No Holds Barred: On excess and vulgarity

The purpose of a marriage ceremony is not to show your friends and family how much money you have.

marriage cartoon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
marriage cartoon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How embarrassing. Last Sunday, The Los Angeles Times ran an article about extravagant Iranian Jewish weddings in California that exposes our community as a bunch of shallow, boastful materialists who think the purpose of a marriage ceremony is to tell your friends how much money you have.
Some of the details quoted 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, so 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 betray.
The article further cites the regularity of film crews at such weddings – 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 they are I can tell you that through the first season of Shalom in the Home’s multimillion dollar budget, we couldn’t afford one.
Strangely enough, the article then quotes a rabbi from Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, with thousands of 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? Do we in the Jewish community not – rightly, I might add – lecture our Muslim brothers and sisters that they must weed out violent extremists lest their religion be brought into utter disrepute?
And while murder in the name of God is much more serious than shopping in the name of excessiveness, 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 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. And what better opportunity then at the public celebrations of a bar or bat mitzva or wedding where, at no extra cost, you can utterly vulgarize the spirituality of the occasion by transforming it into a showcase of material consumption.
I remember growing up in Miami Beach and the over-the-top, utterly ridiculous bar mitzvas that were de rigueur. One in the late ’70s featured Darth Vader and R2D2 greeting guests as they arrived. To be sure, it was memorable seeing C3PO in tails and Chewbacca’s beard complemented with a hassidic hat, but one wondered, apart from its celestial setting, what connection Star Wars had with the spirituality of the moment. On another occasion I arrived to see a full ice sculpture of the bar mitzva boy, which perfectly suited the freezing cold religious aspect.
A wealthy Jewish businessman shared a story with me of how he instills values in his children. His 12-year-old son had come to him and said, “Dad, I want a famous sports star at my bar mitzva. Let’s get Eli Manning.”
So the father replied, “Son, you have to have manners. You don’t tell your father to get Eli Manning. 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 evidence 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 20-piece orchestra for your son’s bar mitzva, take him to 20 classes where he can learn about Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath 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 the rabbis giving sermons about the gross materialism which wraps itself – in the memorable phrase of Matt Taibbi – like a “vampire squid,” around the Jewish conscience? 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, head of one of the largest hassidic sects and seeking to stop this destructive game of material one-upmanship, enacted an edict that none of his followers could have a wedding with more than 200 guests (still large by some measures). One of his wealthiest followers approached him and said, “Rebbe, surely this does not apply to me; I’m a very rich man,” to which the great rabbi responded, “Very well, then. If you’re so rich, go buy yourself a new rabbi.”
Yes, many things in life can be put on a credit card. But rabbis who preach values and can’t be bought? Priceless.
The writer is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and is the author of Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.