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?]