Rancid materialism is corrupting our community

Rancid materialism is corrupting our community

The Jewish community better get serious about the cancer that’s growing inside it. The devastation on Wall Street carries a lot of Jewish names, from firms like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to individuals such as Bernard Madoff, whose $50 billion Ponzi scheme collapsed last week, and lawyer Marc Dreier, arrested a week ago for defrauding investors of hundreds of millions of dollars.
On the Internet more and more, people who don’t like us are beginning to connect the dots, pointing out that there are an awful lot of Jews who bear responsibility for Wall Street’s fall. But that’s not what bothers me. Anti-Semites will always find something to hate us for, and I’m way too busy to worry about what a bunch of bigots think anyway.
Rather, what worries me is this: what if some of it is true? What if our community has become too obsessed with money? What if our values have become about wearing the most expensive Cartier watch and driving a suped-up Mercedes? What if a disproportionately large number of young Jews are running to work on Wall Street and never even considering jobs like teaching, the rabbinate, or doing outreach because the compensation, comparatively, stinks?

FOR TOO long the Jewish community has excused all manner of material excess so long as those who sported giant jewels and enormous gold watches also gave lots of tzedaka (charity). It is true that Judaism has always said that riches are a blessing because they enable one’s resources to be used for the benefit of others. We reject the New Testament statement that the rich will find it harder to get into heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.
But tzedaka is not the only Jewish value. So is modesty, humility, and baal tashchis — a commandment not to indulge in excess and waste. Indeed, the only personal characteristic in the Bible about Moses, the greatest Jew who ever lived, was that “he was the most humble man who walked the earth.”
And yet the materialism in our community has become rancid. I was sitting with a group of rich Jewish businessmen the other day who were talking about a friend’s son’s bar mitzva in which an NBA superstar made a guest appearance for which he was paid an insane amount. Indeed, bar and bat mitzvas have become for many a game of million-dollar one-upmanship. Now, what kind of values are communicated to these young people on the occasion of becoming responsible members of our community? That life is about showing off? Do we want our kids ending up as the insecure social climbers who joined the exclusive Jewish country clubs where word went out that being part of Bernard Madoff’s investment fund was a privilege reserved for a chosen few and that they better beg to be admitted?

I SEE a lot of Jewish people walking around these days with red strings on their wrists. Popularized by the Kabbalah Center, it’s supposed to ward off the eiyan ha’ra, the evil eye. The original Jewish concept of the evil eye was based on the idea of not flaunting wealth so as not to incur the jealousy of those less fortunate. It was based on the beautiful Jewish value of human dignity, of not making people less successful feel bad about themselves. What was once a message of humility and simplicity has now been transformed into one in which it is permitted to sport a 10-carat diamond so long as it is accompanied by a silly piece of string.
And the coarsening of our values isn’t only about money. I attended a Modern Orthodox bat mitzvah not long ago where the boys and girls, all of 12 and 13, began to “grind” their genitalia against one another on the dance floor. The parents watched from the sidelines. One father was appalled and wanted to complain to the Jewish day school that allowed it, but was discouraged from doing so because of the social censure his son might face.
And where are the rabbis through all this? Why aren’t they preaching the time-honored Torah values of modesty, humility, and sincerity? Tragically, many of us rabbis are either afraid to speak out or have been bought off. We don’t want to incur the wrath of our congregants and boards by criticizing these corrupt values, or we’ve been bought off by wealthy donors who support our organizations and who will turn off the spigot if we dare decry their excesses. In Orthodoxy, the problem is often an emphasis on meticulous adherence to rituals without a concomitant commitment to the values these rituals are meant to inspire. In more secular circles the problem is often a lack of emphasis on either.

FOR YEARS now I have been passionately arguing the need for the Jewish community to serve as a light unto the nations by promulgating our values to the non-Jewish world. We ought to be known primarily not for the billions of Wall Street but for the warmth of the family dinner table. It was for this reason that I launched “This World: The Jewish Values Network” with its first national program being a campaign to have all American families “Turn Friday Night Into Family Night.” Non-Jewish families from all over America have begun to commit to Friday dinners at our Web site, FridayIsFamily.com. But just as they are doing so, I heard that our local JCC, an outstanding facility which I use all the time with my kids, is considering opening on Shabbat. Come on. Our community is supposed to stand for something, like the idea of sacred time. There is one day a week devoted to family and community rather than swimming and soccer. One day a week when Mom gets to be a wife rather than a chauffeur, and Dad gets to be a father rather than a coach.

LET ME confess that I am just as materialistic as the people I criticize even as I lack the resources to indulge their more expensive tastes. But when I forget that Judaism demands the heart over the wallet, I feel ashamed of having lost my way. Perhaps it’s how we all ought to feel as this economic meltdown exposes the betrayal of the very values that have ensured the spiritual integrity of our community for millennia.

(Rabbi Shmuley Boteach can be reached at