The new religious materialism

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Spring is here, and with it the disappearance of that most exotic of species, the winter fur coat. On any given Sabbath, as I walk to synagogue in my native East Coast neighborhood, one can witness whole species – some no doubt, nearly extinct – on the backs of women who warm themselves against winter’s chill. On some women, one can even see a whole mixture of species, all amalgamated into one memorable fashion statement. To see such incredible creatures, one would normally have to go to the zoo. But in my neighborhood, who knew that the zoo would come to you!

When I first arrived back in the United States after 11 years as rabbi at Oxford University in England, I was not prepared for the blizzard of fur coats of New York and New Jersey. In Britain, as in so many places in Europe, wearing a mink coat is like putting a bull’s-eye on your back for animal-rights activists, and one runs a serious risk of being attacked with red paint. But in the United States, the fur coat has become to women what the Ferrari has always been to men – the ultimate statement of high-flying, material success.

There are, however, three major differences, of course. First, boys have always had their toys, and a lot of men remain boys specifically because of their toys. One of the great male sins is a constant desire to impress colleagues with the accoutrements of success, as if advertising your insecurities could somehow make one stronger. But we always believed that women were more mature and could rise above the insecurities that have often made men so ridiculous.

The second difference is that the metal of a Ferrari isn’t being ripped off the back of a feeble creature whom God presumably did not place on His green Earth to serve solely as the matted fabric by which Mrs. Cohen could be made emerald with envy.

Third, and finally, one doesn’t drive one’s Ferrari to synagogue (at least we hope not). But the juxtaposition of wearing something as haughtily visible as a mink coat for an exercise as pious as prayer is surely a contradiction that cannot be easily overlooked.

Let me be clear. I am not judging the fine women of my neighborhood, many of whom lead lives of exceptional generosity and humility, for wearing a rare species as a second skin. We all like nice things, and we all like to occasionally make an impression. And who am I to judge when I have also battled my own materialistic inclination, not to mention my own shallow need to impress, throughout my life.

Rather, my point is this: If the lust for materialism in our communities is even beginning to corrupt our women, then it’s time to wake up and smell the money.

The Oxford historian Arnold Toynbee – who was one of the 21st century’s greatest academics, but unfortunately did not much like Jews – wrote in his monumental “Study of History” that the bane of every great civilization has been not challenge, but success, not struggle, but prosperity. In short, from the ancient Roman Empire to the modern British one, what has slowly undermined every great society is an inability to handle their good fortune.

From an abundance of blessing, corruption ensued eroding the very foundations of government and the pillars of basic human decency and integrity. In turns out that money is even more corrosive than poverty, and living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan can be more injurious to one’s soul than to live in the Shtetl or the Ghetto.

Indeed, Boruch de Spinoza, the great Jewish philosopher and heretic, surmised in the 17th century that when anti-Semitism died out, the Jews would cease to exist. It was hatred that defined their identity and made it impossible for them to assimilate. The great French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, made much the same argument 300 years later.

Which does not mean that we should ever move back to the ghetto or invite hatred as a means of curbing our own spiritual disintegration. It does mean, however, that we must embrace the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ articulation of the purpose of material wealth, namely, the facilitation of good deeds like charity, hospitality and the proper provision for one’s family’s needs.

Any cursory examination of the global Jewish community today would have to conclude that, like many other segments of American society, we are giving in to excess. The forest of fur coats trooping toward the prayer house is only the most visible sign of a new religious decadence. The extravagant, and much commented on, Bar and Bas Mitzvahs, not to mention the Jewish royal weddings, are an even greater sign of how we are converting ritual celebrations into opportunities to impress our friends.

My son’s Bar Mitzvah will take place, God willing, right after Passover. I am a TV host and author, thank God. But the only way I could afford anything like the Bar Mitzvahs that some of my son’s classmates have recently staged is by selling an organ, like a spare kidney, or renting myself out for medical experimentation. With eight kids to put through Jewish schools, and a home that we try and open to the community (not to mention some of my own material extravagances that I am reluctant to discuss lest this column turn into a confessional and I expose myself as a hypocrite), blowing our spare cash on a Bar Mitzvah that features digital holograms of my son skateboarding just does not seem like a great family priority.

But even if I could afford it (did someone say network television?), what would my son learn from an extravagant Bar Mitzvah other than the fact that his father is a showoff, and the message of his coming of age is that he should be one, too.

It is time for some humility in the American Jewish and other religious communities, and I am speaking to all of us, myself included. My own insecurities have at times made me an attention-seeker, subordinating my honest desire to do God’s will to a superficial desire to gain social acceptance. Looking oneself in the mirror and acknowledging corrosive tendencies like the search for recognition is one of the most painful experiences of life. But it is an act of self-reflection that the global Jewish community – which has the understandable insecurities of a minority that has been severely persecuted for many centuries – must begin.

Because, trust me, while all the minks in the world may warm your body and raise the eyebrows of friends, they will still leave your soul cold and your sense of self punctured. But doing the right thing, without trying to make an impression, is the kind of personal liberation that we should all be searching for in this period following Passover.