Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

Often when I go shopping or order merchandise online I feel compelled to search and search to get the very best deal. After I buy something, if I find out later that I could have gotten the item cheaper, I feel so disappointed with myself. I’m afraid I may have a bargain-hunting disorder. What can I do about this?

Desperately Seeking Deals in Demarest

Dear Deals,

There is nothing wrong with looking for a good deal or trying to save money when you shop. Effective negotiation in transactions is valued as a desirable skill. Frugality is considered by many to be a virtue. Some religions raised the frugality trait to an overt ethical ideal. Quakers and Puritans in America, for instance, have encouraged a lifestyle of modest spending in combination with helping others through charity.

On the other hand, sadly, we Jews are sometimes stereotyped unfairly and negatively for our frugality.

Our consumer culture in America pushes us through its commercial interests toward conspicuous consumption and lavish spending as the goals of a good life. That’s obviously contradictory to any aims at prudent thrift.

I don’t know if you are truly lavish or frugal. Your problem appears to be that you feel driven to a near compulsion to get the absolute best deal on whatever you buy, be it a big ticket item or a small purchase.

So let me assure you outright: It is okay to pay retail. I give you permission to do that. You do not always have to get the best price or deal on everything that you buy. This may not be a profound insight. But sometimes it helps if a neutral third party just tells you that.

And if you do manage to go retail, and yet your “disorder” persists and you feel that paying retail is a personal shortcoming, something like a sin, then I have an additional suggestion to help you deal with what you perceive to be a failure in your behavior.

On Yom Kippur in the alphabetical confession of our sins that we recite in the synagogue, the “Ashamnu,” you can quietly add one more lapse to your catalog: “Retail-nu.”

Dear Rabbi,

I read about rabbis in Israel who offer cures, amulets, talismans and the like to their followers. They attend their followers’ family events and give advice to businessmen. The rabbis receive fees for these services, and sometimes they are given lavish donations. Some of these rabbis have become quite rich; some are multimillionaires. Forbes has published a list of the richest Israeli rabbis. I personally think these guys are despicable con men who use religion to prey on vulnerable people in need of help. Shouldn’t we do something to stop these people?

Raging over Rabbis in Randolph

Dear Raging,

Whoa! It is hard to ask a rabbi to condemn a rabbi. On the one hand, we rabbis need to stick together. If you attack one of our colleagues, common sense dictates that we ought to step up to defend him. However, on the other hand, you are right in your inquiry. If we find that a professional colleague is a fraud, it makes good sense for us to step up to discipline him, lest our whole profession be tarnished.

We rabbis derive our authority primarily from our study and special knowledge of rabbinic literature, including Talmud, Codes, Responsa and yes, also Kabbalah. Secondarily, many Jews believe that some or all rabbis have special charisma, which is power that derives from their closeness to the sacred and from their more direct link to God. This latter belief is more common in the chasidic and Sephardic communities.

And you no doubt realize that on the one hand, if you are affiliated with any form of organized religion, you already are paying significant amounts to rabbis for their services. Nearly all rabbis serving in a professional capacity in America are paid – some quite handsomely. You may derive personal benefits from their services. Some provide solace and counseling in a professional manner, based on academic training. I assume that you have no problem with that means of livelihood and you do not consider such practitioners to be con men.

But on the other hand, you may be rightfully indignant if a rabbi exploits his station to demand exorbitant fees from his reverential flock for whatever it is that he offers: his presence at events, blessings, advice and the like.

In this case, since you don’t seem to know directly the rabbis that you question, you need to step back and ask if you are incensed specifically about these charismatic holy men making too much money. And you need to consider what provokes you to conclude that they are fakers and charlatans who exploit the weak and helpless. There are many testimonies from their followers praising and thanking these holy men. Celebrity charismatic rabbis, who earn the big bucks for providing the cures and remedies that you dislike, also can and do alleviate much suffering among their followers.

If a rabbi breaks the law by committing fraud or engages in an outright scam, you are justified to call him a con man. But if he engages in legal activities that are within the professional parameters of what rabbis do, you have little basis to label him a fake.

Nevertheless, you may choose to disapprove of extremes of rabbinical activity. For a religious believer like yourself, if you believe a rabbi’s activities are outrageous, you are entitled to your subjective opinion to declare a flashy healer a fake, while you continue to deem other, more modest counselors as legitimate.

I do hope that you find helpful this brief Talmudic analysis and (rabbinic) advice for the day-to-day reality of our contradictory world, where one person’s holy man may be another person’s con man.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to