Stumbling Blocks of Consumerism

We need to learn to produce, sell, and consume fewer unnecessary products.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

Commentary on Parshat Kedoshim: Leviticus 19:1-20:27

Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

“You shall not place a stumbling block in front of a blind person; and you shall have fear of your God — I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:14)

Would any of us really place an obstacle that a blind person could trip over?

Very few people would have such low morals as to transgress the Torah commandment according to this most literal interpretation. Mankind in general has the basic moral fortitude not to want to harm the blind or the disabled for no reason.

canfei nesharimThe commentator Rashi, who usually follows a literal interpretation of the biblical text, takes pains to explain this verse figuratively, as referring to the placing of any sort of obstacle that could cause harm to a person.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch details actions that fall into the category of placing a stumbling block: “He who deliberately gives wrong advice, who gives the means, or prepares the way for wrong…who in any way actively or passively assists or furthers people in doing wrong….transgresses this prohibition. Thus the whole great sphere of the material and spiritual happiness of our neighbor is entrusted to our care.”

Many Types of Stumbling Blocks

The halakhic (Jewish legal) midrash, Torat Kohanim, introduces many types of stumbling blocks. According to this midrash, we are prohibited from placing a figurative stumbling block before a person by either:

  • Providing incorrect information which may cause someone to transgress a Torah law (such as marrying a woman whom he is forbidden to marry) or
  • Providing misleading advice that may cause financial or physical harm (traveling at a dangerous time or selling property).

Other rabbinic sources extend the concept of the stumbling block to include providing access to situations that are more likely to result in a person sinning.

The third category is therefore:

  • Making an object or situation available that can lead a person to succumb to moral, physical, or financial damage.

There is another form of the transgression that is so subtle that we may not even be aware that we are stumbling or causing others to stumble. This fourth category is that of creating or placing a person in a situation where he or she will be unable to exercise self-control and will sin impulsively because of an emotional vulnerability.

In Tractate Moed Kattan the Talmud states: “It once happened that a maidservant of Rav Yehuda Hanassi’s household saw a certain man who was striking his mature son. The maidservant exclaimed, ‘Let that man be excommunicated for he has transgressed the prohibition of ‘You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.'”

By striking an older child who is likely to verbally or physically retaliate, the parent creates a situation in which the child may violate the biblical prohibitions of hitting and cursing one’s parents.

Thus the fourth category:

  • Creating a situation or an emotional state which will lead a person to harm him/herself and others and/or lose control of his/her cognitive decision making abilities.

The Power of Consumption

I would like to focus on this final category. Contemporary society contains within it a severe and far-reaching stumbling block, which has led to abuse of the environment by endangering the earth’s delicate ecosystems and limited natural resources.

At the turn of the 20th century, the general population was too frugal and poor to purchase the many material goods from the over-production capabilities of the Industrial Revolution. To overcome this required a change in the spiritual and intellectual values of the people, from an emphasis on values like thrift, modesty, and moderation, towards a value system that encouraged spending and ostentatious display.

The solution was the strategy of consumerism — the creation of a public mindset that encourages over-consumption beyond people’s actual needs. Consumerism equates personal happiness with purchasing and consuming material possessions. The businesses and governments who stood to gain from increased trade essentially “blinded” people into believing that happiness could be achieved through endless consumption.

In his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Richard H. Robbins explains that for consumerism to take hold in the United States the public’s perception and buying habits had to be transformed.

Advertising aggressively shaped consumer desires and created value in commodities by imbuing them with the power to transform the consumer into a more desirable person. Luxuries became necessities. In 1880, $30 million was invested in advertising in the United States; today that figure has climbed to well over $120 billion. The concept of “Fashion” helped to create anxiety and restlessness over the possession of items that were ‘new’ or ‘up-to-date.’

In addition to the rise in advertising techniques, workers were given higher wages to increase their buying power in order to create a consumer economy. The advent of the credit card in the 1950s enabled people to buy things that they would not normally consider purchasing. Originally meant to stimulate economic growth, credit shopping actually leads to increased consumer debt.

Individual home ownership, for example, is a concept that is not practiced in many developing countries, where extended families live together. Individual homes increase the amount of resources used, as well as increasing sales for related industries. In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover wrote, “A primary right of every American family is the right to build a new house of its heart’s desire at least once. Moreover, there is the instinct to own one’s own house with one’s own arrangement of gadgets, rooms, and surroundings.” Today, individual homes are only getting bigger.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, created in 1921, serves to illustrate the role of the federal government in the promotion of consumption. The Commerce Department encouraged maximum consumption of commodities, producing films and leaflets advocating single-dwelling homes over multi-unit dwellings and suburban over urban housing.

Our present standard of housing is just one example of how the powers of consumerism have changed accepted norms, creating raised expectations of standards of living and causing us to use up more of the earth’s natural resources.

Environmental Implications

A great many of our environmental concerns are caused by the subtle but potentially lethal stumbling block of consumerism. Consumerism has brought about many of the environmental crises facing the world today, such as global warming (by increasing burning of fossil fuels), species extinction (through the clearing of forests), the proliferation of landfills, and subsequent contamination of water from the residue of the chemicals used to produce more material goods.

The environmental movement, with its mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is a response to the excessive over-production of a consumer society. As society conditions us to equate personal happiness with consumption of material goods, we are fighting an endless battle to minimize the environmental damage caused by the over-production and subsequent disposal of consumer goods which we really do not need.

Today we find ourselves simultaneously the victims and culprits of the commandment not to place a stumbling block before the blind. The consumer is blinded (almost from birth) by advertising and the resulting need to consume, so that we no longer know what we really need. We are constantly searching to find ways to sell our own products, in order to accumulate enough wealth to purchase other people’s products, because we have been blinded into thinking that we need them to be happy.

We need to learn to produce, sell, and consume fewer unnecessary products, whose waste can be seen in the proliferation of landfills that dot the urban landscape. Whether we produce, market, sell, or encourage the latest electronic gadget, ostentatious simcha, luxury home, late model car, or 99-cent toy that will break the next day, we should consider if what we are doing is ethical.

The Jewish and environmental response is to reduce our levels of consumption. In a world in which the public has been tripped into consumerism and over-production, our challenge is to reverse this trend.

Suggested Action Items:

1. Watch The Story of Stuff, a short Internet clip about where our resources come from and where they go. Sign up for updates and share the link with your friends

2. Organize a toy exchange (or a hat exchange, or a book exchange) in your community, so that you don’t need to buy new products. The goal here is not to give to the poor, but to share products so that you and your neighbors do not need to buy new things if the perfect thing is being unused in your neighbor’s house. For a step-by-step guide to planning your exchange, click here.

Discover More

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

The Torah

Five books of story, law, and poetry divided into 54 weekly portions.

Your Guide to the Best Elul and High Holidays Classes and Events

Prepare for the Jewish year 5781 with these unique classes from dozens of other Jewish organizations and synagogues.