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 Dec. 7 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 souped-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 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 tzedakah. 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 tzedakah is not the only Jewish value. So is modesty, humility and baal tashchit — 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 mitzvah in which an NBA superstar made a guest appearance for which he was paid an insane amount. Indeed, bar and bat mitzvahs have become for many a game of million-dollar one-upmanship.

Now, what kinds of values are being 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 like the insecure social climbers who joined the exclusive Jewish country clubs when word went out that being part of Madoff’s investment fund was a privilege reserved for a chosen few?

I see a lot of Jewish people walking around these days with a red string on their wrists. Popularized by the Kabbalah Centre, it’s supposed to ward off the ayan ha’ra, the evil eye. The original Jewish concept of the evil eye was based on the Jewish value of human dignity, the idea of not flaunting wealth so as not to incur the jealousy of those less fortunate. 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” against one another on the dance floor. The parents watched from the sidelines. One father was appalled and wanted to complain, 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’re 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 excess. 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.” But just as non-Jewish families from all over America have begun to commit to Friday dinners, I heard that our local JCC in New Jersey is considering opening on Shabbat.

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 in 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 is the author of “The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life,” to be published next month. This column originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.