Shmuly Yanklowitz

Obsessed as Consumers and Citizens, We’ve Neglected To Build Our Society

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

As a social justice activist and a rabbi, I have spent decades rallying grassroots civic engagement and pushing political leaders for needed policy change. My work is about including political action as an essential part of our spiritual lives. And yet, I am here to say, it has gone too far. We, in religious communities, are paying too much attention to the political issues of the day, as important as they may be.

The problem becomes more stark and obvious the closer we get to a major election: American individual identity has almost entirely been stripped down to two dimensions, consumer and citizen. When our media and discourse aren’t simply corporations vying to sell us goods and services, they are hyper-focused on political leaders and issues. And while I believe we should, of course, be engaging with those issues, it has become too easy to think that this is all we are. We are more than a vote to pick a representative, and we are even more than protests, calls and letter writing, campaigning up and down the ballot.

We are more than citizens. We are more than workers. We are more than consumers.

America becomes very shallow if all we see of ourselves is politics and economics. There is so much more life to notice, to pay attention to. There are communities to foster. There are cultural heritages to explore and maintain. There are worlds of science to learn. There is art and spiritual wisdom to create.

Our energies and talents have so many potential outlets to leave an impression on the people around us and on future generations.

All of these pursuits are deeply important for their own sake, and it is vital that society include many modes of engaging — just as ecologies are more robust from having diversity of many biological niches, so too, we need more kinds of leaders than only business executives and politicians.

(Wikimedia Commons)

And when we strengthen and grow these myriad ways of engaging, I believe the policy debates that I care so much about, and that I have fought to bring to people’s attention, will be healthier and more productive as well. If we have active, living realms in our society built around care and empathy, creativity and culture, soul and depth, curiosity and vision — then we can shift the political debates away being solely struggles for power. And then we can steer the business world away from its pathological focus on profits.

We need science not just for the ends of technology. We need technology not just for the ends of financial gain. We need mathematics not just for finance. We need psychology not just for marketing. We need creativity not just for attracting eyeballs. We need art and humanities and theology and philosophy. We need athletics and wellness to care for ourselves and one another, not as a trend or an industry. We need passionate opinions not for the end of defeating an opponent, but for the end of building a better world. Why do we need these things? Because we are human, and humans live in society. Because they make us feel whole and connected. Because they give us a rush of wonder and awe or a warm sense of comfort and peace. Because they are our legacy, and because they are fun and meaningful.

Personally, I find the deepest inspiration in my life from the stories of the Bible. The Tower of Babel is a surprising one, when so much of our current problems seem to be about division. In Babel, we are told, the people were unified, and they worked together to build an edifice to stay unified. But the story tells us that this path of unity was the wrong path, and destruction was the only remedy. There is a lesson for us in this story, because underlying our apparent division today of left vs. right, red vs. blue, we, too, are actually building a unitary monolith of our values: for profit (i.e. productivity) and for patriotism (i.e. your particular party), and nothing else. In the Tower of Babel narrative, we learned that a monolith is not a functioning society. And the solution there was to divide into a multitude of languages and cultures, each holding different perspectives and values, histories and memories and ways of self-organizing.

In 2024, I look forward to voting in a very important election, and if you are a citizen, I hope you will too. I look forward to fighting for the issues I believe in, and the communities I know need the protection of our government. And I also look forward to reading books to my children, to talking with friends and neighbors about deep thoughts with no practical consequences, and trivial jokes that don’t either. I look forward to resting and dreaming, to listening to music and to praying. I look forward to cherishing memories of my mother, and to checking in on my old friends who live far away. I hope your list is different from mine, and that together we will form beautiful, multi-dimensional society.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.