Last Sunday the Los Angeles Times ran an article about extravagant Jewish Iranian weddings in California that portrayed our community as a bunch of shallow, boastful materialists who think the purpose of a marriage ceremony is to tell our friends how much money we have.
Some of the particulars detailed in the article, confirmed to me by people who actually attended, included a bride placed in a glass coffin to be opened by her half-masked “Phantom of the Opera” bridegroom. The coffin did not open for an hour and the wedding was nearly ruined by a shaken and tearful bride gasping for breath. But the coffin, on that occasion, was a telling symbol of the utter death of Jewish values that such ridiculous extravagances represent.
The article further cited the regularity of film crews at these weddings consisting of five or more cameramen with “a 25-foot crane over the dance floor.” In television this is called a jib, and to give you an idea of how expensive it is, through the first season of my show “Shalom in the Home,” we couldn’t afford one – despite a multi-million dollar budget.
Strangely enough, the article quoted a rabbi of a temple in Los Angeles with many Iranian Jewish members who “makes a point of not judging – and even sees virtue in the enormous family gatherings.”
Give me a break. Is there really a point to rabbinic leadership if it does not come with value judgments? There can be no question that keeping up with the Schwartzes has become a cancer that threatens to kill off the flickering Jewish soul. How ironic that a people who have for centuries survived forced baptisms are now drowning in an ocean of profligacy.
American Jews often exhibit the worst tendencies of immigrant communities, endeavoring to show how they have not just landed but “arrived.” Security is defined not in terms of spiritual virtue and nobility of purpose but stocks and bonds and money in the bank. And what’s the point of having it if your friends are ignorant of your success?
The whole reason you made the money in the first place was to show off. So go ahead. Smoke ’em if you got ’em. And what better opportunity than at the public celebrations of a bar or bat mitzvah or wedding, where you can utterly vulgarize the spirituality of the occasion by transforming it into a showcase of material consumption and excess.
I remember growing up in Miami Beach and the over-the-top, utterly ridiculous bar mitzvahs that were de rigueur there. One in the late 1970s featured Darth Vader and R2D2 greetings guests as they arrived at the reception. To be sure, it was memorable seeing C3PO in a tails and Chewbacca’s beard complemented by a chassidic hat, but one wondered what, apart from its celestial setting, “Star Wars” had to do with the spirituality of the moment. On another occasion I arrived to see a full ice sculpture of the bar mitzvah boy, which perfectly suited the frigid religious atmosphere.
A wealthy Jewish businessman shared a story with me of how he instills values in his children. His twelve-year-old son had come to him and said, “Dad, I want a famous sports star at my bar mitzvah.” So the father replied, “Son, you have to have manners. You don’t tell your father to get a famous sports star. You ask him politely.” Apparently it never dawned on the dad that his son had aped his own shallow materialism and had, already at 12, become an insecure braggart.
A remedy is needed. Rabbis should be thundering from the pulpit that extravagant weddings are not only an indicator of a sense of personal inadequacy but an abrogation of Jewish values. You’re so rich? Then impress your friends by giving the money to charity. Rather than focus on the twenty-piece orchestra for your son’s bar mitzvah, take him to twenty classes where he can learn about Abraham and Moses and David and the glory of Solomon’s Temple. Give him an inner identity, based on values and character, rather than a shallow external identity based on money and objects.
So why aren’t rabbis giving sermons about gross materialism? Because they are about as likely to criticize their own congregants as Romeo is to renounce Juliet. But what’s the point of being the head of a congregation if you’re not also the leader of a community?
The story goes that in Israel a few decades ago, the Gerer Rebbe, seeking to stop a destructive game of material one-upmanship, issued an edict that none of his followers could make a wedding with more than 200 guests (still large by some measures). One of his wealthiest followers and supporters approached him and said, “Rebbe, surely this does not apply to me. I’m a very rich man.” To which the rebbe responded, “Very well, then. If you’re so rich, go buy yourself a new rebbe.”
Yes, some things in life can be put on a credit card. But rabbis who preach values and can’t be bought? Priceless.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts “The Shmuley Show” on 77 WABC in New York. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and is the author, most recently, of “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.”