Monday, May 30, 2011

What Price Choice?

The theme this year for my college's second level composition classes is "What Price Choice?" All the class readings are exemplars of people who face a choice and who pay a price for that choice. In many of the readings an individual's choice is complicated by the choices of the groups/society around that person. How do individuals choose when the results of a choice may put them in conflict with what their society has chosen? Do they choose to go along with everyone else, even if that choice may not make them happy or may cause them difficulties, or do they choose to go against society, where negative consequences may ensue?

This idea of choice and its consequences can certainly apply to the members of Klal, and, indeed, may be at the root of some of the problems and issues that are important today. I'd say that the majority of us in Klal are fairly intelligent. Faced with actual facts we can see if continuing to do something may be detrimental or not. And yet, few individuals, even knowing that the choice they are about to make won't be good for them, personally choose not to make that choice.

A rational human being can add 2+2 and see that if you only have X number of dollars available to you, you can't spend X+30,000. But members of Klal regularly do spend that X+$30,000 and find themselves in financial straits. Why do they do this? Because the group they are a part of has declared that what that 30,000 pays for is a "must have." If you want to be a member of this group then you have to have what the group says you have to have. The group lets you know that if you choose not to spend that 30,000 you don't have to pay for the required items then you will not be a member in good standing, you will be outside of the group, you may be shunned. And most members of Klal buckle under.

Here is where things get sticky however. Just who is this "group" that exercises this control? We know that Klal has no centralized leadership, no group at the top of the pyramid that can be pointed to. Granted, smaller groupings within Klal may have a Rav that they consider as their final decider. Certain geographic areas seem to have some cohesion when it comes to practices that that area "approves" of or doesn't approve of. There are customs as regards public (and yes, some private) gatherings. So, we all seem to buckle under, at least in some areas, without any real idea as to who made the decision that X has to be done. So yes, just who is it we are afraid of going against when we do things that "they" have decided we must not do? If "Big Brother" is watching, just who is this Big Brother? And what is our culpability, as individuals, when we contribute to this ephemeral but powerful peer pressure?

This whole issue reminds me of back when I was young and people were sometimes afraid of the dark because "The Bogeyman will get you." Strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, not one person ever, ever saw that Bogeyman, nor were there any reliable documentations of anyone ever being "gotten" by that Bogeyman. And yet, the warning was internalized and worked with as if it were a proven fact. So, doing anything that "they" deem outside of the norm will be "bad for shidduchim" seems to be just another Bogeyman--no proof, no sense, sometimes wholly irrational, but held onto as if it were, in fact, Torah Mi'Sinai.


Anonymous said...

That $30,000 (or more depending on the number of kids) perceived price of admission is called tuition.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to say that people really have meaningful choices when born into and brought up in communities where conformity (including in expenditures) is key, young people are not taught that there are meaningful options -- and worse, are affirmatively taught that chosing other options means you have to lose your family and makes you a bad jew and a bad person, and the system makes sure you are married young and start a family young so that by the time you are old and wise enough to appreciate the costs and understand that the world presents other options and choices, you now are locked into the system.

Mark said...

Why do they do this?

Most of the time they repeatedly do it because they are bailed out one way or another.

JS said...

Over this weekend I went to a beautiful wedding and a wonderful bar mitzvah. Both were from friends who are members of the Conservative community. Both were so heimish and inclusive and everyone there had so much fun. My wife and I were talking and we both felt that Orthodox affairs are usually so stuffy and done with an air of showing off. The affairs we went to were so laid back and everyone could just be themselves and enjoy their time together celebrating the couple or the bar mitzvah boy. The rabbis involved went to such pains to involve everyone involved and really spoke from the heart about the families and about commitment to Judaism, to family, and to community. I've really never been to an Orthodox affair about which I could say the same thing.

The Orthodox affairs are so highly regulated - first this, then that, then this other thing. It always has this air of let's get this over with so we can get on to the next stage. People are rude and often seem like they're just there to eat. There's always comments being made about the hall or the food or the service or the flowers, etc. - always comparing notes and seeing if something is better or worse than the previous affair.

The wedding and bar mitzvah both had DJ's, the wedding didn't have tons of flowers everywhere, the bar mitzvah was a buffet, and you know what? They were nicer than the fanciest of affairs I've ever been to. And no one was going around knocking their hosts for not spending more money on X.

I don't know what it is about Orthodox communities, but it's often the exact opposite of heimish - it's nit-picky and rude and obnoxious.

The reason people feel this need to conform and spend money they don't have is because of this horrible attitude. There's such a stigma. Everyone is always looking over everyone else's shoulders to make sure they're doing the "right" thing.

Just one caveat: Generalizations are never 100% correct, but I think what I said above is more true than not in my experience.

Miami Al said...


The Orthodox world outside of NYC is much nicer. Miami Beach, with lots of first generation ex-NYers, is pretty bad, but when you attend events in any of the smaller communities in the area, it's just MUCH nicer.

Anytime I'm at a Jewish event in the tri-state area, I always wonder where these people come from... and the people run range from Centrist Orthodox through Reform.

"It always has this air of let's get this over with so we can get on to the next stage."

It's sad, and I think it really stems from the cultural change from Judaism to textbook minhagim. Everything becomes regimented, and people can't tell the difference between Halachic/traditional requirements (you get married, smash a glass, etc), and things that are not so - the "Smorg" which is the biggest tribute to gluttony that I have ever seen.

"People are rude and often seem like they're just there to eat."

A friend of mine from North Jersey, from a RWMO family background, that got a job in a secular organization was laughing with me about this... she said the hardest thing for her was that she had to "learn how to eat." Not Kashrut, just behavior. She was stunned at the first function she was at that the buffet opened and people didn't rush it like it was their first bite to eat in weeks, that people nurse a cocktail, have a small plate of food and make conversation... she basically had to learn how to be a civilized person.

Her instinct when watching people slowly meander over and get a small plate was, "it's a big table, you can go on both sides," and she realized how bizarre it was.

Regarding nice & heimish vs. snooty and judgmental, it's not Conservative vs. Orthodox, it's not expensive vs. not, it's about class and manners vs. white trash behavior. I have been to Orthodox affairs that were laid back and heimish, and the snotty and judgmental kind. I've also been to Reform and Conservative events that make your snooty Orthodox ones look heimish.

In any area large enough to sport multiple Reform and Conservative congregations, the communities segregate based on non-ideological lines... the Orthodox communities seem to segregate on dress code, so you seem to have people with nothing in common other than the wives wear hats to Shul and the husbands wear polo shirts on Sunday.

Abba's Rantings said...


i don't think i've ever been to a conservative wedding, but i've been to a whole bunch of conservative bar/bas mitzvas. my experience has been very different than your experience. it was always about the show. both the party and the religious ceremony

JS said...

All I can say is that the people were completely laid back, not judgmental at all, and there to celebrate with the families. It was a really nice thing to see. The wedding was in a small Conservative shul and the attendees were maybe 75/25 Jewish/Non-Jewish. The bar mitzvah was in a Conservative shul in a mostly Orthodox community. I have no idea if this made any difference.

I'll give you one example of what pleasantly surprised me. The bar mitzvah celebration was Monday morning. Davening started at about 10 and went till at least 11:30. Yes, an hour and a half for a weekday morning davening. Some of the attendees were Orthodox and you could tell they were thinking "What the heck is taking so long, let's go already!" Whereas everyone else there just enjoyed the service and the warmth of it as the rabbi constantly updated the congregation on what page we were on, repeated some prayers in English, and let the bar mitzvah boy (who led services and lained) really shine.

You think that would EVER happen in an Orthodox bar mitzvah service? First of all, everyone there would be talking about how "Nebech, the boy couldn't lain the whole parsha." After you got over the criticism of the bar mitzvah boy not doing "enough" you'd have a lot of kvetching over the length of the service. Then they'd all complain about the speeches being given before the buffet opened up.

Oh, and another quick example. At the wedding, everyone was QUIET during the ceremony and treated it with the due reverence and respect. Compare to every single Orthodox wedding I've been to where everyone won't stop talking, cell phones go off, people check their email and text, etc.

JS said...

I can only speak to my recent weekend experiences. Maybe these are complete aberrations.

I do, however, stick by my point regarding Orthodox affairs. Many of the people who show up are just there to compare notes. How was the food, how was the hall, how were the flowers, what band did they get, how many people were invited, etc. I can't even tell you how many Orthodox affairs I've been to where I overhear people making really rude comments about one of the above.

That's why there's so much pressure to conform and spend money you don't have - no one wants to be spoken about negatively by their highly judgmental neighbors.

Miami Al said...




There is no reason to spend your free time amongst such people.