Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 20 November 2011

Conditional Love and Consumptions

Lord Rav Jonathan Sacks has become a darling figure within Modern Orthodoxy over the last several years for many good reasons.  One is his obvious charisma combined with a deep love of Torah.  The second is his ability to balance a strictly observant life with the demands of modern society.  In many ways he exemplifies the ideal Modern Orthodox Jew, able to live uncompromisingly within the boundaries of halacha while also being able to hobnob with lords and queens (the royal kind).  He even has his own prayer books now which have been received with great ethusiasm by the MO crowd.
Every so often, however, there is a reminder that the love and adoration of masses can be a fickle things.  A few years ago, for example, Rav Sacks was criticized for allowing his beis din to make a decision regarding the status of certain types of converts when it came to attending Jewish schools.  As opposed to making an enlightened decision that would have accepted any standard, the beis din held its ground and disqualified non-Orthodox candidates.  The reaction from Rav Sack's followers at the time followed one of two threads.  Some were supportive and blamed his Chareidi beis din for forcing him into the exclusionary position.  Others simply turned on him the minute he deviated from their image of him as an inclusive, tolerant, non-judgemental yet Orthodox rav.
Rav Sacks has now done it again, giving a recent speech in which he attacked Steve Jobs as emblematic of the morally empty consumer culture we find ourselves swamped in.
Speaking at an interfaith reception attended by the Queen this week, Lord Sacks said, "People are looking for values other than the values of a consumer society. The values of a consumer society really aren't ones you can live by for terribly long.

"The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i.
"When you're an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'i', you don't do terribly well."
He went on: "What does a consumer ethic do? It makes you aware all the time of the things you don't have instead of thanking God for all the things you do have.
"If in a consumer society, through all the advertising and subtly seductive approaches to it, you've got an iPhone but you haven't got a fourth-generation one, the consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness."
Although religious leaders have in recent years used increasingly strong language to condemn banks and politicians over the financial crisis and the gap between rich and poor, few have directly criticized ordinary people for their materialism.
While many of us are not terribly good at it, we still must acknowledge that Judaism is a culture in which giving is considered one of the highest values.  The parasha from just this past week shows how fundamentally rooted that trait should be in each of us from Rivkah Imeinu.  The opposite value, taking, is the signpost of Western secular culture.
How many of the supposedly poor and oppressed 99% protesting in the "Occupy" movement have iPads and iPhones?  If their financial situation is so dire, why are they carrying top-of-the-line electronic goods?  Wouldn't a simple cell phone be cheaper and more sensible?  And at the root of it, what is the "Occupy" movement about if not the resentment that others have money that these 99% don't have and they want to take a piece of it without having to earn it?
But is Orthodox Judaism immune to this consumerism?  In the words of the immortal Al Bundy, "Uh, no Peg."
Take a look at how our culture has become obsesssed with material goods. How many of us live in huge homes that we cannot truly afford but still manage to fill them with useless tzatchkes that we insist we cannot live without?  Look around you in shul or even at your own neck.  How much did that ornative tallis band cost?  In the last year I invested in a set of tefillin for my son and was told that the starting price for a set that I could be reasonably assured was kosher and met everyone's standards - the starting price! - was $1300 and that to remove all doubts I was looking at close to $2000. 
How much do we spend on bar mitzvah celebrations and weddings when a table with a keg at one end and a hot, steaming plate of wings at the other is all you really need?  How much do we spend on shteitls, suits and Borsalino hats to ensure we look just right when we go to shul?
Let's bring Steve Jobs into this.  How many of us have an iPad with all the latest Jewish app's because shlepping a Gemara around is so 1990's?
In short, how much of our Orthodox life is necessary and how much of it is there only because we've deluded ourselves and want to keep up with the Jonesteins?
I am certain that there are those who will attack Rav Sacks but in my opinion he's spot on.  We are some of us ugly but don't want to accept the image we see in the mirror, therefore we resent the person who points it out.  However, if Rav Sacks was right about the stuff we want to hear, we cannot dismiss him when he tells us what we don't want to hear.
Therein lies the irony, by the way.  One of the ongoing criticisms of the Chareidi community is that their "Gedolim" are trapped by their culture.  A Gadol, Daas Torah and Ruach HaKodesh aside, cannot pasken as he wants because if he comes up with a decision that doesn't fit the "holier than thou" cultural ethic put in place by his askanim he is in danger of losing his "Gadol" status.  Yet within Modern Orthodoxy there may be the same kind of ethic.  You're a leader and an inspiration as long you parrot the themes of tolerance and inclusion but the minute you draw a red line, well you're betraying the followers who made you great and are therefore no longer worthy of that greatness.  The two communities, one trapped by a model of Gadol worship, one by the secular values that have snuck into its Judaism, aren't so different after all.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

From the site
Therefore the answer to the consumer society is the world of faith, which the Jews call the world of Shabbat, where you can't shop and you can't spend and you spend your time with things that matter, with family.

"Unless we get back to these values we will succeed in making our children and grandchildren ever unhappier."

Totally against Jewish law to advice goyim to have a day of rest

Garnel Ironheart said...

No, it's against Jewish law to advise gentiles to keep Shabbos. I am sure Rav Sacks is well aware of the prohibition but his generic recommendation, that people take some time off to spend with their families enjoying each other instead of pursuing some consumer fad, is quite applicable to everyone.

Anonymous said...

How can anyone benefit from a leader if he always second-guesses the leader's decisions that don't appeal to him? When we wonder why our elected representatives don't do much good, this is one reason.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

It's not so much about second guessing as it is about being treated like an adult.
When a child is 5 you tell him to clean his room because you said so. When he's 15 you tell him to clean his room so he'll stay organized and be able to be productive with his school mark, thus improving his marks and his chances for a good career later on.
The Chareidi model treats people like they're 5 - do it because the Gadol said so - while the ideal MO model treats people like they're adults and takes the risk they just won't listen once in a while.

Anonymous said...

I know yeshivish people who expect to be treated as adults---and they are!

SJ said...

frankly Sacks with his I I I iphone crap gave the gayest jewish guilt trip I ever heard.

Nothing wrong with SOME self centeredness but it indeed has to be balanced by not being self centered.

Sacks is just more proof why orthodox judaism is not a golden mean.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Anonymous, there is a difference between being allowed to feed yourself and being allowed to think for yourself. Now, obviously there is a spectrum within the Yeshivish community but the stated ideal is one that discourages initiative and independent decision making in favour of deferring to the "Gadol" and "Daas Torah". How else to explain the stories of people going to ask folks like Rav Shteinman what model of car they should buy, or Rav Eliashiv if Crocs are appropriate for Yom Kippur?

Shades of Grey said...

Rabbi Sacks is simply speaking l'shitaso, see his essay on the London Riots: http://www.chiefrabbi.org/ReadArtical1790.aspx which also mentions consumerism being a big problem.

Frankly, I completely agree with Rabbi Sacks (and you). This is not the "gayest jewish guilt trip" as SJ so ineloquently put it. We live in a society where consumerism means everything - we MUST have the latest gadgets, even if out old ones work fine (this is to the exclusion of someone's 5 year old device that can't keep up anymore), only because we are told we need the newest and best, either by our family, friends, fellow employees or people such as Steve Jobs himself.

After reading all the press about Jobs, I came to one conclusion. Despite his revolutionary approach to designing and marketing quality computerized devices, which indeed, changed the way we compute, listen to music and use the internet - all he has to show are his business accomplishments.

He himself was a terribly difficult boss, working his employees ragged to make products by specific deadlines - I read a quote about how he forced the Pixar people to miss personal occasions, holidays, and weekends, to produce Toy Story 2 - and overall, a seemingly nasty person to deal with. Not to mention impregnating and abandoning his girlfriend at a young age, and as this article discusses - http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/08/29/the-mystery-of-steve-jobss-public-giving/ - was never really involved in any serious philanthropy, prefering to focus on developing Apple.

Yes, we can thank Steve Jobs for our wonderul toys and all that they do - but that's basically it. As a moral person, there isn't much to talk about or be grateful for.

SJ said...

>> We live in a society where consumerism means everything

Consumerism has to be balanced with family and spirituality. There's no mitzvah in completely eradicating consumerism.

Secondly Steve Jobs' hard ass management style can probably be found in the entire software industry especially video games.

Adam Zur said...

SJ wrote "Consumerism has to be balanced with family and spirituality. There's no mitzvah in completely eradicating consumerism."
I agree with this. orthodox rabbis are no different than reform in just attacking some target that is popular to attach at the time. they have no spiritual insight.

Y. Ben-David said...

I live in Israel, I am a religious Zionist, I work for a living as an engineer and find this whole discussion about "consumerist society" to be completely alien to my experience and most of the people I know in my community.

Anonymous said...

"How else to explain the stories of people going to ask folks like Rav Shteinman what model of car they should buy, or Rav Eliashiv if Crocs are appropriate for Yom Kippur?"

Not proven that these are typical of the group.

jrs said...

Is frum Jewish society way too materialistic? Of course it is!

But these speeches/shmuezzes wherein a rabbi seizes on some popular cultural figure or phenomenon to make this point are misguided & obnoxious. There’s an almost subliminal subtext: the vices we’re discussing are Goyish, and our main sin is in letting Goyish values permeate our otherwise perfectly moral lifestyle.

Did goyim invent materialism & conspicuous consumption? A ridiculous question, obviously. But one thing’s certain: we frum Jews have adopted it & made it our own. Jewish families that are considered---& consider themselves---of modest means, perhaps even 'scraping by gamely'---would not dream of even marrying off a child, setting up a new household without large silver Shabbos candelabras, silver esrog-boxes, huge menoras, etc. These are not things that simple, moral, poor-but-happy people need (esp. people who don’t [yet] work for a living).
We never needed Steve Jobs or the Shopping Network to distort our values; we’ve done just fine on our own, in this respect.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

jrs makes a valid point. I recall reading in the newspaper years ago about how in some rich areas of the US non-Jewish girls are have "bas mitzvah" parties because they're jealous that their Jewish friends get a bas mitzvah and a sweet sixteen!

Shades of Grey said...

I expounded on my comment here in a blogpost: http://walkingthegreyline.blogspot.com/2011/11/chief-rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks-and.html?showComment=1322176387403&m=1#c3491274545863103333