Thursday, January 16, 2014

Communal Responsibility and the Right Enjoy Our Wealth

There is a very thought provoking article in the Jewish Press by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen about the current excesses at Jewish weddings. He also segues into many of the subjects I frequently discuss here. Like the unsustainability of a religious community that increasingly finds people choosing less secular education, choosing not to work and instead to learn full time - and be supported in doing that by a decreasing population of wealthy philanthropists.

Those who do choose a career path do not make enough to support the tuitions of their own children – let alone a community of learners. These are all things about which I agree with Rabbi Rosen. But I want to focus on his primary issue of weddings.

I have mixed feelings about what he said. His point is that far too many weddings today are extravagant beyond all proportion. And that the money spent on these excesses could be put to far better use than in a one day splurge – like education for example. This is true.

But I have a problem with telling wealthy people how to enjoy their money. Especially if they are big Baalei Tzedaka (philanthropists). Which are usually the kinds of people that can afford these weddings.

This is why I opposed those Wedding Takanos of several years ago that were written by Rabbonim – some of whom were on the Agudah Moetzes. I undertsotod their motives. They wanted to prevent a common practice of people spending more money that they can afford. But in making these rules they were grouping all people into a common plane… telling them that they had no right to spend their money as they saw fit even if they could afford it.

That said, I am the first to say that our educational system is in big financial trouble. We cannot afford to pay for the kind of education our children deserve. Parents are over-taxed by ridiculously high tuitions (even after scholarships are given) and yet teachers are woefully underpaid. But does this mean we have a right to tell the wealthy they must limit their lifestyles? Do we have a right to tell a wealthy man to do that and give money he would have otherwise spent to our schools? Because that is in fact what Rabbi Rosen is asking us to do.

If we are going to limit the wealthy in what kind of weddings they should have because the money could be better spent communally… why stop with weddings? Let us examine other areas of excess the wealthy have. Should a wealthy family man be forced to buy only a Toyota? Should we limit the size of his house and the way it is decorated? Should we mandate that all the furniture in one’s home must be bought at discount houses? Should he be told that he can only shop at Walmart, or Target, or Marshalls, or TJ Max? Should we abolish expensive restaurants like Prime Grill in New York or Shallots in Chicago – that cater mostly to the wealthy? Should we forbid expensive vacation cruises or expensive Pesach vacations at exotic locations in lavish hotels?

Just think about how much money could be saved if the wealthy lived like the average householder. The savings that would accrue from all that could be given to Jewish education and that may actually solve the tuition crisis. The problem with all of this is that we are talking about a form of communism. We are talking about sharing the wealth of the rich with the poor so that we all have the same financial outcome. This is not how a free market economy works. And it is not how Judaism works.

To illustrate that, there is a concept in Jewish law with respect to giving charity that tells us that if a rich man has a reversal of fortune and becomes in need of charity, that we have an obligation to give him enough charity to restore him to his former wealthy lifestyle. On the surface that would seem odd… and unfair. Why should we give a poor man more money than he needs for the basics? Wouldn’t that money be better used for more important things? Like education?

But the Torah tells us that charity is more than about the basics. It is about restoring a person’s mental well being. And if a rich man becomes poor, we have an obligation to give him enough charity to restore his wealthy lifestyle and thereby his mental well being.  The Torah recognizes that some people are wealthy and some poor. And it not only sees nothing wrong with wealth, it requires us to restore it as an act of charity to those who were once wealthy and now in need.

This doesn’t mean that Judaism equals excess. Far from it. Tzne Haleches, the torah tells us.We are obligated to be modest in the way we lead our lives. So how do we reconcile the two? In my view there does exist a happy medium between excess and modesty in lifestyle. The problem is where to draw the line …a line that is different for each and every individual whose wealth varies in a spectrum between very poor to very rich. I don’t think it is really possible to do draw that line accurately. What is a modest lifestyle for a poor man is a lot different than what is a modest lifestyle for a rich man.  This is one of the reasons I have mixed feelings about the views of Rabbi Rosen.

I recall a meeting I had on one of the school boards I was on where a sum of about $40,000 was needed for a very important school project. None of us knew where we were going to get the money - including the wealthier members of that board. I remember thinking that if a few of those wealthy board members would have bought a Camry instead of a Lexus, an Infinity or a Mercedes, the money would be right there! And yet none of those very wealthy and otherwise very generous board members were about to give up their expensive cars. 

But then again what about those of us who had new Sonatas, Camrys and Altimas? We could have saved a ton by buying used cars. That saved money too could have funded that project.

In my view, no one should be denied their right to spend their hard earned money any way they wish. No one has a right to tell me to buy a used car. And no one has a right to tell a wealthy Jew not to buy a Lexus. And no one has the right to tell anyone else what kind of wedding to make for their children.

What we ought to emphasize instead is living within one’s means. That is where the real problem lies. Because keeping up with the ‘Katzes and Cohens’ often means spending more money than one makes. I have known families that have had weddings for their children far beyond what they could afford. 

They would second mortgage their homes or sell their life insurance policies or borrow money from free loan funds just so their friends will see how successful they are. In far too many cases people have gone into major debt just for one night of pretending they were wealthy. In some cases where not enough money could be obtained, vendors like caterers, the band, florists, and photographers were left unpaid.

That is one of the things that truly needs fixing in our world today. Too many people are willing to go into debt or worse just to impress other people. That is what has to change. Because if anything contributes to the lack of enough funding for our schools it is parents who willfully put themselves into hock for the most shallow of reasons and then ask for scholarships for their children’s education.