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April 12, 2019 5:22 pm

The Talmud’s Take on Keeping Up With the Joneses

avatar by Pini Dunner

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

On November 10, 1987, artist Arthur R. Momand died in New York at the age of 100. Although a short obituary appeared in The New York Times, his passing went largely unnoticed. Truthfully, this is hardly surprising, because even in his heyday, he was not a household name — and his heyday ended almost 50 years before he died.

Nevertheless, Momand ought to be celebrated for having made an indelible mark on both the English language and popular culture; he was the originator of the idiom “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Fondly referred to as “Pop,” Momand was a strip-comic artist originally hired by the New York World in 1905. A talented satirist, he succeeded in producing a number of popular cartoons that were syndicated across the country.

After his marriage in 1910, and flushed by his moderate success, Momand moved from New York City to Cedarhurst in Nassau County, where he soon found himself struggling to make ends meet as he attempted to stay materially on-par with his neighbors. As he later admitted, “we were living far beyond our means in our endeavor to keep up with the well-to-do class.”

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By 1912, he had given up the fight and moved back to Manhattan, where he and his wife lived in a cheap rented apartment.

Momand was so affected by his encounter with the social-climbing fast-lane, that it inspired him to launch a comic-strip to share his experiences. Originally named “Keeping Up with the Smiths,” the strip ended up being called “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” and ran weekly from 1913 until 1938, charting the life of the fictional McGinis family.

The comic’s main focus was the family’s endless efforts to “keep up” with the lifestyle of their neighbors, the never-seen but often-mentioned Jones family.

The public loved it, and “keeping up with the Joneses” entered the English vernacular, where it remained long after the cartoon was forgotten.

The Hungarian game theory pioneer John Harsanyi, winner of the 1994 Nobel prize for Economics, posited that “apart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behavior.”

More notably, he added that “this concern for social status is perhaps more conspicuous in those societies, like the American, where the ruling ideology encourages a striving for upward social mobility, for movement to higher social status positions.”

The sages of the Talmud were rather more direct, pithily observing (Kohelet Rabba 1:13) that: “he who has one hundred will want two hundred, and he who has two hundred will want four hundred.”

The Torah portion Metsorah records the purification process for a person afflicted by tsara’at. Tsara’at was a disease afflicting those who engaged in slanderous gossip, and it resulted in an enforced period of quarantine. After seven days of isolation, the priest would sacrifice a guilt-offering on the person’s behalf, and then wipe some of the blood on his or her right ear, thumb, and big toe, as part of the rehabilitation process.

This unusual ritual has just one parallel in Jewish law — the inauguration of a new priest into active service.

But why would a process marking the elevation of a priest, Judaism’s most auspicious religious position, be echoed for an individual who has been ousted from society as a result of their anti-social behavior?

The Talmud (Sotah 9a) records the sin of the primordial serpent in the Garden of Eden, and reveals that God originally intended the serpent to be king of all beasts, portraying the snake as a creature that walked upright and communicated like a human being. But because the serpent “placed his eyes on that which was unfit for him, and desired that which was not given to him, what was in his possession was taken away from him.”

According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 165a), only a minority of people stumble into a life of wanton immorality, although the same cannot be said about theft. However, no one — not one person — is immune to the temptation of lashon hara. This curious observation flies in the face of any rational understanding. Humans are primarily motivated by gratification, hence the fatal attraction of promiscuity and theft. But why would anyone be attracted to petty gossip if there is no material benefit? It seems that our Talmudic sages understood human psychology only too well. Every person craves a sense of self-worth. Society actively promotes material competition as the medium by which we can attain our goals in life, and victory over others is seen as the way to measure our value.

But “keeping up with the Joneses” is a slippery slope. Instead of developing our inner potential, we forge a path based on the success of others. Worst of all, we might resort to pushing others down so that we can rise above them. But rather than feeling accomplished, success in that rat race only results in us feeling vacant and needy — we may have 100, but we end up wanting 200.

Our desire for self-worth results in lashon hara, in the mistaken belief that denigrating others will somehow elevate us. But lashon hara is a compulsion that drives us off our beaten track, diminishing our self-worth rather than building it up.

The ordained priest of ancient Judaism was meant to embody the pinnacle of spiritual achievement, and the ordination ceremony confirmed that he was an outstanding individual. Using the very same ritual for those emerging from tsara’at was a message that there is no need for negativity to reach the pinnacle of who you can be.

With grateful thanks to Rabbi Yochanan Zweig of Miami.

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