“If One’s Means Do Not Suffice”: Confronting the High Price of Doing Jewish

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Judaism and justice go hand in hand. The Jewish value of tzedakah (charity, from the Hebrew word for “justice”) underscores that to “be Jewish” is partly to “do Jewish,” and to “do Jewish” means to give generously. Judaism asks tzedakah not only as charitable acts of support for others, but also as defining acts of identity for ourselves.

But for many, it’s too pricy to “do Jewish,” and focusing only on tzedakah can obscure this reality. This post invites dialogue about the high cost of high-cost Judaism: for the future of hands-on spiritual Judaism, especially for Millennials, the question is essential. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the question is too vital to let answers get in the way.

The problem is clear. The economics of ostensibly traditional ways to “do Jewish” – such as high-price Kosher foods and high-cost synagogue dues – narrowcasts Judaism toward the affluent, which in turn lifts costs higher. The result is that for many, cost is a practical barrier to doing Jewish, or a psychological barrier to doing Jewish – and either way it’s a serious problem for the inclusivity and continuity of Jewish life. Lamenting socioeconomic privilege and concerned for the future, some are calling for cost controls. Even sharp-penciled economists have joined the discussion.

This week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) makes the point plainly. In ancient days of sacrifice, forgiveness and purification asked offerings of living assets. As penance for sin and remission of guilt, one first confessed and then offered a lamb from one’s flock (Lev. 5:5-6). But what if one couldn’t afford a lamb?

This question was no mere legalism: it was a question of identity. Because forgiveness and purification must never be distant or delayed, Torah answered this socioeconomic justice challenge by defining how to “do Jewish” in ways that maximized inclusion: “If one’s means do not suffice for a lamb, then “one brings … two turtle doves or two young pigeons” (Lev. 5:7). Presumably birds were cheap and plentiful – but what if even birds were too costly? In that case, Torah had an even more affordable and inclusive option: “If one’s means do not suffice for two turtle doves or two young pigeons,” then some flour would do (Lev. 5:11). Everyone had flour: nobody was left out.

Expressed in the ancient currency of livestock and flour, the lesson is that Jewish life must never exact unaffordable costs. Yes, we must subsidize costs for the less affluent, but Torah goes further: Jewish life must not ask more than is affordable in the first place. A Judaism too expensive to “do Jewish” is a Judaism that betrays core values of inclusivity by definition.

This spirituality of enough-ness is the Jewish creed. Sufficiency and inclusion were core truths of the ancient altar, and they were core truths of building the Mishkan, ancient perch of the Indwelling Presence we call God. Even for so ornate and detailed a structure as the Mishkan, its materials were what people freely gave (n’div lev) (Ex. 35:5, Ex. 35:22). Architectural plans filled chapters of Torah, but the point was the offering: whatever people gave, it became enough.

A spirituality (and spiritual policymaking) of enough-ness doesn’t devalue plans and means. We mustn’t advocate minimalism or facile spirituality, keenly aware of the needful realities of educating children and paying bills in Jewish spiritual community. It takes money to build spiritual community: ein kemach, ein Torah (“No bread, no Torah”) (Avot 3:21). For this reason, Judaism must never recoil from affluence or press a spirituality of poverty: that path would doom Jewish day schools and shutter synagogues. By the same token, however, neither can Judaism preference affluence or subtly shame anyone with sticker shock.

It’s well to subsidize costs: it’s one reason we give tzedakah and reduce costs in case of need. But subsidy isn’t enough: Torah teaches that if costs are too high to start, then there’s a problem with how we define what it is to “do Jewish.” This proposition should be challenging: Judaism’s socioeconomic values of spiritual access and welcome for all should be challenging. If we don’t feel challenged on this issue, then we’re not thinking and feeling deeply enough.

What follows might be challenging for traditional ways to “do Jewish.” If keeping Kosher by traditional standards is too expensive – if many people can’t afford four sets of dishes and high mark-ups for Kosher-labeled foods – then maybe those traditional standards to keep Kosher have gone wrong. If synagogue dues seem to target the affluent, then maybe synagogues standards have gone wrong. Because Torah teaches that an economically burdensome spiritual tradition is dubious on its face, modern Judaism has some soul searching to do.

This soul searching begins not with rejecting tradition but with threading ancient values through economic realities of modern life. It recognizes that to “do Jewish” should be an investment but not an unaffordable one, and that justice asks deep sensitivity to how we make Jewish pathways economically feasible for all. Soul searching also means keeping faith with Jewish teachers who deserve living wages, Jewish day schools that must charge real tuition to stay open and vibrant, and Jewish clergy who make a profession from their spiritual service and deserve to support themselves and their families.

Answers are hard and counter-arguments abound. Priorities are important and minimalism doesn’t work. Voluntary synagogue dues might be an important part of the conversation. And yes, tzedakahalways must play its part, but history shows – and Torah commands – that tzedakah is not enough. So if you have a say in shaping budgets and costs in Jewish life, or if you have a role in helping others define what it is to “do Jewish,” think hard. Ask whether your choices promote or undermine inclusivity. Ask whether your choices inflate the costs of doing Jewish, and whether that cost is worth the cost of creating a sense of “economic insider” and “economic outsider.” Ask whether the results roll out welcome mats or close doors – especially for Millennials and vulnerable populations like the disabled and disadvantaged. And if you’re not at least somewhat uncomfortable with your answers, think again.

And if you’re resource limited – if vibrantly maximalist ways to “do Jewish” seem costlier than you can afford (“if one’s means do not suffice…”) – then remember that the sacred art of holy making meaning can start with something small. Even a bit of flour can open a portal into a vibrant Jewish spiritual life – and never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Originally posted at My Jewish Learning.

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