The following essay on the pervasive Jewish tendency to inject money and commerce into religion is excerpted from When Victims Rule, chapter 5, “Yicchus (Status),” formerly on the Jewish Tribal Review website. I have removed the in-text citations for easier reading and added the title.
So great is the Jewish “commercial spirit,” so omnipresent, and so much part of Jewish religious teachings themselves, that, beginning in the nineteenth century, many Jews socializing into “civil” Christian society found themselves embarrassed by the crass behavior that resounded from the Orthodox synagogues. “There were many modern, acculturated Jews,” observes Howard Sachar, “who were increasingly repelled by the synagogue’s cacophony: the nasal singing, the selling of prayers, the gossiping of women in the gallery, the absence of decorum.”
“In Judaism,” says Martin Sklare, “there is no sharp division between the sacred and secular, and consequently little development of separate norms in each area. This system conflicts with the Christian — and American — one which distinguishes between the sacred and profane, defines which situations belong to each category, and provides for special behavior.” In other words, in Orthodox Judaism everything anywhere may be “profaned;” there is no physical sanctuary — including a synagogue — from the ubiquitous prowl of economic exploits (the Sabbath — the day of rest — is, for the religious, the exception). Jay Gonen notes an old joke about Jewish obsession with money even in religious contexts, circulated not by Gentile anti-Semites, but by Jews in Israel:
Two Jews, by a miracle, find time to pause and reflect in front of a holy site, the Wailing Wall, or the western wall of the Second Temple. One of them notices that the other is weeping profusely over the destruction of the Second Temple. “Why are you crying so much?” he says, “True, the Temple has been destroyed, but the lot is still worth something.”
Jewish comedian Joan Rivers explains materialist and ostentatious Jewish identity this way: “I’m Jewish. If God wanted me to exercise he would’ve put diamonds on the floor.” One of Jewish comedian Milton Berle’s jokes went: “A Jewish youngster asked the boy next door to play with him. The boy answered, ‘My father says I can’t play with you because you’re Jewish.’ The Jewish lad answered, ‘Oh, that’s all right. We won’t play for money.’” Or, “The Israelis have just developed a brand-new car. It not only stops on a dime, it picks it up.” And: “Why did the Israelis win the Six-Day War?” “Because the equipment was rented.” Another joke of the same genre circulated in the American Jewish community runs like this:
And then there was the Jewish Santa Claus. He came down the chimney and said: “Hi, kids. Want to buy some presents?”
Another joke even addresses manipulation of anti-materialist notions of respect in the Gentile world towards Jewish economic advancement:
A wealthy Boston Brahmin was on his deathbed. The end was near, and he asked his three business partners, a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew, to come to the hospital to discuss some matters pertaining to his estate.
“You boys know I have no family,” he began, “so I’m dividing my wealth among the three of you, in three equal shares. As a sign of your good friendship, however, I would like each of you to make a token gesture after I’m gone, by putting a thousand dollars into my coffin before it is lowered into the ground.”
Several days later, the funeral was conducted according to the wishes of the deceased. At the appropriate time, the Catholic friend walked up to the coffin and placed in it an envelope containing one thousand dollars. The Protestant friend came forward and did likewise. Finally, the Jew walked up to the coffin, took out the two envelopes, and replaced them with a check for three thousand dollars.
As always in Jewish folklore, Gentiles are — to the wily, down-to-earth Jew — stupid. William Novak and Moshe Waldoks call the following joke “a favorite, found in most collections of Jewish humor”:
A minister, a rabbi, and a priest were discussing how they made use of the funds in the collection plate. The minister said, “I draw a line on the floor, and I throw the money into the air. Everything that lands to the right of the line is for God; everything on the left is for me.”
“That’s pretty much what I do,” said the priest. ‘But instead of a line, I draw a circle. Everything in the circle is for God; everything outside the circle I keep for myself.”
“I, too, have a system,” said the rabbi, “I take the money and throw it up in the air, and whatever God catches He can keep.”
Such observations about Jewish values are acceptable, and common, within the Jewish community itself but, as Jewish scholar Nancy Jo Silberman-Federman notes, such a joke told from a Gentile would flag him or her as an anti-Semite. She notes the self-deprecating (and/or exploitative) tone of many Hanukkah cards sent by Jews to each other:
[In one case] the front of the card pictures a Jewish woman hugging Santa. The copy reads, “Merry Christmas! Thank goodness for Gentiles.” The inside reads, “Somebody has to buy retail!” If certain jokes are told by non-Jews, both the teller and the joke would be considered anti-Semitic. . . . This [celebrating of such jokes in Jewish circles] may be seen socially as a mechanism for in-group solidarity.
Whereas in most — if not all — other religious faiths, adherents seek physical refuge from the anchors of materialist concern while they pray, in Orthodox Judaism, overt pecuniary transactions — involving personal egos and status assertion — are an integral part of the traditional Jewish religious service itself. Jewish sociologist Martin Sklare calls it “commercialism in the synagogue.” This includes
. . . shenodering, the pledging of money for the opportunity of participating in the Torah service . . . the holding of auctions during holidays and festival services for the purpose of “selling” certain particularly honorific privileges; by stimulating competitive instincts, large amounts may be pledged; and the Yom Kippur appeal: fund raising which takes place during Kol Nidre, a particularly holy service.
To traditional Christian — and other religious temperaments — such vulgarization in a “House of God” inevitably calls to mind the old Christian story of Jesus becoming outraged at the Israelite money changers on Temple grounds. [Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11: 15-17; Luke 19: 45-46] What kind of religion, non-Jews have found themselves asking through history, is this? In modern times, of course, to ask such a question is to attract assault as an “anti-Semite.” And, however bizarre, Jewish scholar Sara Horowitz’s comments, post Holocaust, in linking Jesus’ outrage at Jewish money-dealing in the sacred Temple to the Nazi persecution of Jewry is typical:
The New Testament [has] multiple descriptions of Jews defiling the Temple and Jesus’ consequent need to purify the holy space by throwing out the Jewish money changers. . . . Historically, the image of the Jewish money changer whose presence defiles sacred space conflates with Jews as money lender, with the typing of the Jew as materialist and avaricious. Jewish attachment to money over attachment to God, to nation, or to other people is repeatedly portrayed in Nazi propaganda newsreels and feature films.
But even when the Zionist “father” of modern Israel, Theodore Herzl, visited (in the late 19th century) the famed Jerusalem Wailing Wall, the supposed last remaining edifice of the ancient Temple itself, so revered in Jewish religious tradition and a magnet to Jewish pilgrims, he could only write with disdain that “we have been to the Wailing Wall. A deeper emotion refused to come, because that place is pervaded by a hideous, wretched, speculative beggary.” Isaac Baer Levinsohn describes the Eastern European synagogue of the nineteenth century:
Each . . . synagogue abides by . . . only general disorder. . . . This [person] jumps while another shouts; this one moans his loss while another one complacently smokes . . . One has just begun his prayer as another has finished it . . . this one jokes and pulls another by the ear. Quarrels and fisticuffs often ensue about private as well as public matters. . . . One aspires to be the sixth to come up to the Torah, another seeks the honor of taking the Torah out of the Ark and often they quarrel on that account.
As many Jews, leaving their ghettos and Orthodox Judaism in the nineteenth century attuned themselves to surrounding Christian “civil” society, many became concerned about “embarrassing solicitations” in the synagogue. One American Conservative Judaism publication even chastised its community, saying:
There is no charitable expression in the English language that can connote the desecration of a Torah honor and the degradation of a House of Worship into a market place of vulgar vanities and rude commercialism.
Sklare describes Orthodox religious gatherings:
The Orthodox shul with the accompanying multidinous prayers, jams of people and children, all joined together in a cacophonous symphony of loud and sometimes raucous appeals to the Almighty.
“The Orthodox synagogue,” says James Yaffe, “seemed [to Reform-minded Jews] dirty, shabby, unruly, un-American.” Conversely, even today in America, notes Solomon Poll,
the Hasidim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] noticed the great tendency to imitate the non-Jews. Jewish weddings had bridal processions. The groom was led in by his own parents; the rabbi also participated in the bridal procession; ushers attended the ceremony; the rabbi made a speech during the ceremony; pictures were taken — many times, movies. All these appeared to the Hasidim as mockeries and imitation of the goyim to which they vehemently objected.
Martin Sklare notes that one of the major affectations in the creation of the modern Conservative Judaism movement was a change toward “decorum.” In Orthodox Judaism, he notes, “should a worshiper consistently adopt what would generally be considered a reverent demeanor . . . his deportment might well be the subject of intense criticism. . . . The form of Orthodox worship does seem to be almost unique in its lack of solemnity.” Although, “when I was a boy,” says Earl Shorris, “I was told that the reason why there was no musical instruments in the synagogue was that we were mourning the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.” The novelist Herman Wouk wrote with fondness about his memories of Orthodox synagogue culture brought to America with Jews from Eastern Europe:
Calls to the Torah, opening of the Ark, and so forth, all went for a price. The auctions were colorful and exciting enough, but the mood of prayer naturally vanished while they went on. They were often pretty long. During the reading of the Torah, moreover, it became the practice of each man, as he was called to his aliya, or reading turn, to announced his contribution to the synagogue’s many charities. For each announcement he or his family received a public blessing by the shamas. Again this was a process of high economic value, but not attuned to the thoughts of the higher world . . . They enabled many tiny congregations to survive and grow into majestic congregations and fashionable temples. With the prospering of the Jewish community, these devices of desperation have gradually given way to conventional fund-raising.
“Five dollars for the third reading!” Nor do I want to forget the historic auction one Yom Kippur afternoon nearly forty years ago, in a synagogue in a Bronx cellar, when my father outbid men with far more money (though they were all poor struggling immigrants) for the reading of the Book of Jonah . . . these auctions are a thing of the past and it is better so, but they served a purpose. Children in such synagogues learned unmistakably what a precious thing a call to the Torah was.
The value of the Torah would seem to suggest a price tag. Auctioning off the rights to recite prayers and announcing in public, each in turn, individuals’ charitable contributions reveals a lot more about Jewish merchant culture — and its pressures, struggles for community status, and symbiotic religious dogma — than it does anything remotely spiritual. Wouk’s fond memories for all the big bills flying around the Torah in his synagogue (albeit for religious intention) reflect a nakedly material concern. Such activity reaffirms what the Torah was largely intended as: recipes, rules, and regulations for Jewish self-advancement in a hostile political world, or — as apologists like to frame it — communal survival through the centuries. Wouk’s childhood memories of high auction recitation prices confirming the Torah’s value are obviously rooted in pride for his father and his status as an economic victor, as well as a general fascination with the wheeling and dealing of a street bazaar. Even the synagogue could function as a forum to celebrate human vanity in one’s ability to pay for something, in this case the right to recite sacred texts. (Synagogue members have even been sued in recent years for not paying membership dues. In Rockaway, New York, for example, in 2001 David Slossberg and three others were sued for back payment by the White Meadow Temple.) “Conspicuous charity,” wrote Judith Kramer and Seymour Levantman about the Jewish American community in 1961, “is less a matter of religious or ideological commitment than a conventional social obligation serving as a source of status.” Anthony Polonsky notes the Jewish tradition of “ostentatious generosity” in seventeenth century Poland:
Was this piety on the part of a few rich individuals shared by all Jews? To answer this question clearly, one must study the religious attitudes of the time. It seems that participation in services was motivated more by a desire to shine in public than by profound faith. If previously a synagogue seat was a sign of respectability in the community, now unfortunately they were being sold. Indeed, the practice of buying seats, backed by a deed of sale became common.
For an Eastern European Jewish community ever fixated upon worldly accomplishment and the hierarchical status of respective members, even in their most holy religious center “the prosteh yidh [common Jews] sat at the back of the synagogue.” In the late 1950s the American Jewish poet, d. a. levy, wrote:
My father and i
went to a temple to hear
sat down in time
to hear the haunting
language for just a moment
when someone told us we had to stand in the
back — we had chosen “reserved seats”
seats that had been paid for
we left and it was there i completed
my external jewish education
As James Yaffe observed in 1968:
The synagogue charges no admissions fee to services, except on High Holy Day, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshanah, when everybody comes to worship. Then most synagogues require worshipers to buy tickets, and many sell reserved seats; the closer to the altar, the higher the price … “Passing the plate” is not a custom in the synagogue. Sometimes a plain white envelope is left on the worshiper’s seat. Inside he finds a slip of paper with his name on it, and a list of suggested contributions, from twenty dollars up; he will put a check next to the amount her prefers, and slip the piece of paper back into the envelope. In old-fashioned Orthodox synagogues the method is often less decorous; the rabbi reads out the member’s names, and each man is expected to call out how much he intends to give.
Jewish student Silja Talvi complains about this Jewish tradition of charging steep admission to the most sacred of Jewish holy days (she blames “capitalism” for this custom, however, and rationalizes that the high prices are somehow useful in keeping “psychopathic anti-Semites” out of synagogues):
It is not a stretch to surmise that many more established synagogues have taken their cues from the capitalist economy that surrounds them, having arrived at the point of valuing finances about kehilla [community]. For all this kvetching about all the lost, unaffiliated Jews, how many among the country’s mainstream Jewish religious leadership have stopped to think about dropping cost-prohibitive barriers to getting in through the front door? . . . In this regard, Jewish religious institutions would do well to take inspiration from the Lubavitchers and Christian churches alike: Free admission, fund-raising drives and donation baskets have a certain logical and friendly appeal, especially for those unaffiliated, lower-income Jews who have reason to feel uneasy about spending close to $100 to be allowed a seat at a temple to spend the day or evening in prayer. Non-Jews who have overheard me in conversation about the fees involved in obtaining tickets for Jewish holiday services have expressed confusion at the very existence of fee schedules and entrance tickets. The tickets, I explain, are a necessary and common-sense precaution for Jewish institutions that hope to make it more difficult for psychopathic anti-Semites to walk through their doors. But why the high cost, they ask? For once, I don’t have a good answer.
Convert to Judaism Lydia Kukoffmn explains the Jewish idea of “paying to pray” like this:
I remember how put off I was at the thought of tickets for religious services. It was so foreign to my way of thinking. Over the years, however, I have come to realize that, although I may still resist the idea of paying to pray, it is the one time of the year when the temple is able to assure its continuity, and thereby its potential for service to its members.
There are even Jewish jokes about such materialism in the synagogue:
It is Yom Kippur. A man comes to the synagogue in a state of obvious excitement. The usher is at the door looking at admission tickets. As the man tries to walk in, the usher stops him: “Let’s see your ticket.”
“I don’t have a ticket. I just want to see my brother, Abe Teitelbaum. I have an important message for him.”
“A likely story. There’s always someone like you, trying to sneak in in for the High Holy Day services. Forget it, friend. Try somewhere else.”
“Honest. I swear to you. I have to tell my brother something. You’ll see. I’ll only be a minute.”
The usher gave him a long look. “All right,” he says, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. You can go in. But don’t let me catch you praying!”
Paul Cowan recalls the synagogue memories of his father (former CBS-TV president Lew Cowan):
Once, when I was a boy, my father told me that he recalled the Yom Kippurs he went to synagogue and watched Jake Cohen [Lew’s father] weep and beat his breast to atone for his sins. Then, after services, Lou would walk home with his parents and the rest of the huge Cohen clan and listen, appalled, as they fought over status and money; as they gossiped cruelly about siblings who weren’t here. That wasn’t religion, my father would tell me angrily. That was hypocrisy.
In 1982, Earl Shorris recalled his childhood memories of the kinds of men who headed his synagogue:
We arrived at the synagogue as a family, three generations led by my grandfather. . . . My grandfather spoke to his friend Eddie — Big Eddie, he called him. They spoke as members of the board of directors of the synagogue, important men, big donors. My grandfather earned his money from the labor of Italian and Polish women who sewed clothing in his factories. Big Eddie sold cheap wine and whiskey to the poor of the town. We did not approve of Big Eddie. His diamond ring and his fat cigar offended us . . . [H]is business offended us. There were fights in front of his store, stabbings, more than one killing. There were rumors about him. Some people said he dealt with criminals. It as said that he gave so much to the synagogue to atone for the way he made his money. . . He traded donations for a position as a director of the synagogue. My grandfather said Eddie wanted to be president, that he was willing to donate a community center if the directors would elect him president. . . . [When Big Eddie finally strode up at the synagogue to be so honored, “the man our community commended to God” (p.7)] the color of his flesh was as rich and vulgar as his suit. [Grandfather,] you were so small, so pale beside him. Jerusalem was conquered, the Temple was destroyed, and there was no prophet in all of Israel. After the service I asked my father why it had happened. Money, was all he said. Sometimes you have to do these things, my grandfather added. A building doesn’t come cheap.
Norman Podhoretz recalls taking a fellow secular Jewish author, Norman Mailer, to an Orthodox synagogue in New York City:
He asked me to take him to a synagogue on Yom Kippur because he wanted to see theHassid in the flesh. . . . There were wooden benches, and as common in this kind of setup, these were young men, students smoking and dropping cigarettes on the floor. Orthodox Jews, especially Hassidic Jews, don’t treat synagogues like a church. . . . After a short while Norman announced he’d had enough.
Stephen Bloom notes the ultra-Orthodox community of Postville, Iowa, and its raucous religious effect on the tranquil town:
An hour must have passed, and then, as though on cue, a great roar of voices erupted from within the shul. The worship had ended and the men broke into raucous song. These liturgical melodies were booming and boisterous, each lasting twenty to thirty minutes. Soon, the singing was accompanied by banging.
The men were pounding the metal tables with fists. They were stamping the shul’s wooden floor with the heels of their shoes and boots. The collective sound signaled to me that they must have been drunk. . . . I was eavesdropping on some sort of loud, inebriated religious reverie. . . . The sounds shooting out from the shul‘s windows and front door were deafening on this otherwise serene Iowa night.
He also notes, once he is actually among these worshipers, that they “seemed drowned in showmanship — who could wail loudest, bow farthest without falling over, read the longest Hebrew passage fastest and without taking a breath.” They also get drunk as part of their religious activity: This was an old fashioned chugging contest. Toast after toast followed. . . . “Rapturous song, powerful drink, and overwhelming body heat was the Holy Communion of these believers. Everything about the day was intense and bodily: the dirtymikveh [communal bath], drinking, singing, the body odor, the pounding of fists and feet.” Secular Jew Howard Jacobson wrote in 1993 about his experiences while waiting to see the famous Orthodox Lubavitcher rabbi, Menachem Schneerson, in New York City. For a decade, the rabbi gave out a dollar (symbolic charity) to each of those who came to wait in lines to see him. As Jacobson notes:
I am taken down — and I stress the preposition: down, down, down — and into theshul of the Lubavitcher headquarters, where the dollar-queue will form, and here I behold a sight which beats even Areyonga in the Central Australian Desert for uncouthness, for outlandishness, for other-worldliness beyond any imaginings of other worlds. The shul teems and shudders with men and boys in every attitude of Hebraic, and to my eyes pre-Hebraic, worship. . . . And here’s the most startling thing of all — men and boys begging, begging in the synagogue, banging for your money, pulling at your sleeves for charity — tsodekeh, tsodekeh — offering to pray for you for money, to pray for your parents for money, selling you raffle tickets, shoving them into your pockets, into your breast pockets — a mitzva, a mitzva — except that that’s not the most startling thing of all, because the most startling thing of all is that they’re selling gold watches down here.
I try to hold on to my nerve. Jesus lost his sense of humor and proportion in the temple, and I am determined not to lose mine.
“We [Jews],” Jacobson consoles himself, “believe there’s no distinction between the world’s business and the business of the spirit.” Leaving his momentary personal audience with the rabbi, “no sooner do you beat back the first wave of beggars [in the synagogue],” recounts Jacobson,
. . . than you find yourself waylaid by tradesmen wanting to sell you polythene sleeves to store your dollar in. For two dollars you can protect the one dollar. Or you can have it sealed and plasticated, turned into a place-mat with a date and a picture of the Rebbe [rabbi].