Is there anything that we will not put a heksher on? Has pleasure become the guiding religious principle? Many pockets of the American Orthodox community have become so consumed with Jewish law that values and limits on pleasure have been dismissed.
At first glance, the data offers an ambiguous message. For example, a 2008 article estimated that Orthodox Jewish families spent 25%-35% of their income on activities associated with being Jewish. The Orthodox also had less income than families than other Jews, as a 2005 report from United Jewish Communities noted.
These data appear to reflect continuing trends. Nevertheless, they may not explain what is happening today. What does Orthodox spending on Jewish experiences mean? Does having an income less than other Jewish families necessarily mean that Orthodox families have not been lured into an American consumerist pattern? Rav Aaron Lichtenstein, in an essay titled “Glatt Kosher Hedonism,” talks about the problem of the American Orthodox culture today:
I mention this point particularly to an American audience. In recent years, one observes on the American scene a terribly disturbing phenomenon: the spread of hedonistic values, but with a kind of glatt-kosher packaging. There was a time when the problem of hedonism for religious Jews didn’t often arise, because even if you wanted to have the time of your life, there wasn’t very much that you could do. The country clubs were all barred to Jews, there weren’t many kosher restaurants, there were no kosher nightclubs, etc. In the last decade or two, a whole culture has developed geared towards frum Jews, where the message is enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, and everything has a hekhsher (kosher certification) and a super-hekhsher. The message is that whatever the gentiles have, we have too. They have trips to the Virgin Islands, we have trips to the Virgin Islands. Consequently, there has been a certain debasement of values, in which people have a concern for the minutiae of Halakha (which, of course, one should be concerned about), but with a complete lack of awareness of the extent to which the underlying message is so totally non-halakhic and anti-halakhic (By His Light).
The goal of religious life is to choose the most noble of life paths and to strive to fulfill our highest values during our limited time on this earth. Judaism is certainly not an ascetic religion, but the danger of inappropriate or excessive pleasures has constantly been reinforced. Rabbeinu Bachye Ibn Pakuda, the 11th-century Jewish philosopher in Spain, addressed how pleasure, when over-embraced, can lead to a person’s destruction:
The instinct attracts them to an indulgent lifestyle and a pursuit of wealth, enamoring them of this world’s luxury and prominence, until finally they sink in the depths of the sea, forced to face the crush of its waves. The (material) world rules them, stopping up their ears and closing their eyes. There is not one among them who occupies himself with anything but his own pleasure—wherever he can attain it and the opportunity presents itself. [Pleasure] becomes his law and religion, driving him away from G-d. As it says, “Your own wickedness will punish you, your own sins will rebuke you….” (Yirimeyahu 2:19), (Chovot HaLevavot 9:2).
While the Jewish legal system includes legal rules and precedent, the guiding forces in the halakhic process are the meta-halakhic values. The Jewish tradition has purpose, meaning, and ethics, and thus the application of the holy law ensures that the intentional values are maintained. Overemphasizing the strict adherence to law (ikar ha’din) at the expense of going beyond the law (lifnim mi’shurat ha’din) is oversimplifying religion and missing the point. The Ramban teaches that one can be “naval birshut haTorah” (a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah) if they only follow the letter of the law. There is, of course, not one ethic but many that guide our religious lives. Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzberger explains the importance of embracing a pluralism of Jewish ethics that …
… manifests itself in the readiness to operate with a number of independent ethical norms and principles such as concern for love, justice, truth, and peace. Since they frequently give rise to conflicting obligations, it becomes necessary to rely upon intuitive judgments to resolve the conflict. There is, however, another dimension to the pluralism of Jewish ethics: it is multi-tiered and comprises many strands. It contains not only objective components such as duties and obligations, but also numerous values and ideals possessing only subjective validity. Moreover, the pluralistic thrust of Jewish ethics makes it possible to recognize the legitimacy of many alternate ethical values and ideals (Ethics of Responsibility, 5).
It is time to revitalize a values discourse in the American Orthodox community. How do we salvage the community by enhancing our collective discourse and priorities toward our raison-d’être? This is not only the work of rabbis speaking from the pulpit and educators speaking from the classroom. It is the responsibility of every parent to properly model for their children how they use their free time and resources, and the duty of every community member to reinforce during conversation.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.