Marketing Undermines Judaism

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January 4, 2004
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by Jay Michaelson

“Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the oneM
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on all around you.”
– Bob Dylan, It’s Alright Ma
ADVERTISING IS, at its heart, about the deceitful exploitation of desire. You don’t really want the new car, but you see the sexy, sleek images on television, and you want that: the power, the glory, the speed. And then, by sleight of hand, the message sinks in subliminally: the car will give you power. To the extent that we succumb to marketing of this type, our deepest yearnings are being cynically manipulated. We consume instead of exercising real (political) power, or manifesting real (intimate) sexuality with our loved ones. As Nike has shown, even revolution can be used to sell shoes.

To “market” Judaism, as Andrew Silow-Carroll and David Nelson suggest, contradicts exactly what makes Judaism worthwhile. Consumption co-opts our loves and energies to enhance our selfish desire (the yetzer hara), but Jewish practice reins in our selfish desire so that we can love and serve better. Marketing asks us to sublimate yearning into consumerism; Judaism asks us to restrain our consumerism and open up to yearning. From tzitzit to sexual morality, to laws against charging interest on loans, halakhah, in large part, is a laundry list of reminders that our time is short and that, in Goethe’s words, “what matters most should never be at the mercy of what matters least.”

Our own individual answers to “what matters” will vary, but the essence of branding, marketing, and image — and I say this as vice president of marketing for a software company — is precisely to press what matters most (deep values, needs, etc.) into the service of what matters least (consumption). When Jews witness an awesome sight of nature, they are asked to pause and open themselves to wonder, to make a blessing to the Oseh Ma’aseh Breishit, Maker of the Works of Creation. But in advertising, our feelings of awe and wonder are directed toward buying services and products. As Rabbi Nelson says, advertisements “try to convince us that there is some mysterious link between Brand X and happiness, power, sexiness, or fun. If it works, eventually we feel good every time we see the logo of Brand X.”

This is idolatry, however widely practiced it may be. Judaism cannot use power/sexiness/fun as tools to sell itself; Jews need to recognize that the Source of All Blessings, sexy and otherwise, is precisely that which cannot be reduced to a logo. I know that some say we have to be “realistic.” We live in a society of constant marketing, they say, and to not participate will make Judaism a religion without adherents. And Judaism has always marketed itself, from the original purpose of the Hanukkah menorah to Chabad’s use of it in American public squares. But we undermine Judaism by dumbing it down, dressing it up as “cool” or oversimplifying what Silow-Carroll calls the Jewish vision of “success.” We can and should invite Jews to learn about and love their tradition. But to treat Judaism as something to be consumed is to start down a spiritual path on the wrong foot. A real religious life is not something that one buys or sells. If Judaism is to transform, it will require full participation, a yearning heart. If you can buy it, it’s not holy.

Some might argue that, even if marketing Judaism may be duplicitous or patronizing at first, the new “customers” will see the true and deep value of Judaism in the end. This echoes an old Jewish teaching that something done at first for the wrong reasons will eventually be done for the right ones. When applied to marketing religion, however, this duplicity is both ethically repugnant and unlikely to succeed. As a baal tshuvah, and as someone who counts among his friends and associates dozens of committed-Jews-by-choice, I don’t know a single person who was attracted by a “marketing” campaign. On the contrary, the people I know who made Judaism an important part of their life did so precisely as a reaction to such commercialization and cynicism in the broader American society. One such friend said, rather bluntly, that seeing ads for Judaism on the subway makes him want to puke.

We have already seen the recent increase of Kabbalah Centers and how they and others have distorted the Jewish mystical tradition to cater to the desires of “customers.” Instead of offering a pathway to higher awareness, Kabbalah is being peddled as self-help. But Kabbalah is not about self-help; it’s about self-transcendence. Perhaps the Kabbalah Center attracts celebrities and other people interested in this or that spiritual way to feel good. But if this kind of shallow spiritual consumer is the sort of person we want to maintain Jewish continuity, we are gravely mistaken. A fad will not last to the next generation. To market Judaism is to make it a commodity, to make it something that pleases rather than transcends the consumerist ego, and the only people you’ll attract are people who want to be consumers — not committed Jews. In the marketplace, goods are judged by how well they please us. God is the opposite.

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Jay Michaelson, a Jewish educator, is Chief Editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (www.zeek.net). He is Founder of Wasabi Systems, an open source software company, and Director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for LBGT Jews (www.nehirim.org).

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