Controlling the High Price of Judaism (and Guilt)
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayikra
By Rabbi David Markus
The Jewish value of tzedakah underscores that to “be Jewish” is partly to “do Jewish,” and to “do Jewish” means to support others. That’s one reason that Judaism calls for tzedakah as charitable acts of support for others that double as communal acts of identity.
Important as tzedakah is, however, tzedakah isn’t a sufficient solution when it becomes too pricy to “do Jewish” in the first place – as increasingly is happening across vast swaths of Jewish life.
The economics of traditional Jewish ways have trended toward narrowcasting Judaism toward affluence. This income effect, in turn, lifts costs higher. Especially for Millennials, high cost can become a practical barrier and/or psychological barrier to doing Jewish.
These dynamics amplify vexing questions about inclusivity and continuity in Jewish life. Cost concerns raise lamentations about Judaism’s socioeconomic privilege, inspiring some to call for cost controls. Even sharp-penciled economists have joined the fray.
This week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) pointedly teaches that Judaism’s core spiritual goods must not depend on wealth or ability to pay. This teaching, in turn, raises profound implications for Jewish “pay to pray” economics.
In levitical days of ritual sacrifice, forgiveness and purification asked offerings of living assets. As penance for 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. Levitical Judaism’s core value deemed forgiveness and purification too important for any distance or delay. Thus, Torah answered its own challenge by defining how to “do Jewish” in ways that maximized socioeconomic 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 relatively cheap and plentiful.
If even birds were too costly, Torah had an even more affordable option: “If one’s means do not suffice for two turtle doves or two young pigeons,” then flour and oil would do (Lev. 5:11). Everyone had flour and oil: nobody was left out.
Expressed in ancient currencies of sheep, birds, flour and oil, Torah’s enduring lesson is that Jewish spiritual life must not exact unaffordable costs. Tzedakah can help subsidize costs, but Torah’s spiritual calling is even more potent: Jewish spiritual life must not ask more than is affordable in the first place. A Judaism that raises undue cost barriers betrays its core value of inclusivity from the start.
I can hear practical concerns. “Doesn’t this approach advocate minimalism or facile spirituality? What about realities like educating children, funding clergy, heating buildings and buying tuna fish for kiddush lunch? After all, ein kemah, ein Torah / ‘No flour, no Torah’ (Avot 3:17). And aren’t most ‘wallet ethics’ really about choices and priorities? Don’t we usually find ways to afford what we value?”
These concerns are real. Strong Jewish community requires money, and we should value – and teach others to value – Jewish community. For these reasons, Judaism mustn’t eschew affluence or press a spirituality of poverty lest we doom day schools, shutter synagogues, or imperil cherished seminaries and other core institutions of Jewish life.
By the same token, Jewish spirituality must not privilege affluence or subtly shame anyone with sticker shock. Judaism’s socioeconomic values of spiritual access and universal welcome should challenge us and discomfort us. If we don’t feel challenged on this issue, then we’re probably not thinking and feeling deeply enough.
Put bluntly, Torah teaches that an economically burdensome spiritual tradition is dubious on its face. If so, then modern Judaism has some soul searching to do.
Our collective soul searching can begin with this premise: while spirituality and community intertwine in Jewish life, they are distinct goods and we must honor each on its own terms.
One implication is we must prioritize keiruv (spiritual proximity). The reason Torah cut the cost for remitting guilt wasn’t mainly about cost but rather about access and immediacy. That’s why spiritual transformation – and especially the keiruv that can help balm guilt, shame and other suffering – must never ask more than anyone can afford in the first instance.
The lesson is clear: Jewish institutions never should charge for pastoral care or High Holy Day tickets. Jewish life must seek and find other revenue sources.
Another implication is that we must factor cost into how we define “doing Jewish.” For instance, if kashrut is too expensive – say, if a majority of people can’t reasonably afford high mark-ups for kosher-labeled foods much less four sets of dishes – then maybe kashrut standards have skidded off the rails.
As this week’s Torah portion reminds us, the sacred art of holy meaning making can start with something small. Even a bit of flour can open a portal into a vibrant Jewish spiritual life. It’s our calling to make that reality true and vibrant for all who seek it.
Rabbi David Markus serves as AJR rabbinics faculty, co-rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY), and senior builder at Bayit. By day he presides in the New York courts as part of a parallel career in public service.