Q. Does Judaism believe in pleasure?
A. Let me begin with two reminiscences. The first is about meetings, which are a way of life for some people. Their speeches all tend to start (or finish) like this: “It gives me great pleasure to move (or second) the resolution…”
The second reminiscence is about my teacher, Rabbi Kopel Kahana, who had a different experience with such phraseology. Early in the Second World War he was in England trying to pick up the language, and rather wary of consuming anything that might not be kosher. He mildly asked someone if he could have a cup of tea. They answered, “Tea? With pleasure!” He didn’t yet know what “pleasure” meant, so in order to be safe he said, “Thank you, but do it without pleasure!”
By the time he told this story against himself he could write legal books in English and correct the essays (including mine) which his native-English-speaker students wrote.
But now to the serious part of my answer. In contrast to classical Christianity, Judaism taught that people who denied themselves the legitimate pleasures which God has made will answer to Him in the World to Come. Kohelet says, “There is nothing better than to rejoice and get pleasure as long as one lives” (3:12; cf. 5:17). He also says, “I recommend mirth, for a person has no better thing under the sun than to eat, drink and be merry” (8:15). Other sages were more restrained. Mishlei says, “He who loves pleasure will come to want” (21:17).
Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi, editor of the Mishnah, says, “For each pleasure accepted in this world there is a deduction in the World to Come” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan, chapter 28). The Talmud declares, “When pleasure-seekers multiply, justice becomes perverted and morality deteriorates” (Sotah 47b). Philo of Alexandria warns, “Nothing ever escapes desire, but like a forest fire it proceeds onward, consuming and destroying everything”.
What these passages mean by pleasure includes eating, drinking, money, music, entertainment and sex, and we probably need to come to the conclusion that if God has allowed them into His world they are not necessarily evil in themselves, but they have to be disciplined and kept within bounds. The Vilna Ga’on says, “Desires must be purified and idealised, not exterminated”.
Even the simchah that comes from spirituality and study needs to be handled wisely – otherwise it too can become a consuming fire.