My youngest son, who is a senior in the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in Manhattan, is studying economics for the first time, and he’s finding it fascinating.
His teacher is introducing the basics of marketing, and the dynamics that drive the consumer market. Each student has been assigned to focus on a particular product, and assess how the advertising for that product has shaped the marketplace’s opinion of it, and, of course, sales.
For whatever reason, my son- Matan- has chosen to focus on Cheerios. When I asked him what he was trying to accomplish in his project, what fundamental questions he was trying to answer, he said – very impressively, I thought – that he was trying to discern whether the individuals in the marketplace were sovereign, making their own choices based on tastes and preferences, or if the advertising for Cheerios was manipulating the marketplace as a whole and essentially telling people what they want, like and need.
My oh my, I thought to myself… that kind of assignment is so many light years ahead of, and more creative than, anything that I was tasked with in high school! It was one of those comforting moments when you realize that your tuition investment might actually be positively impacting the intellectual development of your child. Someone has actually piqued his curiosity, and it is a wonderful experience to see one’s child so challenged to expand his understanding of the world around him.
Once I got over that pleasant sensation, I started to contemplate the significance of what he was asking for my own line of work.
Sociologists of religion have for some time now spoken of the uniquely modern struggle between the Commanding Presence and the Sovereign Self.
In the modern period, since the Emancipation of European Jewry, people who live in an open society like ours “choose” religion in much the same way that they choose to have a double shot latte at Starbucks. Religion is just another option or commodity that is available to them to either embrace or ignore. It is no longer true that the idea of a commanding God can or will necessarily trump the radical free choice of modern life.
The net result of this struggle is that, in increasing measure, those of us who would claim the mantle of religious leadership find ourselves having to market religion and religious ideas and practices for our often unwilling or disinterested consumers.
And one might fairly ask whether the sovereign religious selves of the marketplace are “choosing” us and our synagogues because of their particular tastes and inclinations, or whether or not we — the purveyors of the religious product, if you will — are manipulating the marketplace with our services and programming.
All the literature on this emanating from sociologists of the religious community would seem to suggest that is the former. Modern Jews don’t do what they don’t want to do, and most Jews who affiliate outside of the Orthodox world have what is at best an attenuated sense of “commandedness” that might oblige them to live life according to “commandments” not of their own choosing. So in the end, it’s a lot about marketing.
There is obviously no comparing God to Cheerios, except for the unlikely possibility that a healthy faith can lower your cholesterol level over a given period of time. But the times in which we live have transformed the “business” of religion into something entirely different from what it used to be.
When all is said and done, we’re all in sales. Maybe my son’s next assignment can be about that!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation.