Can’t Buy Me Judaism

by Seth Chalmer

“The day is not far off,” wrote John Meynard Keynes, “when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion.” The famous economist apparently thought the most important things can’t be bought and sold. Two articles in The Jewish Daily Forward this summer seemed to assume Judaism isn’t one of them. David Bryfman’s “Free Is Not For Me” and Noam Neusner’s “The Marketplace for Synagogues” illustrate a corrosive assumption which is becoming too common in Jewish organizational discourse: that Judaism is a consumer product.

Bryfman argues that giving away major Jewish experiences for free devalues those experiences. “Why would people want to pay for a Jewish experience,” he writes, “if… they can get Jewish products for free? And for a community that prides itself on wanting people to become more responsible, invested and committed, the very notion that we are prepared to give away things sends a mixed message… Rather than looking for how to give away things, what we should be asking is how to imbue Jewish life and commitment with real value.”

But what is it, exactly, that we want Jews to value? Is it specific “Jewish experiences”, or the Jewish experience, writ large? If the latter, then we shouldn’t fear devaluing individual programs; they’re the means, not the end. Bryfman is right to imply that being “responsible, invested and committed” includes contributing financially, but “giv[ing] away things” only “sends a mixed message” if we assume that those contributions must be structured as fee-for-service transactions. Instead, free programs can occur in the context of ongoing relationships between organizations and individuals – relationships that are more than the sum of the programs. Bryfman notes that many free programs fail to foster such meaningful relationships, but he fails to explain how charging fees will solve that problem. Indeed, by focusing on episodic experiences as if they’re the essential unit of Jewish engagement (and on price as the essential measure of their value), this conception bolsters a model of Jewish life as a mere series of business transactions.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, whom Bryfman quotes regarding the strange things people will do when something is free, also writes about a different problem which perfectly describes the trouble with Bryfman’s approach. In his book Predictably Irrational, Ariely writes: “we live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules. The social norms… are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required… The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different… The exchanges are sharp-edged … When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for – that’s just the way it is.” Ariely illustrates the absurdity of confusing these worlds with the example of paying your mother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. Bryfman’s article makes this mistake, consigning Judaism to the world of market norms, when social norms are better-suited to meaningful Jewish commitment. Social norms do not preclude financial contribution, but Jewish communal contributions should be more like a married couple pooling their salaries for groceries, and less like a crowd of strangers ordering their own lunches. If this vision seems naïve, that’s because too many Jews lack a familial commitment to the Jewish people. Trying to change that by charging more fees is like trying to get kids to appreciate family dinners by having grandma collect admission at the door.

If Bryfman implicitly commodifies Judaism, Neusner does so explicitly and with gusto. Synagogue membership as currently structured “has little economic utility to most potential buyers”, he explains. “Most Jews who are members attend their synagogues a small handful of times a year… the per visit cost is astronomical. No wonder most Jews rightfully conclude that synagogue membership is a bad deal.” The solution? Divide membership dues into weekly vouchers. Allow congregants to buy Shabbat services à la carte, and let synagogues innovate to compete for vouchers. In this vision, the synagogue is not an all-embracing community whose members are committed to being an ongoing part of each other’s lives, but rather a vendor selling individually packaged goods.

Neusner recognizes that some Jews may fear this system will “turn synagogue attendance into an economic transaction, where Jews would come to synagogue asking whether they will get their money’s worth.” But this objection does not dissuade him, since “we already have people asking that question. We just don’t have a good answer.” The implication is that Judaism has already come to be ruled by market norms. I cannot entirely deny this assertion (although I hope the trend is not irreversible). Rather, I dispute the argument that synagogues should adapt to this consumerist mindset rather than fighting it. Maybe we can turn back the tide of commodification, or maybe we can’t; either way, our duty is to try. A “successful” embrace of a marketplace Judaism would be no success at all.

Jews disagree about what Judaism is and isn’t: a covenantal community bound to serve God together; a nation or tribe with shared history and a shared destiny; a tradition of ethical ideals grounded in a vast treasury of text and culture; and endless variations on these themes. Yet for all our disagreements, all these visions deserve our commitment, our time, and yes, our money, because they place our individual lives within a larger reality that calls us, challenges us, and claims us. If we forget that we are called to higher purposes, and treat Jewish engagement as one more product line among many, then failure to engage will be our smaller problem; if Judaism is merely merchandise, then it will not deserve to succeed.

Seth Chalmer is Assistant Director, Berman Jewish Policy Archive (BJPA) @ NYU Wagner.