Boredom, the 1970’s, and Religious Culture

Last spring a book came out about the history of boredom entitled BOREDOM: A Lively History by Peter Toohey. The reviews in the NYT and elsewhere mainly dealt with the coming to be of the word and its usages in earlier centuries as a form of melancholia, as ennui, or as repetition. But this week the NYT reported on an academic paper at a local conference on the topic of intellectual history that showed how the usage of the word spiked in the 1970’s and that the meaning meant something not interesting enough for one to do. Until the 1970’s no one said “how do we prevent our employees from getting bored?’ How do we prevent school kids from getting bored?” When you were in a situation of duty or requirement then one did what one was supposed to do.
The purpose of the NYT article and the academic lists on which I saw it was to cheer the return to intellectual history of contextualizing popular and influential books. The return to intellectual history was why it caught my eye but the discussion of boredom is more significant. My historian sources are also pointing out that historians are beginning to turn to the 1970’s and its culture.

I did my own google books search (as well as Ngram) and found that in its pedestrian usages it meant impatience, like boredom due to a delayed train. When it is used in Horton Hears a Who in mid-century, it means impatience with the speck. In philosophic literature it meant ennui. Our usage of it is a post-1950’s usage when authors like Erich Fromm brought European thought of ennui to mass America situational repetition. The word boredom was also used by sociologists of suburbia like Herbert Ganz. In the 1970’s it spikes in its usage. We start finding statements advocating not to be bored at work or not to be bored in ones marriage. And if you are, then leave them. The term boredom was part of a wave of bad popular-psych of the era that encouraged people never to be bored. If things are not going your way then life is too short to stay there. Work-psychologists, marriage therapists, and toy makers all started solving the problem of boredom. Boredom was seen as leading to drugs, cults, and divorce. By 2011, every preschooler knows how to whine “I’m bored.” In order to overcome boredom prior ages spoke of hard work, character, or the sin of acadia.

Now what about religion? Starting in the late 1970’s we find sermons on the problem of people bored in shul and in the 1980’s we find books. Before that we have discussions on the meaning of synagogue for modern man or how the yetzar hara makes you want to leave shul. Boredom is not an valid excuse or concern. The connection the word synagogue and boredom before 1980 included Jacob Neusner, Dennis Prager, reports of the AJC and Bnai Brith and Jospeh Heller of Catch-22 fame and the cult leader Osho. (Modechai Kaplan uses the word in the context of new music so it wont have sameness not it the context of participants). People did not think that you walked away from boredom, rather only from irrelevance.

By the early 1980’s we find a second tier discovering boredom in the synagogue, Sam Heilman, Reuven Bulka, and the Jewish magazines. I found one Orthodox rabbi in a suburban congregation adamant in claiming that the youth in his synagogue and day school are not bored. I attended the school for a year so I consider this an amusing find. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, we have an entire literature of outreach and kiruv works showing their zeitgeist by addressing synagogue boredom through explaining the service or giving tips on greater involvement.

The mussar approach to overcome such feeling which they considered laziness was habituation and motivating one’s inner emotions either through sermon and song or hell-fire images. Ramchal starts with the need for alacrity and scrupulousness. Rav Soloveitchik uses the word in the Existential sense of ennui and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his last book of 1966 speaks only of the boredom of old-age and the need for a higher purpose not senior-center activities. Lots of Polish Hasidism is translated as if the original spoke of boredom and not achieving greatness.

A quick search shows that only since about 2003 have books about congregational life written by upbeat clergy and not sociologists have considered the need to have a section on boredom. We now have religious pop-psych books by congregation professionals explaining this “perennial problem of the laity with boredom,” unaware of recent boredom is as a concern. These upbeat versions take boredom as a natural part of life, not something only with us for a few decades and with changing meaning. It is not worth it to discuss how these post-2003 versions (mis)use their sources. In the post-2003 versions we are no longer worried about defection or encouraging one to leave.

For an interesting example of how the concept changes, in the recent work The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World by Elana Maryles Sztokman, she discusses how men are bored in synagogue, they are not really into prayer and they have spiritually bored lives seek refuge in cerebral pursuits of the the sermon, Torah study, and reading. This is part of the recent post-2003 trend to accept boredom as a issue to deal with on a regular basis. Men learning in shul is not explained as a habituation toward study or a lack of habituation in prayer. Nor is their a call for revival, either kiruv or renewal movement, as in the 1980’s. And unlike the 1980’s, the rabbi no longer get blamed for irrelevance.

There are probably lots of other applications to the religious literature of our age. Any other good examples or avenues of the effect of the concept of boredom on the religion of our age? How else has Judaism been constructed around boredom in the last 30 years that was not there beforehand?

2 responses to “Boredom, the 1970’s, and Religious Culture

  1. As we are on the cusp of 2012 I’m wondering if the concept of boredom is back to the old definition of impatience. With the world of technology, smart phones, twitter “that concept is so 45 seconds ago” and halfshabbos, is boredom especially in shul without our “tech support” impatience with overly long services? If I bring a book on Jewish concepts to read during the sermon in shul will that keep me from getting bored… or is it impatient?

  2. I remember reading an issue of Salmagundi, the Swarthmore magazine, devoted to the topic of boredom , probably in the early 80’s. The idea I remember is that boredom is aggression turned inwards or anger/aggression that is repressed. Once you lay down this idea, the literature on depression becomes available and you can darshan away. The image in my mind is that other authors connected boredom with Christopher Lasch and his book “The Culture of Narcissism(1979).” Lasch had a pretty good run , more than 10 minutes of fame and then he disappeared.

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