The Perils of Consumerism as Judaism

by Meir Simchah Panzer

At the Judaism2030 conference last week in New York, a novel alarm was sounded by Dr. David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb (I quote from their article, As the Generational Winds Blow: “[I]n a recent study of highly affiliated Jewish Baby Boomers, two-thirds said that if they do not find what they want in the Jewish community, they have every intention of going elsewhere. [… C]ontinued Boomer fidelity to the Jewish people cannot be assumed. Competitive alternative options for Jews in their fifties, sixties and seventies are emerging throughout the country, from the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps to Senior Corps and Executive Service Corps. […] We ignore at our peril the implications of Boomers leaving the Jewish scene and the influence of that exit on the generations that follow.”

What is the peril exactly?

“Rather than reaping the benefits of generations of fidelity and Jewish passion, we may well find ourselves with four generations of highly entitled Jews whose allegiance to the Jewish community will only be as deep as the next meaningful experience offered to them, and whose loyalties might not extend beyond their own, more narrow interests.”

The course of action is obvious to Elcott and Himmelfarb: Invest in Boomers. And what can this mean but create “the next meaningful experience” to keep them engaged even if only through their “own, more narrow interests”?

I propose an alternative:

If you are a Jew who is affiliating only as long as you can get “the next meaningful experience,” then, please, stop paying your temple dues, burn your ketuba, grow back your foreskin, marry a goy, and demonstrate against Israel. We don’t need you.

Of course, as Elcott and Himmelfarb point out, if Boomers drop out, wasted would be “the talent, experience and financial resources they can bring to underwrite, sustain and grow the Jewish community.” It would be a shame (and as a professional fundraiser for an Israeli institution with an annual budget running into hundreds of millions of dollars, I’m acutely aware of what a shame it could be), but waste is a given in evolution.

Elcott and Himmelfarb are right that we are in danger of losing the Baby Boomers. But the problem is not how to keep entitled Jews satisfied. The problem is how to overcome entitlement or – let’s be more clear – how to break out of practicing Judaism as consumerism.

Judaism as consumerism, or consumerism as Judaism, means most basically that one’s Jewish practice does not express any real commitment or relationship but rather a drive to satiation, whether a pleasure-hunt or pain-flight. There is nothing wrong with “the next meaningful experience” in itself, but if those experiences are pursued for their own sake, then one fails to relate to what those experiences would be about. It’s as if one made a marriage all about the sex.

What’s amazing is that several generations of American Jews actually feel entitled to getting their meaningful experiences, whether or not they invest in their relationships with God, Torah, Israel the people, or Israel the land. We are suffering from an epidemic psycho-spiritual disorder.

This disease of entitlement infects our institutions. We propagate it whenever we make Judaism about ‘getting something out of it.’ We have let it become the prime force driving Jewish institutional programming.

The consumerist paradigm bifurcates affiliated Jews into producers and consumers. The producers – do-gooders of a sort – cater to the demands of Judaism’s consumers: for youth consumers, proto-adult liberties and license to act childishly (I know – I was a member of NFTY and an informal education professional); for college-age and young-professional consumers, free vacations to Israel (after all, it’s their “Birthright” – they’re entitled to those vacations); for growing family consumers, Kodak moment bar and bat mitzvas and – now the latest in frameable family ritual – consecrations and conformations and whatever else; for consumers of all ages, low-impact affiliation to assuage any guilt left-over from a less post-modern age…

True, much of our institutional programming is excellent. We have programs that make us think, programs that make us feel, programs that make us wonder, aspire, wish, plan, etc. etc. etc. We are not held back by the quality of our programming. We are, however, held back by the programming paradigm. For in this dynamic, whether one is consuming the program or producing the program consumed, one reduces Judaism to the next meaningful experience.

Of course, we know this already – Elcott, Himmelfarb, and thousands of other thoughtful Jews involved with Jewish programming. And we feel that the fix on the next meaningful experience is limiting. What we need are the consciousness, creativity, and will to overcome it.

And current efforts, like making programs to empower Jewish program consumers to become Jewish program producers, only compound the problem. It’s as if we have declared, “Ask not what Judaism can do for you, but what you can do for Judaism” – as if switching from being an anode to being a cathode got you out of the vicious circuit. We parade this kind of program as if it were a solution, and the more we do so, the more we convince ourselves that it’s something other than consumption compounded, and the more we become entrenched in our consumerist dogmas.

But of course leadership programs have been our great white hope. If those aren’t our salvation, what is?

No quantity of leaders, resources, and programmatic tactics will help us until we become aware of how our basic assumptions about our problems are limiting our approaches to solutions.

Look, for example, at how the consumption paradigm posits a decision between Judaism and “competitive alternative options” like Peace Corps and Executive Service Corps. Judaism, we are assuming, is one among many options in the eBay of life. But this is plainly false. Being Jewish isn’t just another option. Being Jewish is who we are.

Yet we champion this false assumption when we market Judaism as if it were a consumer good. And we thus let this false assumption spawn a false corollary: if Judaism is a luxury item to enhance my life, then Judaism is separate from my life, it’s an add-on. Again, this is plainly false. Judaism is not spiritual shellac to spread over real life to give mundane existence gloss and glamour. Judaism is our way of life, Judaism is an expression of who we are.

Of course, taking on Judaism as an add-on has the same effect as taking on anything else which places high demands on time and energy without being an integral part of one’s identity and self- expression. (Think of the boat that sits in the harbor nagging its owner for cleaning and repair.) That which we must invest in which is not an organic, creative expression of who we are, we come to despise. This is actually warned against in Leviticus 26:14 which we just read on the Shabbat proceeding the Judaism2030 conference: “But if you do not listen to Me” – which is understood to mean: if you do not invest in your relationship with Me, instead keeping Torah and mitzvot as add-ons (see Rashi) – “… and if you despise My statutes and reject My ordinances, not performing any of My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant, then I too, will do the same to you; I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases that cause hopeless longing and depression…”

So we see in our despising Judaism for its burden and failure to touch us deeply, how positing Judaism as a competitive alternative option doesn’t work. But rather than dispense with consumerism, we jerk reactively against our disdain – we do after all sense that it’s a part of us – and take pains to prove Judaism’s relevance. But how can Judaism be meaningful and relevant to people who are locked into “their own… narrow interests”? Obviously, it must be made to accord with those narrow interests. But no matter how reasonable or enlightened those interests may be, forcing Judaism into off-the-shelf usefulness, over-the-counter accessibility, and “spiritual” relevance keeps it from challenging us and being the context for our growth. Instead it serves us what we already have, heaps upon us more of our constructed selfhood, warps our perception around our interests, keeps us from responding to others, and channels us, with the nicest justifications, to renege responsibility and to exploit the world for our narrow interests.

This is notably the case even for those narrow interests which are extracted from Torah. (Torah may be, after all, either a sam chaim or a sam mavet – a medicine or a poison – depending upon how one wields it.) For no verse extracted from its context and fashioned into a plank in a platform for ideologues remains Torah; it’s just another pretense held up by people attached to their petty visions.

So, let us bracket our interests – even if they don’t seem too narrow – and allow Judaism to be the place where we grow. And instead of providing a competitive option for Boomers or anyone else, working to attract others to our brand of Judaism, let’s concentrate on authenticity. Then, if the disaffiliated do show up, they will find brave people eager to share the continuing work of creation.

Meir Simchah Panzer lives with his family in Jerusalem. He writes, seeks wisdom, drinks Torah and facilitates tzadakah.