Sunday, October 24, 2010

Death, and the Modern American Synagogue

I had the pleasure this last week of listening to a lecture by Professor Carlos Eire, of Yale University. (Full dislosure: I was a colleague of Carlos's at University of Virginia, and in addition to finding him a supportive senior colleague, have followed his work with admiration since, particularly his award-winning Waiting for Snow in Havana.) Eire, summarizing part of his argument in A Very Brief History of Eternity, argued that prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church made an enormous amount of money off of death. Believing that their dead ancestors needed their support in the form of donations to the Church to save their souls from purgatory, Christians gave an extraordinary amount of money to it. Eire provocatively suggested that the amount of capital was in fact so enormous that had it gone into other endeavors the history of Europe might as well been very different.

So this, in addition to some wonderful presentations that I heard from Professor Elisheva Baumgarten (Bar Ilan University) this week about Jewish fasting and other rites of penance in the Middle Ages, got me thinking about synagouges and economics today.

To what extent do synagogues today depend upon death for their vitality? Many synagogues today use the institution of Yahrzeit (saying the mourners kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a close relative) to justify their daily minyan, and then to use this fact to exhort others to support the minyan. Four times a year the prayer for the dead, Yizkor, attracts Jews to the pews. Synagogues are adorned with memorial plaques for which congregants pay significant sums of money. Synagogue bulletins regularly list the names of those who gave money in memory of their loved ones.

Let me put this question bluntly: Although no synagogue today uses the idea of purgatory to persuade Jews to give money, to what extent do they depend on the dead for their continued existence? Could synagogues survive if the many Jews who give money to them in remembrance of their dead or who came to minyan a few times a year to remember them, stopped?

Judaism, it is sometimes said, is a religion of the living, focusing on the here and now. As is well-known, many of the popular customs of Jews concerning the dead, such as recitation of the mourners kaddish, are not found in classical rabbinic literature, entering into Jewish practice in the medieval period. I do not intend this as a value judgment, but it does make me wonder whether there is a connection between the continuation of these customs and contemporary Jewish institutions.


Zohar said...

What a biting observation!

I've had the same thoughts myself, and even thought of speaking out against all of these death minhagim.

But if it wasn't for that, a lot of people would never make it to shul... and I hope we still have something alive to offer them.

Anonymous said...

Don't you think that religions are always closely tied with economic benefits? You discussed in your podcasts the economic role of the temple in 2nd Temple Judaism. It was a bank, a marketplace, and a center of revenue. In the Middle Ages, Christians donated money to the church for indulgences, remissions from the punishments of purgatory. The Haj of modern Islam creates huge economic benefits for Islamic institutions. I ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant this afternoon and discovered that the owner was getting ready for a fung shui (spelling?) inspection that cost him about $500.00. The kosher food industry in the USA is a billion dollar taxpayer supported religious establishment. I don't think any of us should be surprised by links between money and religious ritual. It's older than Moses!

Michael Satlow said...

Sure - there is frequently a link between religious institutions and economic issues. Spinoza, for example, pretty much reduced the entire Hebrew Bible to a story of money and politics. I find that approach too reductionist. My own interest in this post was not so much the general link as the specific mechanics of how this really works.

Regarding the assertion that "The kosher food industry in the USA is a billion dollar taxpayer supported religious establishment," I'm not sure where the evidence is for these claims. That the kosher food industry is in part about money (and power) is clear, but I don't how much and the connection of tax issues.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,
I work in the food industry and have to interact with Orthodox Rabbis on a regular basis. I regularly talk to rebbes who are employed by OU, Circle K, Star K, Kof-K and dozens of other not-for profit organizations that employ a cadre of rabbinical "clergy" to make sure that Americans are eating kosher foods. One small example: it costs one of my (small) clients almost $20,000 a year to certify their line of prepared foods kashruth. They are very bitter and cynical about this cost, but have no choice because their large national distributors will not carry their products unless they are certified kosher. In another example, a simple blend of Acetic Acid and water, used as a preservative in a sauce, costs another client of mine $500.00 a year for a letter of kashruth. The rabbinical organization that provides this letter has never visited the plant where the acetic acid is produced, the middleman where the Acetic Acid is diluted to an 80% solution, or the end manufacturer who repackages it for an end user who incorporates it into a sauce. Ironically, each level in this chain of purchases requires its own letter of kashruth, so in effect, there are three payments of kosher certification made before it ever gets put into a finished food product. As far as the size of the kosher industry in the USA, no one really knows how big it is. But many of the rabbis who work in this industry enjoy the double dip tax privileges of clergy. If you know of any good studies on the subject I would love to read them. Imagine what Kraft, Nabisco, ConAgra, ADM Coca Cola and thousands of other companies around the world pay for this service. In the end it is most certainly in the hundreds of millions, but a billion may well be an exaggeration.

Anonymous said...

By the way, as to your reductionist comment, I completely agree. I wouldn't want to reduce the Bible or religion to economic motives, after the fashion of marxist critiques of religion or post-modern deconstruction of religion. There is no doubt about the intimate connection between money and religions, but to say as one brilliant Jewish thinker did, that religion is the ideology of the rich foisted upon the lower classes to keep them in their place is surely wrong on many counts. But forgive me if I failed to get the nuance of your post.