(RNS) — When I saw the advertisement for a new glossy magazine for Orthodox Jewish men, I dismissed it as an elaborate Purim joke. Assuming anything else would have strained credulity.
But unfortunately, it is all too real: The magazine, which I prefer not to name, is aimed, according to its marketing team, at Jewish “men age 25-65 from the right and the left” who “live in Flatbush, Lakewood, the Five Towns and Bergen County,” naming some of the New York area’s most highly concentrated Orthodox Jewish jurisdictions.
The new periodical is also for you if you “are enthralled by men’s luxury and higher end products.” The mag “has it all covered for you,” focusing on “all fine goods in the consumption industries for Jewish men,” from “an old fashion (sic) to bourbon or wine.”
And, of course, cigars, grilling, cars, cologne, “man caves” and fancy watches.
And there will be photos! Of “first class dining, men’s hobbies & lifestyle,” depictions that will “captivate our readers attention for their elegant experience.”
The magazine isn’t for Haredi men who have strayed. One Jewish newspaper about the new offering helpfully informs readers that, “Sure, you have your study partners, holy books and Torah classes,” but you need help to “make the best use of your precious free time, with premium content by experts in their fields about the rewards that come after a hard week of work and learning.”
Something is rotten in the state of Orthodox-ish.
Interestingly, in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis (and thankfully unaware of the magazine’s debut), the members of the Council of Torah Sages, Agudath Israel of America’s highest rabbinic body, recently issued a call to the Jewish community to recognize that the pandemic’s challenges and tragedies should be regarded as “an appeal from Heaven to correct our ways,” in particular with regard to “a fundamental and broad point.”
The point? That “the Jewish people (are to be) a ‘nation of princes and a holy people.’” And that Jews must, as a result, “distance themselves from the pursuit of excess.”
“There are among us,” the call to sensitivity continues, “those who, notwithstanding their care with observance, pursue fine foods and expensive vacations; they boast of their clothing and furniture.” These are people who are not exclusively focused, as Jews should be, on living “a modest life centered around Torah, service to God, and kindness to others; a life purposed on being close to God.” Who ignore the “spiritual danger” of “a life of materialism.”
There are, to be sure, occasions when somewhat “fancy fare” may be excusable, for the enhancement of special celebrations and such. There are even times when we might need to pamper ourselves in order to revive our emotional energies, when treating ourselves to a special treat helps us to better serve God in joy. But elevating luxury to an ideal, putting hedonism on a pedestal? Ugh.
The council members’ call will probably strike the new magazine’s machers as wildly preposterous, even insane. Just like the glassy-eyed fellow with the tinfoil hat walking down the street mumbling to himself about Martians thinks everybody else is deranged.
But it’s not just the machers who need to listen to the council statement. It should stimulate introspection in the rest of us, too, we who don’t salivate at the prospect of a good bourbon or fine cigar. We may not be “enthralled by … luxury and higher-end products,” but can we say we haven’t drifted a bit from modesty toward excess ourselves?
Things that once were extravagant luxuries have bizarrely morphed into “necessities.” Larger and more elaborate homes than we really need (and which only draw resentment from others) testify to this change. The sort of cars we drive, the type of vacations we take, the foods and drinks we consume, the size and elaborateness of the celebrations we host (things the current health crisis has in fact taught us are unrelated to true joy) — it all points to an imbalance in priorities.
In some places, rewards given to children by their teachers have become extravagant; stars on charts and small tchotchkes no longer cut the mustard. (Even our mustard doesn’t cut it anymore, having yielded to gourmet condiments.) Some “candy men” in synagogues, who offer children treats, have reportedly also felt the need to “upgrade” their offerings.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged in principle but increasingly ignored in practice: Even in times of plenty and even for the financially fortunate, there is dignity in modesty.
And the opposite in the opposite.
(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization. A version of this article originally appeared on his blog at rabbishafran.com. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)