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Simplicity as a Jewish Path

Contemporary American life is characterized by relentless stress and rampant consumerism. For many of us, the pursuit of stuff — its purchase, storage, maintenance and disposal — actually works against quality-of-life as measured by health, happiness, and feelings of fulfillment.

In response, the burgeoning Voluntary Simplicity movement advocates cutting back on personal consumption in order to achieve a better balance of time, money, and material possessions. Voluntary Simplicity adherents present a simple formula: Consume less to have more time, more money, and an environmental dividend. One can work fewer hours and expend less time on shopping and maintenance of possessions, while saving money and resources.

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Old-fashioned frugality may seem a Depression-era relic, but Voluntary Simplicity is not about poverty or deprivation. Studies show that once our basic needs for food, shelter, and attachment are met, happiness is dependent on a loving family and friends, good health, meaningful work (paid or unpaid; what matters is that it gives us a sense of worth), involvement in a larger community, and spiritual expression (see The Pursuit of Happiness by David G. Myers). In other words, higher income and what it buys turn out to be pretty much absent as contributing factors in human happiness. Having a house twice as large does not double your satisfaction in life. Simplicity is about discovering what is "enough" in your life — based upon thoughtful analysis of your lifestyle and values — and letting go of the rest.

Jews have a long and complicated relationship with money. On the one hand, the Jewish tradition is replete with anti-consumerist messages. The Torah tempers the tendency to worry too much about financial security with such legal imperatives as tzedakah (charitable giving), Shabbat (taking one day a week completely off), and the sabbatical year (allowing the land to lie fallow every seventh year). Rabbinic literature expresses notable reservations about materialism, as in Pirkei Avot, where Hillel teaches that "the more possessions, the more worry" and Ben Zoma teaches, "Who is rich? The one content with his or her portion." This wisdom perceives that human happiness flows from state of mind, not from an abundance of material possessions. In the medieval period, some Jewish communities enacted sumptuary laws limiting excess in dress, food, and festivities, in order to decrease competitive ostentation. The simplicity of Jewish burial rites reflects similar concerns. In modern times, the kibbutz movement was founded on an ideal of simple living and anti-materialism.

On the other hand, most American Jews are descendants of immigrants who worked hard at menial jobs in an effort to get their foot in the door, attain the security that America offered, and provide an education for their children. The progression from sweatshop to City College to suburbs is familiar. Often, conflicting attitudes towards money made the trip as well. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, Torah of Money Director for the Shefa Fund (and former executive director of the JRF), often explores such conflicts in workshops for funders. "While Jews have become the wealthiest ethnic group in America per capita," he says, "the centuries of Jewish poverty and oppression have left a residue of insecurity, anxiety and even shame about financial security."

In a sense, Jews are "hard-wired" to expect fear and scarcity. We rarely question the trade-offs made for the sake of upward mobility. Even if we have inklings of something being out of whack ("When there’s too much of something," says one Yiddish proverb, "something is missing"), we may lack the support, insight, nerve — and even time! — to address the issue.

Still, Jews interested in improving their quality of life by cutting consumption need not look far afield. There is a philosophy as well as a practice of Voluntary Simplicity (the Hebrew term is histapkut b’me’ut — contentment with less) embedded in Judaism’s unique effort to balance private, individual behavior and communal relations. Applying the Jewish values model developed by Dr. David Teutsch [A Guide to Jewish Practice: Attitudes, Values and Beliefs, available from the RRC] to issues of time, money, and consumption, we discern seven essential principles of Jewish Voluntary Simplicity:

  1. Anava (humility).
    We are instructed to walk humbly with God. This suggests that we might need to contract ourselves and take up less space. Environmentalists talk about minimizing "ecological footprints." One way to do this is by choosing to live beneath our means. Examples include eating a vegetarian diet, buying fewer clothes, and living in more modest quarters. Driving a hybrid (electric-gas) car instead of an SUV reduces the ecological footprint by two thirds. Anava means that we are not entitled to a hugely disproportionate share of the planet’s resources, even if we have the wealth to pay for it.


  2. Ho’da’ah (gratitude).
    This value is largely absent from our commercial culture. Realizing that what we have is a gift, not an entitlement, is a spiritual discipline. Training ourselves to be satisfied with what we have, and shutting down our wish lists for more, can be culturally subversive.

    Throw out your catalogues! Take a moment to say a blessing before you eat. As contemporary simplicity philosopher Jerome Segal puts it, "Consider the act of saying grace before a meal. Here the core is an attitude of thanksgiving, of appreciation. The focus is on recognizing the full value of what one has, rather than lamenting what one does not. While one can mouth the words, one cannot authentically begin a meal with a benediction of grace and at the same time maintain a sense of dissatisfaction with what one has. There is a certain peaceful contentment that is part of genuine thankfulness."


  3. B’al tashkhit (avoiding waste) and
    haganat hatevah (preserving nature).
    American life is characterized by excess: Our houses, cars, and even our bodies are getting bigger and bigger. If all the world consumed at our level, it would take four planets to meet the demand.

    Find ways to avoid waste in your personal life. Stop wasting food. Use compact fluorescent light-bulbs, which last nine times as long.


  4. Bitul z’man (wasting time).
    The moments of our lives are precious, and we don’t know how many there will be. Creating an alignment between our values and how we spend our time is an option denied those billions of people, past and present, for whom survival is a struggle. Most Jewish Americans, however, do have choices. Do we want to work long hours to maintain an opulent lifestyle? Do we want to spend six hours a week shopping, as the average American does? How much time are we willing to spend in a car, running errands and commuting? How do we find time to nurture ourselves, let alone support partners, family, friends and community? Your Money or Your Life, a Voluntary Simplicity classic by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, asks the question: How much of your time/life force does it take to buy things? Is it worth it?


  5. Tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (repair of the world).
    Voluntary Simplicity helps us to free up time and money to devote to these mitzvot. We are commanded to give tzedakah, which is an obligation, not an option. This is a unique aspect of Jewish Voluntary Simplicity, compared to the more privatistic American model. The standard for giving that the Bible sets is ten percent. Our checkbooks would look very different if we met this standard — yet with careful consumption, it might be achievable.

    Tzedakah can also be given through divestment of excess stuff that is useful to others. Adopt a practice to give away clothes every time you buy new ones. The blessing "Praised are You, God, who clothes the naked" can be said both when acquiring and when giving away clothing.


  6. Kehillah (commitment to community).
    In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam highlights the effects of the decline of civic engagement in America: alienation, isolation, even depression. We Jews have a long, powerful tradition of living in community, and understand the crucial relationship between individual and community. In modern times, community association is voluntary, and Jewish communities must work hard to remain healthy. Informal systems of connection within the community help.

    Try using your synagogue listserv as a sharing tool, matching people who need things with people who have and don’t need them. Our minyan has exchanged a remarkable flow of things — medical equipment, bikes, inkjet cartridges — just by posting them online. Instead of spending time and money shopping for the items, community members spend time swapping. You might also create a shul support group to share ideas and strategies for dealing with consumerism.


  7. Menukhah (rest and renewal).
    Every year, there is an annual effort to highlight overconsumption by turning the Friday after Thanksgiving, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, into "International Buy Nothing Day." Jews have inherited a tradition that sponsors one of these days every week!

    Shabbat, a day of cessation from commercial transaction, is a cornerstone of Jewish life. But Shabbat is not only about avoiding work or not consuming — it is about getting off the economic treadmill and facing each other as people rather than as economic actors. Shabbat is about deciding for a day to let everything, including ourselves, just be. These fifty-two annual "Buy Nothing Days" allow us to trade consumption for personal and communal renewal.

The seven values of Jewish Voluntary Simplicity are embodied in certain positive contemporary developments in the Jewish community. For example, in response to the tendency toward bigger and gaudier b’nai mitzvah and weddings, a "neo-sumptuary" literature has emerged, typified by Jeffrey K. Salkin’s Putting God on the Guest List, a guide to increasing the spiritual significance of these occasions. This approach encourages giving tzedakah commensurate with the celebration’s cost (MAZON, the Jewish community’s premiere hunger-relief organization, requests three percent).

In the Orthodox world, a group of rabbis have gone further and created "The Guidelines," sumptuary laws for today. Concerned that members of their communities are going into debt to create celebrations that "keep up with the Goldbergs," the guidelines stipulate maximum numbers of guests and musicians and even specify appropriate centerpieces, flowers and menus, regardless of the celebrants’ incomes. Rabbis who sign on refuse to perform non- Guidelines weddings. In the liberal community, which lacks enforcement, downsizing will have to come through brave role models and communal processing.

Another traditional tool for reducing duplicative consumption, the gemakh, could be recon- structed for our contemporary situation.


A gemakh (the word is made from the first letters of gemilut chasadim, deeds of lovingkindness) is a communal lending system. Typically, one person takes responsibility for collecting used items in good condition — everything from wedding clothes to computers — to lend them where needed. In many communities, this is already done informally, as when you hand off maternity clothes to a pregnant fellow-congregant, and she in turn does the same.

A fancy-clothing gemakh would save harried parents of b'not mitzvah many trips to the mall. These party clothes are expensive, yet are only worn a few times before their owners either outgrow them or outgrow the bar/bat mitzvah circuit. By collecting dresses, shoes, accessories, ties, suits, etc., and making them available to the next year’s crop of kids, much would be gained. Such a gemakh would create a communal culture that de-emphasizes shopping, and the money not spent on a fancy outfit could be donated to tzedakah.

If Simplicity is both authentically Jewish and sensible, why do we feel ambivalent about downsizing? Why do we not all flock to live simpler lives?

One reason is that Jewish life in America is very expensive, involving synagogue dues, JCC memberships, charitable donations, bar/bat mitzvah expenses, trips to Israel, ritual objects and, for parents, tuition for supplemental or Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, and youth movement trips. Of course, we are not advocating that people drop out of Jewish life in the process of simplifying!

Another complicating factor for those who are parenting in this hyper- commercialized atmosphere is the resistance to limiting consumption that comes from kids themselves, and from the expectations of affluent Jewish life: music and sports lessons, entertainment, vacations, private school tuition for many, and a stream of new clothes, electronics, toys and sports equipment.

In Blessings of a Skinned Knee, psychologist Wendy Mogel opines that Jewish values should work to limit these expectations, which are in the long run destructive for children, who need limits. In an environment drenched with advertising, it is difficult for parents to resist pressure from their kids, as well as the messages from society telling them they must give their children every competitive advantage. The real competitive advantage, however, we can give our children is healthy values and a vibrant community.

Simplifying one’s life is a long-term process, done most effectively with the support of others who are doing the same. Cecile Andrews has popularized the concept of a "simplicity circle," which meets with a facilitator over time to tackle these issues and to share experiences, ideas, frustrations and successes. A Jewish simplicity circle might have a greater emphasis on the spiritual disciplines and rewards inherent in the simplifying process, using Jewish vocabulary and placing focus on community affairs. Members might also become effective advocates for adopting synagogue policies compatible with simplicity.

Some of our suggestions are individual, accomplished by modifying personal habits; some are communal, and may take some measure of education and group building. They will all help counter the rampant consumerism in American society, and do so within a demonstrably Jewish framework.

Images by Lawrence Bush

For Further Reading

  • The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, by Cecile Andrews
  • Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,
    by David Brooks
  • Jews, Money, and Social Responsibility, by Lawrence Bush and Jeffrey Dekro
  • Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic, by John de Graaf
  • The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel
  • Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam
  • Graceful Simplicity: Toward A Philosophy and Politics Of Simple Living,
    by Jerome M Segal.
  • Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn
  • The Overspent American, by Juliette Schor
  • The Simple Living Guide, by Janet Luhrs
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Type: RT Article

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