The Mixed Message of Ritual Consumption

February 1, 2012
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Jenna Weissman Joselit

Much like oil and water, religiosity and materialism simply don’t mix, or so we’re inclined to believe. It’s almost as if they inhabit two entirely different universes, one given over to the cultivation of our better, more spiritual, selves and the other given over to the satisfaction of more earthy and baser needs. Incongruous on its face, the relationship between religiosity and materialism would seem to be an adversarial one, especially when it comes to Judaism.

But look again. Virtually everywhere you turn in modern-day America, materialism — or, more precisely still, the spirit of consumerism — has managed to insinuate itself into the nooks and crannies of Jewish life, transcending denomination. Our synagogues, to take one example, are handsomely appointed, even grand, structures. Kosher homes routinely feature multiple sinks, dishwashers, and granite-clad “islands” to accommodate the separate lives of meat and milk products, prompting many keen-eyed observers to wonder whether this phenomenon has to do with heightened religious observance or the very latest in kitchen appliances. Orthodox women, meanwhile, fulfill the religious obligation of covering their heads by wearing natural-looking wigs whose hefty price tag takes one’s breath away. And that’s just the half of it. At Passover, resort hotels in Florida and Mexico draw capacity crowds, while just about everywhere, the lavish bar/bat mitzvah has become the norm rather the exception.

Today’s rabbis might thunder from the pulpit about the perils of excess and the pitfalls of a consumerist mentality, while their congregants might cluck their tongues (or hold them) in seeming agreement, but the ties that bind the religious enterprise to the material world and vice versa actually go back quite a way. In late 19th-century America, women who attended synagogue were frequently chided for paying more attention to their hats than to their prayers; their children, in turn, were just as often taken to task for transforming the sacred rite of confirmation into an exercise in “loot-gathering.”

How to explain? A number of possibilities come to mind. For one thing, in its sustained attentiveness to daily life and its embrace of this-worldly concerns such as appearance, comportment, and cuisine, Judaism lends itself to these kinds of accommodations. Austerity and renunciation, though by no means alien to Judaism, do not constitute its dominant registers. On the contrary, Judaism makes a point of sanctifying the here-and-now. When that sensibility is coupled with America’s equally deep-seated valuation of possessions, the results, inevitably, bear an all too close resemblance to conspicuous consumption.

The entangled relationship between Judaism and consumerism is also a consequence of affluence, the fruit of the upward mobility and economic success that a large proportion of American Jews has attained over the past century. When seen from this perspective, the celebration of things might also be understood as an affirmation of America’s promise.

Without knowing it, many American Jews take their cue from Max Weber’s classic account of the relationship between capitalism and Protestantism. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the German sociologist likened material wellbeing to a state of grace. Within Protestant circles, he argued, prosperity was a sign of approval from on high. The same might be said of American Jews. Maybe, consumerism is one of the ways we count our blessings.

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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at George Washington University, also directs the university’s master’s program in Jewish cultural arts, which will be launched in fall 2012. She blogs at

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