Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Challenge of Religious Conspicuous Consumption

Surely you have heard about the February 8th Wall Street Journal article, "After These Jewish Prayer Services, Things Come 'To Life' at Open Bar". Its depiction of synagogues desperately seeking to attract attendees by advertising expensive liquor and high-end food is perfect for the Jewish chain e-mail circuit, inviting people to tsk tsk self-righteously, add a note about a person they know at one of the mentioned synagogues or about the kiddush at their own house of worship, and pass it along to hundreds of their closest friends.

Herewith an excerpt:
As early as January, Rabbi Marc Schneier was already well into planning his synagogue's summer worship in New York's posh Hamptons community. He is lining up guest speakers, interviewing assistant rabbis—and considering ways to improve on the martini bar.
The "L'chaim" table of high-price spirits is the most popular feature of The Hampton Synagogue's Saturday summer service. "There is always vodka, an assortment of single malts, tequila," says Robert Fisher, a friend of the rabbi who serves as adviser on food and drink.
Rabbi Schneier notes that the fetes don't get overly boisterous. It is all about the "M-word," he insists—not martinis, but "moderation." The same might not be said about the food. One weekend the entrees included pan-seared sesame salmon and sliced steak with horseradish cream. There is always seafood salad—the rabbi's favorite dish—albeit made with pollock and whiting since the congregation adheres to kosher laws banning shellfish. The "herring bar" features 12 different variations named after each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

It's easy to mock this rather pathetic conduct – but contrarian that I am, I do need to note that we have a long history of righteous leaders who provide extravagant feasts for their company, and particularly on religious occasions.
* Consider Avraham, who is described in Bereishit 18 as slaughtering a bull and preparing bread and cases in order to feed just three guests. Per Bava Metzia 86b, he actually slaughtered three bulls, just to give each guest his own complete tongue in mustard.
* And let us not forget Shemuel II 6:13; during the parade when the aron is returned by the Philistines, King David slaughters two animals with every six steps taken by the bearers of the ark.
* Or consider King Solomon; per Melachim I 5:1-8, his daily toll included thirty oxen and one hundred sheep, with unnumbered other animals thrown in as well.

Of course, there is ample room to differentiate between the 'kiddush' celebrations described in the article and these biblical examples:
* Avraham was taking care of guests. King David brought these as offerings to Gd. How many people King Solomon fed each day is unclear, and it is also not certain that the biblical text approves of his consumption.
* Further, the synagogues, as described in the article, use this to attract worshippers, an image which is wholly unwholesome.
* In addition, the article does not make clear that the underwriters of these bacchanalias also give extravagantly to tzedakah, as we expect Avraham, King David and King Solomon did.
* The article hints at a level of competitiveness, and the possibility that those who cannot afford such expenditures might be embarrassed.
* And, the image of drunkenness and the scourge of addiction is a subtext throughout the article.

Despite those caveats, questions remain with me regarding conspicuous consumption in association with religion:
1. How do we feel about splurging on food for a wedding, bar mitzvah, or kiddush, when one has the means?
2. If we react with disdain, are we disgusted by the actual extravagant feasts, or by external issues like the ones I mention above?
3. Is our reaction a function of traditional Jewish values, or of contemporary values? [And does that matter?]


  1. When I saw the title I thought you might have been referring to lavish displays of surface religiosity rather than food and drink. But I wonder how much competitive display of both consumption and surface frumkeit comes from the fact that we have distorted the value of tzniut, moving it from an approach to life applicable to everyone to a series of ever more outlandish restrictions on women's dress.

  2. Surely you've heard the "Journeys" chasunah song -- and if not, go buy it right now!

    "forget benchers, you can do better than that; why not give a Shas to every guest?! ..."

    "but I was thinking of something a little more modest!"

    "Oh, okay. So on the invitations write -- in a way that's real polite -- that the women should dress tznius, if you please. 'Cause we're dealing with a crowd / that is all so very proud / of how to keep the laws of modesty!"

  3. My brain tried to read "Bal Harbour" as "Ba'al Harbour" which may or may not be an unconscious response...

    G-d provided quail for the Israelites in the desert, but the fact that they demanded it does not reflect well on them.

  4. Mike S-
    Loss of the concept of tzniut is definitely an element, in my opinion - but again, was Avraham not tzanua in creating such a feast? And Dovid haMelech and Shlomo haMelech?

    Wasn't familiar, but yes, that's part of it, as Mike noted.

    But might that have been because of 1) the rejection of manna, and 2) the way the complaint masked general dissatisfaction with Gd, and 3) the fact that it was a complaint seeking satisfaction, rather than something they created out of their own means?

  5. In my view, there is a big difference between someone who ordinarily dresses simply and practically, eats simple and practical food, etc and then has a lavish simcha where he wears brand new clothes and has really nice food, and someone whose tastes always tend toward the lavish and has the same party celebrating the same event. To me it's great to spend money and have fancy stuff to celebrate and honor a momentous family occasion (of course only within one's means), but if one's tastes are always fancy (1)it detracts from the significance of having a feast for the special occasion and (2) it puts one's day to day focus probably not in the ideal place.

  6. I think it is odd and somewhat ironic that in a culture that stresses moderation we seem to have become polarized between two extremes.
    There are shuls that have banned alcohol altogether ( a scenario our grandfather's would not recognize) or there are places that have lavish top-shelf affairs. Where are the synagogues of my youth, where I can daven seriously, but then afterwards have some herring and shot or even two of mid-level bourbon?

  7. I often wonder if I value simplicity on its merits, or because that's all I can afford. I do keep my parents in mind, who were never phony or ostentatious whatsoever, and hope I can sincerely follow their lead.

    Nevertheless, I've seen very dear people throw elaborate Orthodox Jewish lifestyle events properly and without excess. More power to anyone capable of that!

  8. Even now at age 90, my mother is still cheerful despite increasing physical limitations, and is still not concerned with what she lacks. Sometimes, lacks themselves bring out the best. We should not aspire to kosher gluttony.

  9. Shmuel-
    I certainly hear that.

    Anonymous 9:01 AM-
    Does our culture stress moderation?

    "lacks themselves bring out the best" - Indeed.

  10. When one becomes as wealthy as Avraham Avinu, a"h, and Dovid HaMelech, a"h, and is able to be that wealthy without it interfering with one's fear of God then one can throw a big kiddush.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Sorry, Anonymous 1:05 PM, I'm pretty sure you knew I would be forced to delete that...