The Paradox of Choice

To be “holy,” in the langauge of the Torah is “kadosh.”  This literally means to “separate.”  The Museum of Science in Boston actually has an entire exhibit, as of 5773 / 2013, on categorizing things in different ways to understand them and ascribe meaning to them.  Another example of this is Barry Schwartz, who gave an excellent talk at TED:

If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, his synopsis goes something like this: a girl from a very strict sect of Jainism who rebelled and came to the United States to do a study on “choice”.  Her premise: people who have less choice, such as Jainism followers, should be less happy because they have less choice, but those who are free to choose anything should be most happy.  Problem: the reverse is usually more true.  It turns out, the religious, and more specifically, those who adhere to more ‘strict’ religions, have the happiest people (see, for example http://www.jewlicious.com/2011/01/gallup-jews-are-happiest/ ).  More so, according to Gallup, if you want to be happy, you should be a 7th Day Adventist, Mormon, or Jew.  Consider these two examples from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-happiness/200806/happiness-and-religion-happiness-religion – “• If you are having serious cardiac surgery and receive strength and comfort from your religious faith, you’ll be almost 3 times more likely to be alive 6 months later. / • 47 percent of people who report attending religious services several times a week describe themselves as “very happy,” versus 28 percent of those who attend less than once a month.”

The Right Amount of Choice

Mr. Schwartz actually began his quest to find happiness after buying a new pair of jeans.  Problem was, there were dozens choices – slim, wide, faded, not faded, and so on.  He walked out, allegedly with a better pair of jeans than his last pair, bought years before when there were four choices, but was less satisfied.  Too many choices lead to paralysis  and discontent that maybe we made a bad choice.  Too little, leads to feeling like a slave.

fish-choiceChoice / categorization and sticking to one category or one line of choices (for lack of a precise definition here) gives a person meaning.  This applies to choices throughout anyone’s day.  Depressed people tend to have too many choices, and therefore, aren’t happy with any – none provide meaning.  In fact, oddly enough, freed slaves, such as Shin Dong-hyuk, a former prisoner in a North Korean labor camp where he was born, has written about his depression.  Depression?  What?  He’s free!  He has a life full of choices now!  The problem is that his life was so directed, and so controlled from minute to minute, that now that he has so many choices, that’s depression.

What’s the right about of choice?  The answer is choosing between 3, 4, 5, or 6 things.  You choice the right number, because I don’t want to make you feel like a slave.  (This was half a joke, half serious.)  Consider Mr. Schwartz’s fish in a fishbowl – when the fish grows up, his father says to him, “You’re an adult now – the whole world is yours to explore.”  If he leaves the water, he dies.  To many choices, and you can’t make a choice at all (especially if many paths lead to death).  Too few, e.g. you feel stuck in a fish bowl, and you’re not happy either (unless you’re a fish).

Choice, in Judaism

Mr. Schwartz may have been aware of Rabbi Akiva’s parable back when the Greeks forbid learning of Torah.  A student asked him, “Rebbe, why are you learning Torah when if they catch you, they will kill you?”  He replied with a parable of a fish in the river heading towards a net.  A fox, on the land, said to the fish, “You’re going to get caught in the net, why don’t you come out here, on land, so the net went get you!”  The fish, of course, replies, “If I go on land, I will die.  If I stay in the water, I have a chance of living.” (I am paraphrasing from Talmud, Tractate Brachos 61b.)  The Torah, the guidebook to life for a Jew, is compared to water.  Without the guidebook, that we constantly study to learn how to live our lives to the fullest, and to make choices which align us with the will of the creator, we are lost.

Many belief systems, not just Judaism, and not even G_d-based beliefs, has prohibitions and things we are supposed to do.  People do this all the time.  For example, one might have their rules, “I am supposed to watch this TV show at 8pm every night”, “I eat brown rice, but not white rice”, “I exercise twice a week”, or “I try not to speak badly about others.”   These examples are in order from “preference” to “meaning”, yet we run our lives this way.  The more meaningful the choice, the higher priority . . . hopefully.

What if we could make all our choices of the highest meaning?  What if all our choices were based on the highest priority, such that the lower priority choices fell away as choices at all?  It has the greatest meaning when the beliefs and choices both make sense, and are connected to something larger than us – saving the world is more meaningful than saving ourselves, and saving ourselves is more meaningful than saving last night’s leftovers.  The difficulty here is that, the more meaningful, the harder the work is.

So now, back to Judaism (remember the heading of this section?).  We take our directions of meaning from the highest source.  Choosing Indian or Chinese food . . . that’s just a preference that really ascribes no meaning.  But, what if the choice is between 20 very nice restaurants and one run-of-the-mill kosher restaurant serving stereotypical Mediterranean food (hummus, pitas…)?  Outside of New York, Paris, of course, Israel, and other places which have a large enough, and rich enough, Jewish population to support it, this is a very common choice.  Okay, so you’re not getting the culinary delights that might give you some temporary pleasure, but you are making an choice with meaning.  Because you choose to “eat holy”, meaning, that which is “separated” from the rest, what was, ultimately, a meaningless preference that made no difference to the world, you have elevated your eating into a meaningful choice.

But wait, there’s more . . . 

In Judaism, there’s always more.  Now that you’ve chosen to eat kosher food, we make another choice – who says you deserve that food?  What did you do to create the world and deserve to be sustained by it?  So we say a brocha before and after, connecting to the source, and remembering where it came from and giving thanks for everything that was done to create the world so I could enjoy this food.  Don’t get me wrong, I prefer nice food, but a soggy falaffel with a proper brocha, thinking about the infinite path of creation that led to the development of wheat chickpeas growing, being harvested, processed in tens of steps, and coming into my mouth in a path of creation which varies only slightly from that of my own body, is a much more meaningful experience than the best of steaks.

It doesn’t end there – done to the way we tie our shoelaces, there is a meaningful way to do it, and less meaningful.  What we wear (no wool and linen mixed, which according to Midrash Tanchuma has to do with what Cain and Hevel [Abel] brought as offerings, which impacted the later evolution of the world in such a way that we do not mix the two), what we eat, what we say, how we think about our working digestive system (after we go the bathroom, stating that if even one opening was open that should be closed, or vice versa, we couldn’t stand!), and what we think when we get up, and say when we go to sleep . . . there are ways of expressing and turning each of these things into meaning.

Too much too fast, and you can’t absorb all the meaning behind it.  Too much with no study and lack of understanding, and it falls away (if not with you, with the next generation) because it becomes rote structure, devoid of inner meaning.  The right balance of choice is the goal, with an ever increasing desire to learn more, and follow through with more for growth is what’s in order.  This, in a nutshell, is what gives meaning – making your will the will of the Creator, so that His will becomes your will –

 He [Rabbi Gamliel] would also say: Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.

 

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