Augustus Melmotte, the protagonist of Anthony Trollope’s marvelous The Way We Live Now, is a man deeply adept at robbing England’s aristocratic twits of their mints. He arrives out of nowhere, settles in London, and soon amasses a fortune by selling shares in an exotic railroad enterprise. It sounds too good to be true, and it is: By the end of the novel, Melmotte, like a Victorian Madoff, is discovered to have been a fraud and left with no other option but to chug a cup of poison.
This being a 19th-century English novel, it should come as no surprise that Melmotte is Jewish, or that his author professes no love for the children of Israel. At some point in the novel, for example, a Christian woman, about to marry a decent Jewish man, wonders how she might break the news to her parents that her future betrothed was “a man who at the present moment went to the synagogue on a Saturday and carried out every other filthy abomination common to the despised people.” What might these abominations be? With Melmotte as his main character, Trollope leaves little to doubt: Unlike the genteel gentiles who dwell in country estates and posh town homes and are pure of heart, the Jews are materialistic, obsessed with commerce, and vulgar. This trope could carry Trollope’s readers through the novel’s 100 chapters because it had, by the time it was written, already been a widely held prejudice.
It persevered. We may no longer tolerate anti-Jewish bias, but we still attribute a preoccupation with earthly possessions to a deficient soul and remember a famous Nazarene saying the kingdom of God belongs to the poor. And at no time, it seems, are we more vocal in rehearsing this old trope than around the holidays, when the national thirst for retail is at a peak: On left and right alike, pundits line up to rebuke the crassness of overflowing shopping carts and suggest that America can only be America again if its sons and daughters spent less time at Walmart and more at home with their families.
It’s dross, and not only for the obvious economic reasons. Consumerism has its heavenly underpinnings, too: Look seriously at Jewish theology, and you see a principled and fundamental defense of the importance of acquiring stuff.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this idea more conspicuous than in the story of the mishkan, or the tabernacle. As they err through the wilderness, sweaty and impoverished, the Israelites are confronted by Moses with a seemingly strange request: Open wide your hearts and your pockets, the aged leader says, and donate all of your finest possessions to help build a temporary resting place for the Divine Presence. Ram skins, crimson wools, and goat hair pile up, until the collapsible tent is as formidable as it can be.
Questions abound: Why does the Divine Presence, having no corporeal essence, require wool and hair and skin? And why are those precious rarities extracted from a people wandering through the desert? Wouldn’t the Israelites be better off conserving their resources? Isn’t this sacrifice wasteful? Does it not suggest that the faith elevates material objects themselves to godhood?
The answer, like all great and profound insights, is at once far simpler and eminently more complicated. The announcement of the tabernacle comes at the heels of that nasty business with the golden calf. Having observed his people prancing around their glittering idol mere days after receiving the word from God himself, Moses understands something our pundits, apparently, do not: We’re human, and as such we have, as a smart Frenchman put it millennia later, no other medium through which to experience this world than our bodies. The body, blessedly fickle thing, cares little for abstractions. It doesn’t have much use for big ideas or absolute faith. The body responds best to stuff: If we can see it and touch it and smell it and taste it, then, and only then, does something become meaningful to us. Rather than risk another golden calf, Moses builds an extravaganza of his own, a tent made of the best stuff the Israelites can offer. He understands what every marketing major these days knows intuitively: Ask people to pay for something, and chances are they’ll value it more.
Not much has changed since our days in the Egyptian desert. As so many commentators have noted—some deftly, others dimly—we’ve come to develop a very complicated relationship with our objects, which, now as then, we endow with secret meanings and hidden forces. The story of Black Friday, then, isn’t the dispiriting tale of mindless hordes at the mall; it is in no insubstantial part a spiritual journey of people grappling with their desires and their ideas about self-worth and their aspirations and their affiliations the same way the Israelites following the tabernacle had: the only way that humans can, through the auspices of desirable consumer goods.
It would not be much of an exaggeration to state that this attitude toward material objects is one of the key theological differences between Judaism and Christianity. While the latter insists that salvation begins where earthly possessions end; the former has no otherworldly redeemer and is interested mainly in the minute details of life here on earth, which it frequently understands as the mindful acquisition, distribution, and maintenance of stuff. This, arguably, is also why so many Jews have historically found themselves at the fore of the struggle for more equitable working conditions: In addition to the ever-present (but by no means exclusive to Judaism) striving for tikkun olam, it’s easy to see why a nation whose holy book is so thick with detailed discussions of property rights and labor laws and other matters of commerce would excel at organizing workers.
Sadly, we seem to be losing the touch. This Thanksgiving, many, Jews included, argued that by opening their doors on the holiday itself, the large retail chains were unfairly condemning their poor employees to toil rather than celebrate with their loved ones. Such a view is moral outrage at its most simplistic and least Jewish form. You don’t have to be an economist or a theologian to understand that for people struggling to subsist on very little—at a median pay of $8.89 an hour, cashiers, for example, make little more than the minimum wage—a few more hours of overtime can be a very welcome thing. Anyone truly interested in the plight of low-income workers, then, would have done much better advocating for a significant increase of the minimum wage, or the further fortification and expansion of the earned-income tax credit, which distributes more than $60 billion to those employed Americans who need it most. Instead, our public conversation sounded much as it did in Trollope’s England, an empty lament of commercialism run amok. It makes for great novels but terrible social policy. If we want to be productive, and if we want to adhere to the wise teachings of our faith, we would do well to begin by acknowledging the merits of consumerism and devising measures that foster rather than negate it.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.