FIELD NOTES: Material Success and Its Challenges

Shlomo Zuckier Tradition Online | August 28, 2023

In many ways, Orthodox life in the United States has seen increasing material success in recent decades. This has had an impact in a wide range of areas – sumptuary trends, philanthropy, career choice, institutional sustainability (e.g., the tuition crisis), social and communal gaps between haves and have-nots, and more. While many of these topics have been discussed informally, little has been written about them in a systemic and organized fashion. The meeting of the first Tradition Today Summit took place on April 23, 2023 at Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, NJ, to address “Material Success and its Challenges.” This day-long summit traced the contours of this trend and considered its advantages and challenges in light of Jewish tradition. It brought together sociological and cultural reflections as well as a range of hashkafic and halakhic perspectives, with an eye towards better understanding and managing this underexplored communal matter.

The six presentations and engaging discussion that ensued touched upon a variety of topics relating to the theme (view the program schedule here). I summarize here some highlights of the proceedings by focusing on a variety of key and overlapping themes that emerged over the course of the day.

One issue that was raised with the topic is how representative the trend of material success may be, in both appearance and reality, as Yossi Prager considered in his paper. It may apply to some communities (American Modern Orthodox communities around large cities) more than others. To the extent the trend exists, it may be a temporary blip rather than an enduring phenomenon. It may also be more a façade created by those who stand to gain from an increase in communal cost of living than a true economic reality. Nevertheless, material success is still worth considering in light of its prevalence across many communities, and given how this has become “common knowledge” in cultural discourse even as it is not always prevalent on the ground.

The fundamental philosophical question that arose is whether material success is to be perceived as a positive or negative phenomenon—or is it both?

On this point we saw a debate of sorts between the papers presented by R. Jeremy Weider and that of Michael Eisenberg. The former emphasized the corrosive effect that undue pursuit of material success can have on people, while the latter emphasized the ways that capitalism can play a role in building a healthy society. Additional issues include the have vs. have-not divide in frum communities, and how an increase in cost of living within the Orthodox community (increasing day school tuition, keeping up with the Cohnses, and increases in consumerism) can have differential impacts on various populations.

Two other papers touched on this issue from both sides. R. Michael Rosensweig laid out a survey of approaches to this question in Jewish thought, leading to the argument that material success can be channeled in support of Torah learning or other ideas, but it also can lead to an undue focus on physical means rather than their ultimate, spiritual goals. The article by Chaim Saiman and Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt closely analyzed the contemporary trend constructing Orthodoxy as a luxury brand, pointing to how this pursuit can hijack traditional observance but also to how it can create spaces for meaning in people’s lives. (Saiman discussed this with Jeffrey Saks on the Tradition Podcast.)

Moving beyond a binary question of “good or bad,” we considered how shifting financial dynamics relate to and feed power dynamics within the community. The increased importance of financial well-being supports the standing of Gvirim (major philanthropic donors) and relatively weakens that of Gedolim and leading rabbis for communities where this is relevant. It raises the related question of whether those wielding power serve the interests of the frum community or whether they might serve their own special interests.

Some significant players in this marketplace, including publications (e.g., Mishpacha, Jewish Link, Mochers, Fleishiks), face financial pressures of selling advertisements that often hawk luxury products, and may not be able to take a stand against a rise in consumerist spending even if it is harmful. Influencers on social media often serve their own interests, as well, whether through selling their endorsements or currying favor with powerful people. On the other side, Gedolim, rabbis, educators, school heads, communal consortia, federations, and charitable organizations (e.g., Project Ezrah) often have the stated goal of supporting communal needs, and would be expected to favor the commonweal over their own benefit.

Some additional models of communal power structures were raised that might be less obviously focused one way or the other. Yossi Prager raised the option of staffed foundations focused on solving particular problems, which can be more transparent and responsible to a particular goal. Michael Eisenberg raised the possibility that corporations might enter the business of covenantalism, seeing their goal as helping others and “growing the pie,” although such an approach would face hurdles of fiduciary responsibility and conflict of interest.

Beyond those holding power, one can consider the cultural and communal impact of a shift to greater financial success and consumerist trends. This relates to geography, as mentioned in Dr. Erica Brown’s talk about suburbs and related trends in established, well-to-do communities, which run the risk of becoming boring dead ends, victims of their own success. And how does having neighbors who are of different financial means (more common in Haredi than in Modern Orthodox contexts) mitigate some of the challenges of religio-economic group-think? Beyond geography, how does the culture of social media give certain people and institutions outsized importance, both in terms of commercial trends and related religious ones? What are the implications of the fact that Haredi culture is largely dominant within Orthodoxy, with little competitive Modern Orthodox culture?

How does Orthodoxy relate to American culture and the place of Orthodox Jews as Americans? Do we see poverty that exists around us, or are we too embedded in our “ethnoburbs”)? Do we see ourselves as part of the broader society, where public school tuition is seen as a communal good, or is that seen as beyond our concern? And what are the political implications of this issue? Both the Saiman/Chizhik-Goldschmidt and R. Wieder papers observe a trend towards the Republican party as economic success has grown.

How does one shift these sorts of developing economic and social trends? Takkanot have been tried, some two decades ago, to limit spending on weddings, and largely failed. An alternative is to try to mold the culture in a softer way, although that depends on the willingness of the power-brokers. It could be that once there is a critical mass of well-off people in a given society, they will not be willing to turn back to a simpler community, but will rather (intentionally or not) push the community to have a more lavish baseline.

For a religious community, of course, culture has a major impact on the realm of Torah and mitzva observance. Clearly, as noted, having more resources allows for greater possibilities of building and supporting Torah and other religious institutions. At the same time, the pursuit of material goods can affect one’s soul negatively, a point made not just in Jewish circles but also tracing back to Aristotle, as R. Rosensweig noted. R. Wieder emphasizes the challenge that an over-focus on materialism can create a spiritual vacuum and lead to the wrong orientation towards others.

The Saiman/Chizhik-Goldschmidt paper pointed to a trend of “frumification” of the material and a concomitant commodification of the spiritual. This creates a set of newly formulated “mitzvot” that cost money (e.g., having a fancy Sheitel)—should we see that as a positive or a negative phenomenon?

Of course, a culture with expectations of high household income can significantly impact one’s educational trajectory and career path. There is pressure to move away from studying Torah, philosophy, and considering “big questions,” and instead to figure out how to meet the communally expected household income as soon as possible, as Dr. Brown noted. Furthermore, there can be (internal) pressure not to pursue Avodat ha-Kodesh as a career, on the assumption that this will not pay the real or perceived default expectation for a frum Jewish household income.

Some matters did not come up in the meeting to the extent we would have liked, and remain important topics of future study. These include a historical study of Jewish communities that faced different challenges of material struggle or success, quantitative studies of a variety of communities in the United States today, and a focus on Sephardic communities and Religious Zionist communities in Israel.

The Tradition Today Summit gathered 75 communal leaders, rabbis, scholars, educators, and philanthropic and business leaders—bringing together the most senior members of North American Orthodoxy and distinguished younger figures in our community. With the aim of helping to shape a larger communal conversation on these topics, content generated at and by the conference will be made available to the public from within the pages of TRADITION and on our other media platforms.  Organizing Committee: Jeffrey Saks and Shlomo Zuckier, chairs; members: Binyamin Blau, Erica Brown, Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, Mark Dratch, Chaim Saiman, Malka Simkovich, Chaim Strauchler, Yaakov Taubes.

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Zuckier, co-chair of the Tradition Today Summit, is a Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a Maggid Shiur at Stern College for Women.

1 Comment

  1. […] TRADITION Today Summit: 2023 saw the launch of TRADITION’s in-person gathering of our community’s thought leaders, co-chaired by Shlomo Zuckier and myself, and convened by the Rabbinical Council of America and its (then) president Binyamin Blau. The event proceedings on “The Challenge of Material Success” will be published in our upcoming Spring 2024 issue. […]

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