Chapter 12: Case Study: Consumerism
Jewish commentators on social topics often remind readers that if you want eight opinions on a matter, ask two rabbis…and Eliezer Diamond echos the same as a preface to discussing consumption in Jewish thought. He says there are two main sentiments about consumption: ambivalence and confusion. “We have been taught all our lives – in part, as we shall see, by Judaism – that abundance is good. We take pride in the standard of living that our economic and political system makes available, at least in theory, to all Americans. At the same time, we feel significant dissatisfaction, either because we are not as affluent as we had hoped to be or, ironically, having achieved the hoped-for affluence, we still feel a sense of emptiness” (34).
Diamond focuses first on a definition of the “good life” according to Judaism in connection with limiting consumption. A Jewish vision of the good life includes partaking in the world’s pleasures as an essential good, as in Deuteronomy 11:14-15: ‘I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill.’ Diamond adds that “Rabbinic literature, though it exhibits more ascetic tendencies than does the Bible, is replete with positive assessments of physical pleasure,” so it is not about deprivation per se, but for moral reasons we are to abstain from some consumptions. But “this positive view, however, must be placed in the context of biblical and rabbinic theology.
Both the Bible and the rabbis assert that the earth is God’s; in partaking of it, therefore, we are receiving a divine gift that must be utilized in accord with God’s will” (36). And “part of God’s intention regarding human use of the world’s resources is that there should be periods of activity alternating with times of rest and retreat” (36). Thus the Sabbath laws, which prescribe six days of work and one day of rest each week. The six-and-one cycle also applies to years – every seventh year is to be a year of rest for the land, free from cultivation, and “whatever grows of its own accord is to be distributed among the needy” (37).
“Limitations are also placed on other realms of human experience. At least 10% of our income must be given as zedakah” (charity in a spirit of justice)… “and we are urged to share our blessings with the poor in times of celebration” (37). Diamond adds that Halakhah (Jewish law) also “restrains one from becoming a gastronomic or sexual gourmand. In both these areas there are extensive restrictions which are intended to lead one to see the acts of eating and sex as instruments for creating psychic and physical well-being rather than opportunities for narcissistic self-indulgence” (37).
Diamond says that there “seem to be larger purposes to which these regulations contribute jointly. The first is gratitude. We are all too prone to take the world as we find it and then complain about what we find lacking in it. Halakhah’s limitations remind us that we receive the world as God’s gift, and in accordance with God’s will. Rather than carping about what we lack, we are called upon to thank God profoundly for what God has given us, beginning with the gift of life itself. ‘Who is wealthy?’, ask the rabbis rhetorically. ‘One who is happy with one’s lot.’ This perspective is an important corrective to a society in which success and meaning are often defined almost exclusively in monetary terms” (37).
Furthermore, “our gratitude for God’s gifts is to be accompanied by mindfulness. Halakhah calls upon us to lead a life of constant self-examination….We are called upon to follow in God’s footsteps…we should act in such a manner that we are known by the same ‘names’ – merciful, gracious, righteous, pious and so on – by which God is known….The restrictions mentioned above are also intended to contribute to our sense of serenity and spiritual well-being. By limiting our indulgence in material and sensual pleasures, we are able to have a better sense of balance in our lives” (38). This provides contrast and protection against the barrage of images and ideas that marketers surround us with, because “our addictive attempts to satisfy our impulses, a phenomenon very common in our world of saturation advertising and ubiquitous malls, begin not with action but with thought”; so, circumscribing our patterns of action and thought can provide a serenity that guards our spirits from the consumerist tide.
Diamond quotes Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th-century Spanish biblical exegete, in his commentary on Exodus 20:14: “Therefore one who is wise will neither desire nor covet…He will be happy with his lot and not set his heart on desiring and coveting that which is not his, for he knows that if God does not wish to give it to him, he cannot take it with all his strength, schemes and cleverness. Therefore he will trust in his Creator to provide for him and do what is good in God’s own view.” (39) The Torah calls upon us to limit our consumption, and it views unrestrained consumption as a path to self-destruction.
Diamond provides some additional Jewish perspectives: Jewish communities have often established legislation to limit the extravagance of Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. This is partly to “prevent those less well off in the community from feeling pressured to arrange celebrations beyond their means.” It is also “an attempt to restore the celebration, and its personal and religious significance, rather than the material spectacle, to the center of attention” (39) (Christians witnessing the overwhelming materialism of Christmas might take note!). And finally, Diamond asks: “what does the Torah have to say about the use of earth’s resources?” One of the most commonly recognized principles from Torah about the use of Earth’s resources is “the prohibition of bal tashhit (‘you shall not destroy’ [or waste]), as the rabbis call it, which appears in Dt 20:19-20 and prohibits cutting down fruit-bearing trees in a time of war…. Fruit bearing trees may not be cut down even for the purpose of using their wood, because this would destroy forever their regenerative capabilities. Rabbinic interpretation of these verses both extends and qualifies the biblical law. Extensions include the application of this prohibition, bal tashhit, to the entire material world….Thus the Talmud says that one who does not adjust the airflow of one’s lamp properly, thereby causing unnecessary consumption of fuel, has violated the bal tashhit prohibition.”
Diamond adds that these principles have “clear implications for how we conduct ourselves individually and collectively in the consumption of resources. Not every whim justifies using the resources available to us. Perhaps although we would prefer driving our own car to work, we need to give more serious thought to carpooling or public transportation. Even when we are justified in using those resources, moreover, we must do so efficiently. This means supporting technologies that lead to more efficient uses of fuel and other raw materials and active participation in recycling.” (40)
Diamond says we can also “turn to halakhah as a prophetic voice that can address many of the consumption issues we face as a society. The Torah’s intention is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather to encourage creation to exist as fully as possible. All of the earth is God’s; does it not deserve, in its entirety, the care and concern of our tradition? We have sacrificed the natural for the commercial and found that tradeoff wanting; is it not time to strike a more fruitful balance within God’s world?” (41-42).
- All page numbers in this chapter refer to the NRPE Consumption Project essays. ↵