both body and soul. Dwelling on our pain makes us less healthy. Moreover, sadness makes us selfish; we focus on alleviating our own pain and cannot worry about others, while happiness enables us to think more about others.

Additionally, the Jewish emphasis on joy is not an endorsement of hollow pleasure or mindless entertainment. After all, our tradition is deeply committed to serious spiritual and religious engagement, and believes that time spent chasing cheap thrills and momentary gratification wastes the time one should have spent serving God. But the tradition also insists that when we serve God, we must do so with joy, that we “come into God’s presence with song” (Psalm 100:2). Doing God’s work requires a vigor and openness that are only possible through joy, song, dance, and laughter.

All this is likely to surprise those who have experienced institutional Jewish religious life in America. Think about it: if you went to the average American synagogue on a Shabbat morning, would you describe your experience – or that of other worshipers – as joyous? Would you feel any moments of pure, unadulterated happiness? Sure, there might be some laughter here and there, as the rabbi cracks a (bad) joke, but would you have felt deep contentment? You might dance, but it will be when you were dragged into a contrived horah. You might even say that the service was “good,” or that you experienced a moment of meaning or insight, but you could just as easily ascribe such a description to a romantic comedy film.

Have you ever dared in synagogue to jump up spontaneously, clapping and dancing? Have you ever left with a sore throat, not realizing you were singing as loud as you were? Have you ever left with your face hurting from smiling too much? Have you ever been unable to walk out, your feet aching from dancing, or simply not ready to go?

Joy does not necessarily include any or all of the above descriptions for all people. But whatever joy feels like for you, I would venture to guess that most of us rarely, if ever, experience it in synagogue. In most synagogues, emotion, except perhaps the occasional tear during yizkor or the prayer for healing, is taboo. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel diagnosed this phenomenon in 1954, and it remains true today. Heschel wrote that in most synagogues, there is an air of tranquility and sterility. The “longings of our souls” are not permitted “to animate our faces,” and “our words have no tone, no strength, no personal dimension.” We sit in our pews “aloof, listless, lazy.” To borrow a phrase from B.B. King, “the thrill is gone.”

Our banishment of emotion from our synagogues has even spilled over to those holidays that explicitly call for joy. Sukkot, Simhat Torah and Purim are, in many places, lifeless, soulless, humorless affairs. Is it any wonder our affiliation rates are so low? Our world can be a depressing place. Instead of making our synagogues centers of deep joy to help cast away the darkness, we value solemnity, decorum, and heaping helpings of judgment and guilt.

Embracing the Jewish emphasis on joy could transform American-Jewish life. To paraphrase Rebbe Nachman, our world is sick with dreariness, sadness, and pain. Joy is the antidote. Our synagogues can be our centers of rejuvenation. Adar is as good a time as any for synagogues to renew our licenses to heal.

Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a Clal - Rabbis Without Borders fellow. ‪You can follow him on Facebook at

Jewish children attending a Purim parade in Israel.Credit: Nir Keidar

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