On money, stuff and renunciation.

Caryn Aviv
February 28, 2012
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In these days of foreclosures, high unemployment, and increasing poverty, a focus on consumption might be considered a frivolous pastime for the upper middle classes.   But this month’s Sh’ma really provoked a reckoning with some uncomfortable truths.  And wherever we might stand on the socioeconomic class ladder, I think it’s a good opportunity to ask:

  • How does what we consume reflects who we think we are, and what we think we value?
  • How often do we conflate need with desire?
  • How do our consumption choices and practices make individual and collective impacts in the world?
  • Why do some forms of consumption provoke deep anxiety and/or moral outrage, while others produce enormous pleasure (and sometimes simultaneous moral outrage from others)?

So with that nod to anxiety and pleasure, I’d like to disclose some highly selective anecdotes from a personal history of consumption:

1.  For decades, I’ve exhibited an allergic aversion to certain kinds of shopping.  For example, I avoid shopping for new clothes – especially bathing suits.  Why do those lights always make one’s body look so awful??!  New padded shorts for summer road biking?  I can do that.  But only once a year, otherwise I start to feel claustrophobic in the changing room and break out into hives.  My sister, who loves clothes and fashion, does not understand this affliction.

2.  When I go to Target or the grocery store, I often feel overwhelmed by what I’ve come to describe as ‘sociology brain:’ an endless, intrusive stream of questions and ruminations about the origin and production stories of the goods on the shelves, for which I have few answers:

  • How much did workers get paid to create these products?
  • What was the income disparity between the lowliest worker on the assembly line and the chief executives?
  • What were the conditions in which these animals were raised and then slaughtered?
  • How much water and air pollution has fouled the earth to produce and transport all these rows and rows of plastic containers and toys?
  • To what extent have these foods been genetically modified?
  • Do I really need this product?  Will it somehow magically improve my life?

You get the picture.  It’s annoying.  Torturous.  Insufferable.  My father calls this my internal ‘commie pinko’ monologue, and if he’s shopping with me, all it takes is one look and we both mouth the slogan silently.

3.  This past fall, my partner and I bought our first house together.  In preparation for the big move, I became a ‘purge queen.’   I stalked the closets and cabinets of my apartment to make calculated and ruthless decisions.  I likened the process to the 3 stark choices Jews faced during the Spanish Inquisition: trash (die), recycle/donate (convert), or emigrate (in this case, to the new house).  This ritualistic purging, conducted in maniacal spurts over 4 weeks, challenged some longstanding, smug assumptions about my supposed ‘non-attachment to stuff.’

All that unnecessary and long forgotten crap singlehandedly demolished my virtuous narratives that I’m ‘not one of those people who collect things that collect dust.’   Oh really, Caryn?  What about all those musty, yellowed and forgotten sociology tomes from graduate school in the mid-1990s?  What about all those inexplicably huge, unopened cans of mixed nuts and maraschino cherries from my daughter’s simchat bat (welcoming ceremony) six years ago?  Do I really need to hang on to those enormous green felt blankets purchased at a dollar store in 2003 for that failed sukkah experiment?  Uhm, no, no, and definitely no.

As I stuffed bag after bag full of things to take to Goodwill, my internal commie pinko monologue resurfaced.  I thought about people all over the world who subsist on less than $5 a day, who are forced to make terrible ethical choices about which kids will eat dinner that night and which will go hungry.   When we moved, and I complained about how much stuff we needed (rugs, curtains, new sponges), I reminded myself ‘these are first world problems.’

So that got me thinking about renunciation.

Definition of RENUNCIATION: the act or practice of renouncing : repudiation; specifically : ascetic self-denial

Renunciation is sometimes born out of necessity, to make ends meet when you lose a job.   It’s a laser focus on what fluff and frivolity can be cut from a budget and what’s absolutely essential.   100 cable channels and daily New York Times delivery?  Gone.  Weekly purchase of organic vegetables?  Non-negotiable.

As a spiritual practice, renunciation is most frequently associated with the pietistic practices of monastic faith traditions.  Indeed, when I think of renunciation, the image of Pema Chodron, my favorite Buddhist nun, comes to mind, with her buzz cut, zero cosmetics, and simple monkish robes.   And let’s face it, renunciation is not usually associated with historical and contemporary expressions of Jewish life, as Jenna Weissman Joselit alludes to in her piece “The Mixed Message of Ritual Consumption.”  However, maybe those other faith traditions are onto something that Jews might learn from.

Some questions:  If we as Jews are so concerned with the impacts of production and consumption as Jews, then what would a consciously Jewish renunciation practice look like? Would renunciation somehow improve individual or communal virtue?   Would it reduce our stress or cravings?  Would it improve how we treat one another and the damage we do to our planet?

Let’s start simply with an easy example.   What if, instead of reflexively going to Starbucks for a mid-morning stretch and grande mocha latte pick-me-up, you did some yoga poses, deep breathing, and then put $5 in a tzedakah box, earmarked for a Jewish non-profit.   And let’s say that you practiced your renunciation every single day.  At the end of a 25 day work month, that tzedakah box might hold $125, your blood pressure might be lower, your hamstrings longer, and you might feel a bit more virtuous regarding your personal consumption/philanthropy index.  Plus, you would be contributing less garbage to the solid waste stream.  And what if you got 5 of your friends to do the same thing for a month, and then pooled your $625 together to write a check to an organization you value, or to a scholarship fund for low-income kids?

What would happen if we downsized the extent of our material possessions?  What if we all renounced a certain degree of material acquisition and instead tithed 10% of our yearly income, no matter what our tax bracket?  What if we took the bus, rode our bikes, or walked to the market instead of jumping in the car?   What if we simply chose not to buy anything, for just one day?  Yes, I know.  For some people, that’s called Shabbat.

Having money and stuff is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it’s an opportunity for reflection on abundance and gratitude.  And on the other hand, it’s also potentially an opportunity for taking a hard look at what we don’t need, considering a renunciation practice, and moving towards voluntary simplicity.

What would you renounce, consume less of, or simply give away?  How would you frame your practice Jewishly?

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Caryn Aviv is Associate Director/Jewish Educator with Judaism Your Way in Denver, CO. Caryn taught Jewish Studies at various universities for ten years, and has published widely in the areas of contemporary Jewish culture, gender and sexuality in Judaism, and Israel Studies. In her voluminous spare time, she's an aspirational vegan yogini and is studying for rabbinical ordination through ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

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