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The Queer Trade (in Chesterton’s Sense) of a Gadol’s Pants
What is it?
During the last week of February, an online auction site in Lakewood posted a torn pair of pants belonging to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky zt”l (with an opening bid of $3,200). After an inquiry from general media, the item was quickly removed from the site and the auction never took place (at least not publicly).
What was the hava amina? Why would someone purchase trousers belonging to a revered sage? The adoration of gedolim is nothing new. Yet, a marketplace built upon essentialist beliefs relating to their mundane possessions is unprecedented. Has the culture of “game-worn sports jerseys” been adopted by modern Jewish culture? Has the veneration of relics of the saints, something distinctly Christian, been appropriated by a Lakewood auction house and the community of its prospective bidders?
What does it mean?
The combination of wealth and religious reverence are oddly combined within this curious incident. R. Kanievsky was a righteous man with simple tastes who lived in a sparse apartment in Bnei Brak. That his trousers could be sold for such a price would have certainly shocked him (as it should any of us). Yet, these pants are but a window into a larger phenomenon: the commodification of religious meaning in the storing of economic value within sacred objects. The booming rare seforim market similarly reflects the American haredi community’s disposable income and the opportunity to protect and grow that wealth within a market delimited by the values of that same community.
Haredi demographic dominance and growing wealth have done more than create markets for this peculiar fan merch. It has changed an ethos of material modesty to one very much in line with the consumerism of general culture, albeit with a particularistic twang. This materialism brings many among the haredim up to and often beyond the Modern Orthodox community in terms of luxury spending and conspicuous consumption. Who needs a fancy academic degree when real estate wealth can provide an even better lifestyle? Haredi low-class frumpishness is largely a thing of the past. What does straddling the line between general and religious culture achieve, when building walls can create a richer and more wholesome subculture? While recent population surveys show that Modern Orthodox numbers have remained stable, the growth of haredi communities has meant that Modern Orthodoxy’s relative size within Orthodoxy has declined. This has contributed to a feeling of malaise within the Modern Orthodox world. With the decline of liberal arts within general society, can the Torah U’madda equation compete with the glimmering gourmet kosher supermarkets of Monsey and Lakewood?
[This topic, and my think about it, have been informed by the recent TRADITION Today Summit on material success and its challenges – read more here.]
What questions remain?
Would the buyer of R. Kanievsky’s pants have encased them in glass and hung them in a luxurious study beside rare sefarim or would the fabric have been cut into small swatches and carried in wallets as talismans?
Does the growing reality of social Orthodoxy within the haredi world provide an opportunity for Modern Orthodox leaders to offshore their responsibility for the social Orthodox? Could this create an ideal Modern Orthodoxy absent many of the compromises of the past that might better compete with haredi alternatives for the title of most authentic Judaism?
Marshall Sklare’s 60-year-old prediction of the demise of Orthodoxy has shown that demographics are neither destiny nor prophesy. What lessons from that era might energize our communities to defy contemporary predictions of its eclipse?
Chaim Strauchler, an associate editor of TRADITION, is rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.