M

y recent column on out-of-control material excess and “turning back the clock” to a more moderate way of life that privileges spiritual growth and internality over consumption and appearances elicited an interesting range of responses. I think it would advance the discussion to share two of them (lightly edited).

One reader wrote:

Rabbi Kobre calls on the “rank and file of the frum community” to actually think about turning back the clock, acting in a manner which shows that “we truly believe Chazal when they speak of materialistic excess as spiritual arterial sclerosis.” My husband and I and several of our friends have indeed “turned back the clock”: We share this perspective and were happy to see it appear in Rabbi Kobre’s column. At times, however, we find that we are isolated in this perspective in our communities….

It guides the way we choose to make our simchahs, how we choose to decorate our homes, how we shop for clothing and fill our closets, and the decisions we make about how and what to eat. Baruch Hashem, our children are thriving, confident, and happy. And this lifestyle, as it cultivates the mind and the spirit, has enormous dividends in the simchas hachayim and inner peace that it brings…. But it is definitely a lonely path for those of us who have chosen it, so it was nice to see it validated by Rabbi Kobre’s column.

What would it take for more people in our communities to join these people on this “lonely path”? It’s a facet of human nature for people to want to emulate those who are in the forefront of something new, different and (okay, I’ll use the word, but just this once) cool. Can that dynamic somehow be marshaled in service of something that, by its own terms, is about the deep and enduring rather than the shallow and trendy?

Another letter, from a well-known author, had this to say:

I am an optimist and… I try to see the good in Yidden. However, I must disagree with your conclusion that we can turn the clock back on the frum community’s focus on gashmiyus.

As long as our newspapers and magazines continue to publish ads that entice us with gourmet food, exotic vacations, and the like, nothing is going to change. I know these publications accomplish a tremendous amount of good, but I sometimes wonder how our community would look if advertisers had no way of sending out their messages that imply that we are a nation of gluttons and indulgers.

This letter, bleak as its tone is, raises several important questions. Are advertisers and media following consumers’ leads, responding to an existing hunger for ever-increasing luxury and conspicuous consumption, or are they instead stoking it and constantly raising the ante? Or is it some of both, whereby a symbiotic relationship exists that gives rise to a spiraling cycle of consumer “need” and supplier response?

Even assuming that much of the problem begins on the producing, purveying, and marketing end of things, how are we to identify the real starting point at which change needs to take place? That is, where does the buck stop? With those who create and sell extravagant goods? With those whose job is to market them enticingly to the buying public? With the media in which that marketing appears and whose own coverage, in word and photo, whets high-end appetites — or all of the above?

Instead of looking to those who create and market these luxury items as the parties bearing sole responsibility on this issue, it’s worth considering to what extent materialistic indulgence is more than just an end in itself, but masks and perhaps compensates for an underlying void of meaning and spiritual fulfillment. Writing here some time ago about technology, I observed:

Everywhere I go, I observe people hunched over their devices, apparently entranced by what they see there. I tell myself that surely, if not for the tendency to become habituated and then desensitized to this scene, they too would see it as farcical, tragic, and deeply insulting — to themselves….

But then a scary thought occurs. What if the problem doesn’t begin with these boxes, but with a pre-existing void — of ideas to ponder, feelings to luxuriate in, futures to fashion — within us? What if technology isn’t the root problem after all, but the panacea — for an emptiness within that we feel acutely but don’t know how to fill, and so we opt instead for digital distraction and an escape to another, exciting world?

Might an obsessive pursuit of the trappings of the so-called good life play a similar role? If that’s so, righting our course as individuals and as a community will require far more than merely a return to a simpler standard of living, worthwhile as that may be. It will mean summoning the inner strength and self-honesty to examine closely the inner content of our lives as Jews, as family members, as people, and responding to what we find there with the courage and resolve to embrace real change.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 714. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com