On Religious Materialism…Part I By Dr. Elana Stein Hain

It is no secret that Modern Orthodoxy has a money problem. Beyond Shabbos table anecdotes, the September 2017, Nishma survey listed the cost of Jewish schooling (1), the cost of maintaining an Orthodox home (4), people being dishonest in business (5), and the adequacy of funds to meet community needs (10) among the “top ten issues that are perceived as problems facing the modern Orthodox community.” As we begin another year of paying for school, shul, meals, festive clothing, ritual objects, etc., etc., I want to share a few thoughts about religious materialism, that is, the way we spend money on religion. Consider it a more expansive version of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of mitzvot). It is not only about the cost of a shofar or a sukkah, but the costs of this religious lifestyle overall. This post will be part 1 in a series.

Usually the question posed is: How can we make Orthodox life less expensive? But I think this misses the fact that for many, having a beautiful shul (which costs money) and an impressive school (which costs money) is not a deterrent from the Orthodox life, but makes it more compelling. Who wants their child’s Orthodox day school experience to be inferior to what they could get elsewhere? Who wants their car to be nicer than their shul?

This is exactly the point that Etan Diamond makes about why Orthodox Judaism thrived in the suburbs in the mid-20th century. In his book “And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia,” he asserts that religious materialism played an important role (alongside the day school movement, in fact). As Orthodox Jews became more upwardly mobile, their Jewish lives had to keep up with the rest of their standards of living to be compelling. Consequently, shuls changed from the shteibel model to a more upscale, suburban look and feel: the types of place someone in the upper middle class would want to be. Likewise, kosher food and establishments began to compete with non-kosher luxury experiences to be “subtly attractive to the modern world.”

Given this possibility, I think the question should change: How can we keep Orthodoxy attractive to the whole community, given that for some it needs to be less expensive to be attractive (=possible) and for some it needs to be more expensive to be attractive (=compelling), whether people admit so or not)?  To be sure, there is what to talk about in terms of the dangers of excessive materialism generally, and we’ll get to that in another post. But right now, let’s recognize descriptively that different lifestyles are simply a fact in our communities.

To set the groundwork for addressing this issue, I turn to the Gemara in Menaḥot 89a, where Chazal recognize both spending and saving as Torah values:

שלשה ומחצה למנורה חצי לוג לכל נר:  מנא הני מילי דתנו רבנן (שמות כז) מערב עד בקר תן לה מדתה שתהא דולקת והולכת מערב עד בקר…ושיערו חכמים חצי לוג מאורתא ועד צפרא איכא דאמרי מלמעלה למטה שיערו ואיכא דאמרי ממטה למעלה שיערו מאן דאמר ממטה למעלה שיערו התורה חסה על ממונן של ישראל ומאן דאמר ממעלה למטה שיערו אין עניות במקום עשירות

I’m paraphrasing to clarity: The menorah in the Beit HaMikdash needed 3.5 log of oil, half a log in each of its seven cups. This was the amount needed for it to burn overnight. Per rabbinic understanding of Shemot (Exodus) 27:21, the menorah should have enough oil to burn from evening until morning. The sugya continues with a debate over how people calculated the quantity of oil needed to burn overnight. Did they start with more oil than needed, and decrease as they experimented and saw that less was needed? Did they start with only a little and increase as they saw that more was needed? Each side of the debate has its own logic. Those who assert that they started with less and increased the oil relies on the principle that “the Torah protects the money (=possessions) of Israel.” Those who assert the opposite rely on a principle which is evoked in the rabbinic literature only in context of the Mikdash: “There should be no indication of poverty in a place of wealth.” In other words, the Mikdash is a place meant to evoke abundance, largesse. Trying to save money in its functioning seems cheap.

Both spending and saving are valued here as religious principles. On the one hand, religious life should express abundance, a willingness to use our resources in service of God. On the other hand, the Torah itself expresses concern for protecting the hard-earned money of the worshippers. It is not that those who have less to spend should be viewed as cheap or somehow missing the mark. Their decisions reflect a different religious value. How should we mediate between these two approaches? This will be of Part II, my next blog post on religious materialism. In the meantime, כתיבה וחתימה טובה!



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