Not By Tribe and Not By Market: After the Pew Survey

If we hope to build a Jewish future in the face of our demographic challenges, then we must relearn a third language, the oldest Jewish language of all. It is the language of mitzvah, of calling and ultimate purpose.

by Michael Wasserman

When we react to demographic threats, such as those reported in the recent Pew survey, we generally do so in the two languages that we know best: the language of tribal solidarity and the language of the consumer marketplace. Both languages are deeply problematic and confuse our efforts.

We tend to formulate our questions tribalistically. We ask how we can push back against assimilation, how we can we increase the odds that our grandchildren will be Jewish.

What is tribalistic about those questions? They start from the premise that group survival is a self-evident good. For members of a tribe, the perpetuation of the group requires no justification. In fact, to ask why there should be a Jewish future would seem absurd. Continuity is an end in itself. The question is not why, but how.

The problem with formulating the question in that way – assuming the ends and asking only about the means – is that the premise that we take for granted is exactly the premise that we must not take for granted, because it is exactly the assumption that the people that we hope to reach do not share. For Jews whose tribal bonds have been loosened by ethnic assimilation, the value of group survival is far from self-evident. That is the essence of the challenge. If we ask the question in a way that assumes the very thing that we cannot afford to assume, then our vocabulary cuts us off from the people that we need to speak to.
Perhaps that is why, when it comes to answering the question, we typically switch languages. Having asked the question tribalistically, we attempt to answer it in a language that more people understand, the universal language of the marketplace, the language of American consumerism.

What do such answers – market-based answers to tribalistic questions – sound like? Here are some examples: “To build a brand that young Jews will be loyal to, we must do a better job of listening to the consumer.” “We must understand the spiritual marketplace and create innovative, exciting and user-friendly programs and services that young Jews will want to buy.” “We must model Jewish institutions on the most creative and successful companies, which excel at catering to their segments of the market.”

The language of the answers is as problematic as the language of the questions. Just as tribalistic questions cut us off from the people that we must learn to speak to, market-based answers are irrelevant to what they – and we – are really looking for. At a very basic level, the commercial template does not match the nature of the task.

The problem is not just that Jewish institutions cannot realistically compete with the retail and entertainment industries. It is that, even if they could realistically compete, success on that terrain would not be the success that we are hoping for. Even if we could imagine young Jews loving their JCC or their synagogue in the same way that they love their iPhone, it would not be the kind of love that we – or they – are really seeking. Loyalty to a brand is not like loyalty to a community. Yes, people will pay extra for a brand that they prefer, but that is not the same as sacrificing for a cause that they believe in, or giving of themselves out of a sense of calling or belonging. To apply the language of the marketplace to the human search for meaning is a fundamental category error. Meaning is not a product that one can sell.

We are fluent in two languages: the language of tribal solidarity and the language of the marketplace. But if we hope to build a Jewish future in the face of our demographic challenges, then we must relearn a third language, the oldest Jewish language of all. It is the language of mitzvah, of calling and ultimate purpose.

How would it sound to ask our questions in that language? Our questions would no longer be exclusively about the means of group survival, but about the purpose of group survival. We would no longer start by asking how we can ensure a Jewish future, but by asking why there ought to be Jewish future in the first place. Instead of asking how to make our institutions viable for another generation, we would start by asking what would make our institutions worthy of lasting for another generation. Instead of asking how to raise the odds that our grandchildren will be Jewish, we would start by asking what understanding of our Jewish calling, of our ethical and spiritual responsibilities, is so compelling to us that it might merit the attention of our grandchildren as well.

To be sure, asking the question in that language would put a greater burden on us to clarify what we ourselves believe in and are prepared to stand for. It would also make it possible for us to move toward answers that might earn the loyalty of those who will come after us.

Michael Wasserman is co-rabbi of The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona.