Friday, January 6, 2012

In Defense of Materialism (?)

Just before Christmas, Jewish pundit and author Dennis Prager wrote an article suggesting that, contrary to most of what we read during the Christmas/holiday season, we should actually embrace the buying and acquisition of material things.

Now, let me just say that, for starters, I think that this is a terrible message to attach to Christmas/Hanukkah/whatever. There are incredibly valid, important, powerful arguments to make that focusing on materialism, while supposedly celebrating what are supposed to be sacred, spiritual times, is wrong on so many levels. That's not exactly a novel argument, so I won't bother repeating it here.

But, taken out of the context of the holidays, I think that Prager makes an interesting point. And, it's one which might serve to highlight one of the differences between Christianity and Judaism (acknowledging that my own knowledge of Christianity is obviously very limited, so I apologize in advance if I misrepresent anything here).
Before defending material things, let me make clear where I do agree with the joy-deniers. First, there is no question that no material thing can compete with love, religion, music, reading, health and other precious non-material things. And second, experiences contribute more to happiness than things do. If you only have x amount of money to spend on yourself, traveling to new places is usually more contributive to happiness than a better car. When I had almost no money through my early 30s, I still traveled abroad every year — which meant that I could only afford an inexpensive car. I have now visited a hundred countries, and that has given me more meaning and happiness than a luxury car or any other material thing.
But having said all that, material things matter. They can contribute a great deal to a happier and more meaningful life.
Very often, we are sent the message that material things are bad. But, at least in the Jewish point of view, material things are not bad. They are not important—at least not very much so—but that's a very different thing. Everything else being equal, it's better to have things than to not have things. There's nothing wrong with being rich, or with enjoying its benefits.

That's where I think Judaism and Christianity differ. Although I know there isn't exactly unanimity on this point, I think that Christianity leans towards the belief that material things are, ultimately, corrupting. That they're bad. That, all things being equal, were better off not having things than having them.
And, I learned somewhere along the way that this reflects a fundamental difference in our two religions.

At its core, Christianity is concerned with the next world. This world is, more than anything else, a prelude to that world. And so, that which attaches us to this world is, consequently, bad. Our focus should be entirely on the next. You can certainly find this view within Judaism, but it's not the dominant view. The dominant view is that this world is what we should be worried about, at least while we're in it. The next world is important, to be sure. More important, even. But, for now, what we have is what's around us, and it's good. What else could it mean in Genesis when, while creating the world, God pauses from time to time to declare the latest piece of creation “good.”

The world, and that which it contains, is good.

The Talmud teaches that a person will be held accountable for everything in this world which they could have enjoyed, but didn't.* God put these things here so that we could enjoy them. Not enjoying them is seen as a little bit of a slap in the face to God.

*obviously, the “which they could have enjoyed” is important. Things which have been outlawed need not apply…

This perspective seems to me to jibe pretty well with reality. Protest though we may, most of us find some real pleasure and happiness in the material world, even (especially?) in the little things:
With all my love of family, of friends, of music and of the life of the mind, I have always loved material things, too. On any happiness scale, it would be difficult to overstate how much joy my stereo equipment has given me since high school. I so love music that I periodically conduct orchestras in Southern California. And I now own a system that is so good that its offerings sound only a bit less real than what I hear from the conductor’s podium. I bless the engineers and others who design stereo products, and it is my joy to help support their noble quest of reproducing great music in people’s homes.
Since high school, too, I have written only with fountain pens. Buying new pens and trying out new inks are among the little joys of life that contribute as much — and sometimes more — to one’s happiness than the “big” things. There is incomparable joy at attending a child’s bar mitzvah or wedding. But those great events last a day. I write with a beloved fountain pen every day, listen to music every day, smoke a pleasure-giving cigar or pipe every day (except Shabbat, for the halachically curious). I love these things. What a colorless world it would be without them. So, too, I love my house. And I love the artwork and furniture and library that help to make it beautiful.
The danger, Judaism teaches us, is in going too far. In confusing “enjoying things” with “needing things.” With elevating things to a higher level, one of which they don't belong:
Can people overdo purchasing things? Of course they can. People can also overdo taking vitamins, exercising and even reading books or studying Talmud.
So, then, when do we need to control our buying things?
a) When it becomes a compulsion — when one cannot stop buying things because the buying gives more pleasure than the things that are bought.
b) When the primary purpose of the purchase is to impress others with one’s wealth.
c) When one cannot afford what one is buying.
Judaism tends to view the world as a balancing act (one more reason that "Jewish Extremist" should be an oxymoron. If only). So it is here. Enjoy the little things, but keep them in perspective. After all, God made them, too.

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