Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
On Aug. 22, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about extravagant Jewish Iranian weddings in Southern California that exposes our community as a bunch of shallow, boastful materialists who think the purpose of a marriage ceremony is to tell your friends how much money you have. Some of the details mentioned in the article, confirmed to me by people who actually attended, included a bride placed in a glass coffin to be opened by her half-masked “Phantom of the Opera” bridegroom. The coffin did not open for an hour, and the wedding was nearly ruined by a shaken and tearful bride gasping for breath. But the coffin, on that occasion, was a telling symbol of the utter death of Jewish values that such ridiculous extravagances betray.
The article further cites the appearance at many of these weddings of film crews consisting of four or five cameramen with “a 25-foot crane over the dance floor.” In television this is called a jib, and to give you an idea of how expensive they are, I can tell you that through the first season of “Shalom in the Home,” despite a multimillion-dollar budget, we couldn’t afford one.
Strangely enough, the article then quotes a rabbi from Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, which has thousands of Iranian Jewish members, who “makes a point of not judging — and even sees virtue in the enormous family gatherings.”
Give me a break. Is there really a point to rabbinic leadership if it does not come with value judgments? Do we in the Jewish community not — rightly, I might add — lecture our Muslim brothers and sisters that they must weed out violent extremists lest their religion be brought into utter disrepute? And while murder in the name of God is much more serious than shopping in the name of excessiveness, there can be no question that keeping up with the Schwartzes has become a cancer that threatens to kill off the flickering Jewish soul. How ironic that a people who have for centuries survived forced baptisms are now drowning in an ocean of profligacy.
American Jews often exhibit the worst tendencies of immigrant communities, endeavoring their best to show how they have not just landed but arrived. Security is defined not in terms of spiritual virtue and nobility of purpose but in stocks and bonds and money in the bank. And what’s the point of having it if your friends are ignorant of your success? The whole reason you made the money in the first place was to show off. So go ahead. Smoke ’em if you got ’em. And what better opportunity than at the public celebrations of a bar or bat mitzvah or wedding, where, at no extra cost, you can utterly vulgarize the spirituality of the occasion by transforming it into a showcase of material consumption and excess?
I remember growing up in Miami Beach and the over-the-top, utterly ridiculous bar mitzvahs that were de rigueur. One in the late ’70s featured Darth Vader and R2-D2 greeting guests as they arrived at the reception. To be sure, it was memorable seeing C-3PO in tails and Chewbacca’s beard complemented with a Chassidic hat, but one wondered what, apart from its celestial setting, “Star Wars’ had to do with the spirituality of the moment. On another occasion, I arrived to see a full ice sculpture of the bar mitzvah boy, which perfectly suited the freezing-cold religious aspect.
A wealthy Jewish businessman shared a story with me of how he instills values in his children. His 12-year-old son had come to him and said, “Dad, I want a famous sports star at my bar mitzvah. Let’s get Eli Manning.” So the father replied, “Son, you have to have manners. You don’t tell your father to get Eli Manning. You ask him politely.” Apparently it never dawned on the dad that his son had aped his own shallow materialism and had, already at 12, become an insecure braggart.
A remedy is needed. Rabbis should be thundering from the pulpit that extravagant weddings not only reveal a sense of personal inadequacy but are an abrogation of Jewish values. You’re so rich? Then impress your friends by giving the money to charity. Rather than focus on the 20-piece orchestra for your son’s bar mitzvah, take him to 20 classes where he can learn about Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, and the glory of Solomon’s Temple. Give him an inner identity, based on values and character, rather than a shallow external identity based on money and objects.
So why aren’t the rabbis giving sermons about gross materialism that wraps itself, in the memorable phrase of Matt Taibbi, like a “vampire squid” around the Jewish conscience? Because they are about as likely to criticize their own congregants as Romeo is to renounce Juliet. But what’s the point of being the head of a congregation if you’re not also the leader of a community?
The story goes that in Israel, a few decades ago, the Gerrer Rebbe, head of one of the largest Chasidic sects and seeking to stop a destructive game of material one-upmanship, enacted an edict that none of his followers could have a wedding with more than 200 guests, still large by some measures. One of his wealthiest followers and supporters approached him and said, “Rebbe, surely this does not apply to me. I’m a very rich man,” to which the great rabbi responded, “Very well, then. If you’re so rich, go buy yourself a new rabbi.”
Yes, some things in life can be put on a credit card. But rabbis who preach values and can’t be bought? Priceless.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts “The Shmuley Show” on 77 WABC in NYC. He is the foun-der of This World: The Values Network, and is the author, most recently, of “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life,” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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August 18, 2010 | 10:27 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
I still remember, Russell, when you came to my debate with Rev. Al Sharpton, nine years ago, in New York City. You struck me then as a man of warmth and openness. In that spirit I offer you this response to your recent blog postings supporting the Ground Zero mosque and your categorization of those opposing it as being guilty of hatred and bigotry, which strikes me as a bit harsh.
For the record, I am a supporter of the mosque being built, but only under two conditions. First, that its builders consult the families of the Ground Zero dead, who are the people whose opinion matters most. Second, that the 13-story complex include a museum detailing the events of 9/11 with exhibits explaining the modern abuse of Islamic teachings by extremists and their repudiation by Islam itself.
I don’t expect you to agree with my conditions, or with those who oppose the mosque outright. But I do ask that you consider this.
We live in a secular age where religion has been largely repudiated. Sure, people still go to Church and they still celebrate Chanuka and Christmas. But religious values have ceased to be impactful on their lives. It’s secular values that dictate what’s important, from money and fame to material comfort and financial security. How did religion which was once all-powerful become so marginal? There are many considerations, but perhaps the most important has been religion’s hypocrisy and intolerance. Simply put, when people witness religions behaving badly they conclude that it’s all a farce. Whether it’s a priest being caught molesting a child, or a Rabbi being arrested for money laundering, or, most seriously, an Imam telling his faithful to blow up children, the average person looks at this and determines that religion is a farce.
Which is why it’s so important for the religious faithful, in general, and religious leaders in particular, to behave with morality, ethics, and sensitivity at all times.
But your blog post completely ignores the need for religion to behave with sensitivity at all times. It makes no mention whatsoever of how Islam might win public opinion back and instead accuses Americans of being bigots.
There are bigots in America but Americans are not bigots. There are a hundred mosques in New York alone and nobody objects. But the average American is souring on Islam not based on any intrinsic prejudice but based on the violence they constantly read in the newspapers. And yes, I agree with you. They should rise above that and understand that the extremists do not define the faith and that the vast majority of religions Muslims are G-d-fearing and peace-loving.
But this is where the builders of the Ground Zero mosque squandered a unique opportunity to portray Islam in a favorable light, even as you completely let them off the hook. Given the huge media profile of this particular mosque, the organizers could have showed Americans how wrong they were about Islam. The builders could have taken out a full-page ad in The New York Times (they have, it is reported, $100 million for the mosque, and this expense would be tiny in comparison) announcing their intentions of building an Islamic Cultural Center at Ground Zero and inviting all the families of the 9/11 victims to the Jacob Javits Center on a specified day to lay out their plans and obtain the families reactions. They could have said that they while they are firm about their intentions of creating an Islamic presence at this hallowed site, their intention in so doing is not offend the families sensibilities but to repudiate the fanatics who have tarnished the name of Islam and hence, the builders wish to proceed with the greatest sensitivity and understanding.
Sadly, Russell, none of this happened. Rather, it was announced that a mosque is being built adjacent to a giant American cemetery irrespective of the families wishes, that it’s a First Amendment right, and that all those who oppose it are bigots.
Fair enough. It’s a free country. Say what you want and build what you want.
But if you’re intention is to reverse people’s negative impressions of religion in general and Islam in particular, then you’re probably not going to achieve that by telling ten thousand people who watched their loved ones incinerated at Ground Zero, and whose remains are now part of the very air and dust of the place, that they are no longer victims of a terrible attack, but a bunch of cold-hearted bigots who hate Islam.
This, Russell, is just not the way to bring peace and reconciliation.
I wish G-d’s blessings for all the good work you do.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts ‘The Shmuley Show’ on 77 WABC in NYC. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and is the author, most recently, of ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
August 10, 2010 | 11:20 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
My father was born in Iran and remains firmly attached to his Iranian heritage. He loves the food, the music, the language and the culture. It is something that I have witnessed with most Iranian exiles. They have internalized their country so much that it travels with them wherever they go.
And why not? Iran was once one of the world’s greatest civilizations and the Middle East’s most highly educated nation.
Then came Khomeini, and the slow descent into barbarity began.
To see what Shia Islamic technocrats have done to Iran is tragic. I do not speak only of the violent clown Ahmadinejad who can look an Ivy League audience in the eye and say there are no homosexuals in Iran, which is still a lot better than mowing down his voters with machine guns. Rather, I speak of a country so suffused with hate that it can think nothing of producing cartoons, now available on a dedicated Web site promoted by the semi-official Fars news agency, denying the Holocaust and portraying Jews as hook-nosed vermin. Have the Iranians been taught to hate Jews so much that they can caricature the gassing of 1 million children? When I visited Poland, I walked into a clearing in the woods near Tarnow, where 800 Jewish orphans were murdered, mostly by having their brains dashed against trees. The Iranians would make fun of this as well? What level of one’s humanity must be compromised before one feels that wholesale human slaughter is a matter for comic relief?
I forced myself to watch all of “The Stoning of Soriah M” by Iranian director Cyrus Nowrasteh. Based on a true story, its final scene — depicting an innocent woman buried up to her neck and having her skull slowly crushed by average, everyday men throwing stones large enough to injure but not to immediately kill, including her own father, husband and son — is easily one of the most brutal and haunting events ever depicted on film. If only it were an exaggeration.
The world is currently focused on the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old woman awaiting death-by-stoning in the Iranian town of Tabriz after an unjust trial and sham conviction for adultery. International pressure has so far granted her a reprieve. But is that what it takes, outside objectors persuading Iranian villagers that it’s wrong to pick up a stone and take out a woman’s eye and turn her brain into mush? How can these men have lost the universal, inner voice of conscience that would prevent them from inflicting such unspeakable cruelty upon a helpless woman? Can any of us Western men even conceive of picking up a stone and throwing it as hard as we possibly can at a helpless woman dug into a pit? Only the truly barbaric, those who have become utterly detached from any semblance of humanity, could behave this way.
The 2001 case of Maryam Ayubi is particularly gruesome. Another alleged adulteress, she fainted during the ritual washing that preceded her execution. No matter. They stoned her to death while she was strapped to a stretcher. If I met any of the men who participated, I would have little to say and would simply stare deeply into their eyes pondering how the light of humanity could have been so thoroughly extinguished within.
I believe the West is largely to blame for this continued barbarity. Why is there an Iranian Embassy in the middle of London, and does its presence not silently condone this continued barbarity against women? Where are the women’s groups to protest Western governments’ interactions with a country that can mutilate women in the most monstrous way?
I have a friend whose husband is a renowned physician who was called upon to treat a member of the Saudi royal family. They offered him a king’s ransom to fly to Riyadh. His wife objected: “If a woman isn’t allowed to drive a car in that kingdom, then you’re not going to treat the leadership,” she told him. He forfeited a fortune, but she made her point. How can any of these abuses against women change if we are all indifferent?
The sad thing about all this is the absence of a vocal majority of our Muslim brothers and sisters condemning Iran’s descent into barbarism. It seems that many are too busy condemning Israel to notice how Iranian morality has descended into hell. I am a strong supporter of Israel and believe Israel’s military actions against Hamas and Hezbollah are necessary measures of self-defense. But if any Israeli cartoonist were to caricature Arabsas grotesque subhumans, the way Jewsare regularly portrayed in Iran, I would callit an abomination against Jewish morality andvalues. They would attain a pariah status throughout Israel and the global Jewishcommunity.
In his speech last week from Governor’s Island about why the Ground Zero mosque ought to be built, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the 9/11 attacks were committed by “fanatics.” He refused to say even once that the attackers were Muslims, thereby offending history and common sense. Are we doing our Islamic brothers and sisters a favor when we whitewash crimes committed by Islam, or should we be encouraging them to condemn and cut out the growing cancer in global Islam? It may be tough love, but is it not more helpful to be honest about the growing brutality in the name of Islam so that those who love and practice this great world religion and wish to restore it to its former glory can reclaim it from the killers and the fanatics?
Fareed Zakaria just returned a humanitarian prize he received from the Anti-Defamation League because the organization came out against the Ground Zero mosque. He added that the mosque organizers are Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare because they are moderates who repudiate violence. How patronizing. That’s the most we can expect from Muslims, that they not support terrorism? Islam was once the most educated and forward-looking civilization in the world, and it degrades itself and is betrayed by so-called friends who tell it to aspire to nothing more than not being Osama bin Laden.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts “The Shmuley Show” on 77 WABC in New York City. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network and has just published “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley or visit him at shmuley.com.