Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Mauss and the Singles Problem

One of the more interesting Anthropology books written in the 20th Century is The Gift by Marcel Mauss. While explicitly an analysis about gift giving among the Northwestern Indians (the Potlatch), it has many wider implications for humankind as a whole.

Among the lessons derived from the study (by some) is that most societies do not like surpluses. This is not to say that individuals in societies do not like having more than they need, but rather a surplus is destabalizing for societies.

Counterintuitively, the more money, time, freedom, etc. that individuals (or families or other economic units) have, the greater possibility exists for them to engage in activities which undermine the status quo and are, ultimately, destructive to society.

Therefore it is in most societies/communities interests to find ways for its members to spend their extra resources until they are completely consumed. For example, the principle of ve-hegita bo yomam va-layla means that males are obligated to use all of their time studying Torah until they do not have any more free time.

It is interesting to see how they plays out in many realms in the Orthodox Jewish Communities (aside from why poverty might be good for them).

One example is the "Singles Crisis" in Orthodox Judaism. Now many people discuss, ad nauseum, this problem and, recently, this has become the Cause Celebre of the year (replacing both abuse and children going off the derech).

Now, while there many be many people who are genuinely concerned about single people who are suffering emotionally (or have to suffer through repeated bad dates), for many communal leaders, I suspect the concern is one related to Mauss's book. Single Jews, generally, have more time, money, and resources, than couples/families and far fewer committments. This leads to a surplus on many fronts. With this surplus singles have the potential to get involved in many things that Jewish communal leaders would prefer that they not get involved in. Hence the concern about the "Singles Crisis". (There is more to be said about Mauss and the Orthodox Jewish Communities, but who has the time to blog?)

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