Jewish Social Class: Who will be my neighbor in the World to Come?

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There is a literary motif that appears from time to time in Jewish folklore. This is the story of the wealthy or scholarly Jew who ponders to the point of distraction, “who will be my neighbor in the world to come, in the hereafter.” As this folktale unwinds the person of high earthly prestige, either in terms of material wealth or scholarly learning, discovers that his neighbor in the world to come will be a Jew of significantly lower social status; a water carrier, a wood cutter, a beggar, or an illiterate, but one whose righteousness, or at times even holiness, far transcends his low social status in the earthly Jewish community. The wealthy man, the scholar, is by various degrees puzzled, confounded, or even downright disappointed by this revelation.

The curiosity and the irony of this story is this: if a person of high social prestige was convinced in the existence of the world to come and of his eternal salvation as opposed to personal extinction and eternal nothingness at death, why would it bother him so to be told that he will have to share this eternal bliss with a lower status co-religionist? It appears that preserving ones rank in the social hierarchy of the earthly Jewish community for all eternity was, for some, more important than personal eternal salvation itself!

Another motif in Jewish folk literature is that of the rag tattered Jewish beggar. The rag tattered Jewish beggar seeks hospitality at a rich man’s or scholars house and is turned away only to be made welcome at the hovel of a simple Jewish water carrier or wood cutter. The beggar then reveals himself to be none other than Elijah the prophet and showers blessings upon the one who took him in.

We have in these folkloric themes, reflections of the longings of the Jews at the low end of the Jewish communal social hierarchy for respect in this world, as well as for salvation in the world to come- a world to come in which the social hierarchy with all its injustice and humiliation will be turned upside down.

How curious these stories may sound to the secular Jewish intellectual of today, who if we believe several surveys on American religious beliefs and practices does not entertain the possibility of a world to come let alone the concept of a personal God. American Jewish classism takes on a different form in comparison to traditional Marxist concepts of classism which involves the proletariat, and the downtrodden workers versus the capitalists, and those who control the means of production and distribution.

American Jewish classism manifests itself as a bifold division within Jewish communities. One group is comprised of those with status, based upon either wealth and/or occupational prestige. This group controls access to Jewish communal participation, prestige, recognition, and honors. These strata at many points overlap with the people who contribute the philanthropy and then set priorities for the allocation of these funds. The other group, which is disenfranchised from participation at the higher levels of decision making in the Jewish community are those without sufficient wealth and/or occupational prestige to be accepted by the elite Jewish group.

Social standing in the Jewish community tends to be contingent upon the ability and willingness to contribute large sums of money to support Jewish communal fund-raising institutions. There is of course, in my opinion solid ethical backing for this linkage between philanthropy and enhanced social status. When one examines the Jewish American communal scene the hard work, selfless devotion, sacrifice and generosity of Jewish philanthropists becomes apparent and is impressive. The work done by these affluent social strata is a critical factor in the very survival of Jewish life in America. There is however, because of this bifurcation of the Jewish community into donors and receivers the harmful unintended development of Jewish classism.

Classism alienates certain social strata of Jews from involvement with the Jewish community and thereby opens the way for an estrangement with Judaism. Sociologically this can be looked upon as a three-step process.

  •  Jewish individuals whose socioeconomic status puts them on the lower end of the Jewish social hierarchy are denied meaningful involvement in Jewish communal activities.
  • This denial of meaningful involvement not only means that the social needs of these individuals cannot be met within the context of the Jewish community, but also creates a feeling of resentment against the Jewish communal institutions.
  • These individuals either drop out from, or never involve themselves, with Jewish communal institutions outside of perhaps their local synagogue.

It is not enough however, merely to say that the Jewish communal elite is based on wealth and occupation. We have to gain an understanding as to how wealth and occupation are translated into this elitist position within the Jewish communal hierarchy. There are a number of social mechanics involved in this transformation.

• The wealthy have the financial resources to live in upscale areas which often have high concentrations of Jews. This results in a closely-knit community of high prestige Jews.

• Because of their ability to donate large sums of money this select group sets priorities, and as gate keepers control Jewish communal resources and programs.

• Because of their financial resources these people tend to engage in common recreational activities. Such activities strengthen elitist group social bonding.

• Due to the flexible workday schedules of this elite, communal cultural and educational activities are often scheduled during times of the day when others in the community are obligated to be at jobs which do not allow for such flexibility.

• This elite is perpetuated across generations because their children are sent not only to the same Jewish communal institutions but also to prep schools and elite colleges which tend to have large Jewish enrollments. Many young people meet their mates during the college years and this may in fact mean that the more expensive the college that Jewish parents can afford to send their children to, the more chance that they will marry within the faith.

Not only are we dealing with social class, but we are also dealing with religion which for many still involves the fulfillment of existential needs. Here we see an interesting interplay between social class and religion that has implications for the American Jewish community.
Max Weber, in the Protestant Ethnic and The Spirit of Capitalism tells us that the early Calvinists were in a constant state of psychological tension because according to their doctrine of predestination never could be sure if they were elected to eternal salvation, or predetermined to eternal damnation. Partially as a way to ease this tension the belief was developed that although in this life one could never be sure whether he was saved or damned, one could get hints of his salvation in the hereafter by doing well in this life and accumulating wealth; intimations of immortality so to speak.

The American Jewish community has I believe put a twist into this Calvinist world view and has adopted a version of it for themselves. As Jewish baby boomers are aging and at least considering their own mortality as a distinct possibility there is an increasing desire for comfort and answers to the inevitability of death, this oldest of existential dilemmas. Rather than addressing the issue of life after death in a traditional religious there is a tendency among much of the religious leadership to address it in a secular humanistic way, with an emphasis on the study of mourning rituals and how to cope with grief. Transcendent religious beliefs that deal with resurrection, after life, eternal life, rewards and punishments in the hereafter, indeed even of a God who bothers with such things tend not to be brought into play. Not that a tradition for these things is lacking in Judaism, but for various reasons Jewish intellectuals and many religious leaders, have either negated these beliefs or have chosen not to deal with them in public.

This may have something to do with the ideology of the American Jewish community in general. Beliefs and speculations on a life in the hereafter are ignored or negated. Those with high prestige are not interested in the afterlife because this belief rather than only being the “opiate of the people” can also be a revolutionary social idea. It is revolutionary in the sense that the social order on earth is seen to be ephemeral, temporary, not eternal, and that there is a higher order which transcends this social world; an alternative world in which the privileges of this social world no longer exist. This belief in an alternative world to come social structure devalues the existing social structure of this one.

American Jews have created for themselves a symbolic, substitute immortality. It is the immortality of social prestige that spans the present and the future. It is an immorality of good works through philanthropy that memorializes those who have passed on. American Jews are assured by religious leaders and fund raisers that they will live on in the memory of their voluntary leadership and fund-raising generosity. Perhaps this offers existential solace for the elite of the community and causes them not to seek immortality in its more esoteric forms.

But what of those in the Jewish community who do not have the material resources or occupational prestige to immortalize themselves through the public recognition of the Jewish community? They are relegated to oblivion, denied the Jewish belief in the hereafter and at the same time denied even the symbolic immortality that is conferred upon the elites by their communal leadership and philanthropic involvements.They are pushed to socially disengage from what they feel to be a local Jewish communal structure that disenfranchises its less privileged members from participation in this life as well as from hope in even symbolic participation in the world to come.

I started with some Jewish folktales, now let me conclude with another one – that of “Tevye the Milkman” or better known in its Broadway incarnation as “Fiddler on The Roof.” Tevye rhapsodizes about becoming a rich man. Nothing odd about a person of low occupational and economic prestige dreaming about becoming rich. But the heimishce Jewish twist to Tevye’s aspirations is what is noteworthy. What is the most important thing that Tevye says he would do with his hoped-for wealth? He would buy a seat in shul next to the eastern wall.

If only Tevye becomes rich. Not only would life become materially easier, but most of all Tevye will be closer to God and will have higher prestige by virtue of his new position in the Jewish community. The seat by the eastern wall will put him closer to holiness and closer to the wealthy elite of the community at the same time; an intimate connection between social standing in this world and spiritual standing in the world to come.

But what if Tevye fails to become a rich man? Well, Tevye will remain Tevye, an impoverished Jewish milkman within the Jewish community. Tevye didn’t have much choice as to which community he belonged to. As a Jew not likely to convert, birth usually meant destiny. In addition, Tevye’s traditional Judaism offered him the prospect of a better life in the world to come.

And the modern Tevye? If he doesn’t strike it rich in terms of occupational or material prestige, which are the keys to finding community respect and spiritual gratification in the Jewish community, he is free to disengage, to leave, to go elsewhere, and this indeed is what he has been doing for some time now.

About the Author
Born in NYC. First generation college educated. PH.D. from City University Graduate Center in Sociology of Religion. Lived worked and studied in Israel for six years. Taught public school in New Haven as a first profession before entering the academic world . Has been contingent faculty at Southern Connecticut State University since 1997. I have a keen interest as to how social scientists study the American Jewish Community and believe that their focus must be broadened and made relevant to include previously ignored groups, such as the so called non-elites.
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