| Second Thoughts |

Good Taste

Anything that cheapens or vulgarizes our connection with the Almighty is in religious bad taste


We all recognize bad taste when we see it. To wear an orange sports jacket and yellow sneakers for an audience with the Queen of England is in bad taste, as is, say, the wearing of shorts to shul on Yom Kippur day. There is nothing inherently evil or criminal in such instances, no laws that prohibit them, or statutes that are violated. But sensible people do not behave in that way. It is simply a matter of good judgment, of appropriateness, of good taste.

We find similar scenarios in the field of Torah life. Anything that cheapens or vulgarizes our connection with the Almighty is in religious bad taste. Wearing a large woolen tallis with flaming red stripes technically fulfills the mitzvah of arba kanfos: tzitzis have been placed on the four corners of the garment. The wearer is certainly not in violation of anything. But he is in bad taste. He has shown poor judgment at best, at worst, he has demeaned a holy act.

Or take tefillin: tefillin are all the same: black, square, each containing the same Torah sections written on the same kind of parchment. But there are differences in the kind of outer protective boxes one chooses for them. Most boxes are plain black, others of fine silver. But if my boxes were to be bright red or decorated with peppermint stripes, I am still technically fulfilling the mitzvah of “a sign on your hand and frontlets between thine eyes,” and have violated nothing. But this would be in very bad taste.

A recent Internet notice requested prayers for a certain sick man. At the end of the notice was the following: “All those who pray for him will be entered into a raffle for $200.00.” Surely the ad writer did not mean to suggest that unless we are promised a possible reward, we will refuse to pray for the poor fellow. Of course not. He was simply reflecting the “what’s-in-it-for-me” culture of commercialization that has engulfed our lives. The offer displays gross insensitivity, and is certainly not in the best of taste.

There are even more subtle ways to demean sacred things and to display questionable taste. An example is the ubiquitous guarantees of all kinds of goodies if we donate a certain amount to this or that cause. It is praiseworthy to give tzedakah for whatever reason (see Pesachim 8a) but such promotions — so redolent of ads for toothpaste or cars that promise popularity and admiration — tend to cheapen the mitzvah of tzedakah. By introducing the values of the marketplace into the pristine realm of mitzvos, they drag the mitzvah down from the heights to street level, from the summit down into the valley. Yes, the mitzvah is performed, the tzedakah is given , no laws were violated — but if the deed is informed in poor taste, it becomes, instead of a five-star performance, a one-star; instead of a sterling, top-of-the-class grade A , a barely passing C.

Obviously, there is a crucial difference between normative raffles soliciting money, and raffles soliciting prayer, just as there is a difference between charities that offer new cars as prizes, and those that, for a specific contribution, guarantee divine gifts such as a good match for your daughter.

But commercialization affects every mitzvah. Observing Shabbos helps maintain our sanity in a mad world, taharas hamishpachah helps preserve our marriages, kashrus is healthy — these are after all, welcome by-products of Torah observance — but these are not the reasons we observe them (cf. Rashi at sedra Kedoshim 20:6). Certainly, every mitzvah represents a positive connection to the Almighty, but the ideal is for us to perform mitzvos for one reason only: We are so commanded. G-d will surely reward us, and surely grant us peace and serenity. But that is not why we serve Him. We serve Him because we owe everything to Him and would serve Him even if there was no reward (Avos 1:3 ). We are not in a quid pro quo relationship with our Creator.

The “what are my benefits” approach to mitzvos begins with a lack of understanding of what avodas Hashem is, which then transmutes into a vehicle of serving ourselves, which metamorphoses into a lack of good taste, and insensitivity to the sanctity of the mitzvah, and from there descends into coarse commercializing and the ultimate distortion of why we give tzedakah or perform mitzvos.

One crucial Biblical verse, in Shemos 15:2, encompasses all sacred acts: “zeh Keili v’anvehu —This is my G-d , I will glorify Him”; i.e., serve G-d in a beautiful, elegant, dignified way. One might call this the 614th commandment: From bad taste shalt thou distance thyself.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 816)

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