Sunday, 13 November 2011

Selling Religion

There were a few incidents in my life recently that pointed out to me the fact that so much of the effort within the Jewish community today is to 'sell religion.' The bottom line is that we try and encourage Torah observance because it is a __________ [insert the word: better, more enjoyable, meaningful, etc.] way to live. In other words, it seems to be all about the person. Everything seems to come down to what religion can do for you.

Of course, you still hear a rhetoric of the importance of truth and the demand to serve God but, to be honest, this all seems secondary to the recognized, real motivating force -- how it will enhance your life. You can see that even as someone declares an acceptance of a chumra, a stringency in observance, as a supposed indication of commitment to the Divine, the real motivation behind this is really that somehow it enhances one's life. It can even be declared openly -- the reason one wishes to commit to the Divine is because it makes one's life _____________ [again fill in the word].

I am not saying that this is all wrong. Why we serve God is a significant question and cannot be ignored. How else would you get people interested in Torah is you do not point out its benefits? The problem is that if the yardstick of observance is personal, what one wishes becomes the arbiter, not what should be. With all this selling of religion -- and I use the term religion because I find that this exists beyond the world of Torah to somehow sell all faiths -- religions becomes necessarily defined for you need a concrete, demanded lifestyle in order to sell it as _________________ [again fill in the word]. The difference with truth is that it really is built on a reality of na'aseh v'nishma, that I do it because it is not because I benefit. In our present world, we seem to always put the benefit first, thereby defining religion as we wish it.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Garnel Ironheart said...

This approach is used because it recognizes what motivates most people.
Most people do something because it is good for them or because they get something out of it.
As a result the only way to convince someone to give up McDonalds and Saturday afternoons at the mall is to trump those pleasures with something more important.
Tell a person that he has an obligation by virtue of his birth as a Jew to keep the mitvos and he'll just look at you funny. Tell he there's something in it for him and you'll pique his interest.
That's not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that after he becomes a BT he'll still approach Judaism on a "what's in it for me" basis.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

There is actually an article on the website at in which I deal with this problem. The simple reality, as you state, is that at the initial point of approaching someone the only method is through marketing. You have to sell the religion. The problem is, again as you state, is down the road -- whether we are able to move away from the sale and develop a recognition of the demands of truth and moral correctness. This blog post, in a certain way, may be a restatement of the basic principle of my web article but what I find is that the problem is actually getting worse. We just seem to be talking about the joy of the Torah lifestyle more than ever before. This is not to say that I don't value the concept of simcha shel mitzvah but what is going on seems to be beyond that. It really seems that in so many ways the motivation of religion is becoming the self -- simply you'll like it.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Avraham said...

The problem is deeper than this. the question is how much of frumkeit is from the super-organism (nishmat kal Israel). How much of the frum "high" comes from God and how much comes from the exhilaration of being part of this numinous powerful movement. The Rambam even warned us from the type of devakut that seems to be central to some versions of hasidut being attached to the spirit that fills the universe. To the Rambam this is a kind of Gaia like spirit and is not G-d. To the Rambam this was the mistake of the Sabians. He in fact considered the level of natural law of Avraham Avinu to be necessary in order to avoid this mistake. Only then is a person prepared for Torah Law which is only for personal perfection --not for social justice or peace.

Shlomo said...

I agree with the thrust of this post, but I would not discount the power of "enjoying doing the right thing" as a motivation for Torah observance.

For example, when people are exposed to a community that puts a high value on chessed, they often want to be part of that community, even if they end up being givers of chessed more than receivers.

This motivation is both "selfish" and, I think, completely acceptable.