Boredom and Judaism

by Gil Student

Boredom is a fascinating topic but I never expected to discover a literature about it. How could anyone dare to write on the subject? Who is confident in their own exciting prose to risk writing a boring book on boredome? Yet there is a literature. I recently read Dr. Erica Brown’s book Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism and learned a good deal about myself and Judaism.

There are two main themes in this book. The first is how to use Judaism to avoid boredom and how to spice up your own Judaism, two overlapping ideas. The second is the importance of embracing boredom. Yes, these are two contradictory themes. But don’t let that bother you.

There are a great few Bloom County comic strips in which Opus is looking for a way to lose weight. He goes from one fad diet to another, each time failing. All the while, his friends are telling him to eat better and exercise more but he insists there must be a better way. There isn’t. The best things in life come through hard work. Overcoming boredom, Dr. Brown tells us, is the same. It requires “restraint, training, and self-control” (p. 83).

We need to rid ourselves of the negativity and skepticism that prevent us from giving religious ritual the chance to excite us. We need to train ourselves to approach prayer and ritual in the proper mindset so that we understand and engage it. That takes preparation. But if you aren’t willing to work to make your Judaism meaningful, don’t complain. Losing weight takes effort and so does making the most of life. “Sin is the failure of individuals to take responsibility for overcoming religious boredom” (p. 25).

Ritual is not just comfortable repetition. It grounds us and gives us a framework in which to live. Those benefits are enormous but the risk is over-familiarity. You have to be creative and work hard to maintain interest. I try varying the speed at which I pray and the prayerbook I use to avoid habituation, but it doesn’t always work. We need to keep trying, because the benefits of thrice-daily prayer with a standard text, of a regular ritual that unifies Jews, are immense. Our task is to keep it personally meaningful.

The blessings we recite on food, smells and sights help us maintain a wondrous perspective of the world. If we truly appreciate the beauty of the world, life will be a continuity of excitement. We can recite those blessings perfunctorily or embrace their ideal of feeling wonder at the magnificence of the world.

And yet, with all the importance of battling boredom, both religiously and personally, there is something important about being bored. Boredom helps us evaluate experiences. It tells us what works and what doesn’t. “It helps us figure out how to use our time appropriately, how to advise others, and what our personal likes and dislikes are” (p. 9). Boredom is a lesson that when learned guides us on what not to do in the future.

Boredom is also a catalyst. People who are bored and are willing to work their way out of it arrive at creative solutions. “Many of the most rewarding games we played as children came out of a stretch of boredom that seemed interminable” (p. 92). “When we get bored and take responsibility for our boredom, we arrive at a new level of interest, introspection, or action that has been stirred by the very creativity used to keep boredom away” (p. 170).

Recognizing boredom and finding ways to move beyond it leads us to new discoveries. Taking control of boredom is a way to reach new levels, uncover new strengths and create new ways of doing things.

How do you do this? Dr. Brown concludes her very interesting book with ten practical suggestions and three perspectives to help you move beyond boredom.

From Hirhurim – Musings

The original article may be found here.


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