A wedding for $100,000? A funeral for $20,000? When did extravagance and luxury become such primary religious values?
By SHMULY YANKLOWITZ
Special to The Star
I cant remember the last celebration I attended where there wasnt tremendous amounts of wasted food, overly expensive napkins, and bands large enough for a royal banquet.
Shockingly, the funding for these lifecycle events does not always come from savings; rather, families frequently take out large loans to afford keeping up with the communal norms.
Ive heard stories that some families take out loans up to $100,000 to cover weddings that cost as much as $150,000 to $300,000. Is potential bankruptcy what a committed religious life necessitates? One should not feel ashamed, but proud, to host a modest celebration.
Overly extravagant celebrations have gotten out of hand. Every celebratory event sets a new communal standard. To avoid this dangerous trend, clergy of all faiths and denominations should be counseling families in the virtues of modesty and moderation when planning celebrations.
Family members and friends should remind loved ones what is most important when planning a major life event. It should be a time of spiritual reflection, creating an ambiance of love by bringing together sacred community, not merely an opportunity to outdo the Joneses.
Instead of inciting competition and even animosity, we should work to create more creative and holy celebrations that foster inclusiveness and community building. Instead of the usual overblown affair, why not encourage guests to create personalized gifts, or offer musical or reading performances that will linger in our memory? Rather than attending a hedonistic, drunken festival that may become the next viral YouTube disgrace, we should leave celebrations feeling uplifted and inspired.
Money is tight today for so many, and costs continue to rise. Thus, we must consider ways to scale down these events. Instead of ostentation, we might consider other criteria when planning our lifecycle event: How can my event be more environmentally friendly? Are the workers (and the staff at the hotels where we stay) being paid a living wage? Does my event honor the welfare of animals? Have I located fair trade food options that ensure there is no slave labor exploitation? What will happen with leftover food? Who knows, you might start a wholesome trend.
Another ethical proposal is that, when we assess our budget for a life celebration, we dedicate 10 percent of that budget to the needy in our community. For example, if a marriage is about a commitment to share a life of values with another person, what better way to celebrate that moral commitment than to include giving in the celebration? Instead of the usual wedding customs, why not convert the usual favor into a charity favor, where each guest receives a card with an acknowledgment of a donation given in their name, or a charity wedding registry where guests purchase specific charitable gifts?
A wedding, birth, funeral and other important events are all opportunities for great spiritual and ethical possibilities, and afford families a time to engage in financial introspection. Some argue that people have the right to enjoy their wealth and spend it as they please. While it is true that they have the secular right to do as they wish with their wealth, it is clear that excessively lavish celebrations are at odds with core values of all religious traditions. Those who are concerned with the trend of expressing love through consumerism should consider alternative models of celebration, shifting the focus of life cycle celebrations from materialism and extravagance to a more spiritual and ethical approach.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz of Overland Park is the senior rabbi of Kehilath Israel. He is the founder and president of Uri LTzedek, a Jewish social justice organization, and the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice. In 2012, Newsweek named him one of the top 50 rabbis in America.