Materialism Corrupts. And?

Last night, at a panel organized by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, he and three other panelists attempted to answer the question, “Is Materialism Corrupting the Soul of America?” Boteach—who has a new book out on the subject—responded with a definitive, “yes.” Moderator Rabbi Elazar Muskin of the Young Israel of Century City, where the event was held, seemed to agree, kicking off the panel saying, “The answer is yes—but now we’re going to find out how.” The other three panelists would not allow themselves to be put so firmly into one camp or the other.

Boteach had invited Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, Rabbi Naomi Levy of the Nashuva community, and Jewish Journal staff writer Danielle Berrin to join him on the panel. Boteach spoke first. “Materialism is choking the soul of America,” he said. And though Boteach peppered his speech with comments on Mel Gibson, President Calvin Coolidge (“the business of America is business”) and the iPhone 4, he focused on a past that was far more distant.

“Adam and Eve had nothing,” Boteach said, “and they weren’t ashamed.” It wasn’t until the serpent came into their lives, pointing out the tree from which they could not eat, that the first couple became materialistic—and it’s been that way ever since. “You think you’re happy living in Beverlywood?” Boteach asked with mock incredulity. “You have no idea what Bel Air is like!”

“No matter how much we eat,” Boteach said, citing increasing obesity among Americans as proof of a concurrent rise in materialism, “we’re still hungry.”

Like Boteach, the other panelists invoked historical precedents to support their points. Berrin acknowledged that many of the Hollywood-types she writes about had always loved stuff. But as a community founded by immigrants, Berrin said, the newly rich and famous drove fancy cars and bought big mansions as a way of saying, “we’ve made it in America.” And she didn’t think that was necessarily bad. Like the Jewish community that focuses on torah, spirituality and matters of faith, Berrin said, Hollywood is also ultimately dedicated to something immaterial: human imagination and its products.

Speaking third, Garcetti said that by decrying American materialism as the scourge of our era, we risk “idealiz[ing] a past golden age that never was.” Today’s American economy is 70% based on consumer goods, Garcetti said, but pointed out that in 1947, the earliest data he could find, it made up roughly the same percentage. Ultimately, Garcetti said, neither materialism nor its opposite—idealism—is any good without hard work. “Materialism needs work not to be corrupted,” he said. “But idealism needs hard work to be relevant.”

Levy also cast a backward glance and found that today’s America might not be all that different than earlier societies. Drawing from midrashic commentaries on biblical texts, Levy showed that rabbis recognized that materialism was “a universal problem, a human problem—and a Jewish problem.”

“All the labor of man is for his mouth,” Levy said, quoting from Ecclesiastes, “yet his soul is not filled.” In the lead-up to the High Holy Days, Levy challenged the audience to seek things that will nourish the soul—which often aren’t things at all.

The efficient event concluded at just after 9pm, with Muskin proclaiming consensus.