The Commercialization of Yiddishkeit

By Avrohom Birnbaum

“We don’t do G-d.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary spit out these words when an American reporter asked the Blair about his religious views in 2003.

In an interview last week Blair said, “It’s difficult to talk about religious faith in our political system, if you are in the American political system . . . you can talk about religious faith and people say, ‘Yes, that’s fair enough,’ and it is something they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you’re a nutter.”

His statement is a justified statement about the G-dlessness that so characterizes continental European society – a society devoid of any spiritual anchor; a fact that makes it extremely vulnerable in many ways.

In America however, things are very different. If anything, it seems that religion and the superficial flaunting of religion by candidates is somewhat disturbing. Recently, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Peggy Noonan wrote, “It’s not as if faith is unimportant, it’s always important. But we are asking our political figures–mere flawed politicians–to put forward and talk about their faith to a degree that has become odd… Faith is important, but it’s also personal. When we force political figures to tell us their deepest thoughts on it, they’ll be tempted to act, to pretend…”

Indeed, the marketing of religion as a political asset, as a way to get votes in the presidential campaign is disturbing. The candidates are shamelessly using what is supposed to be their deepest held values for cheap political gain.

Unfortunately, as the adage goes, ‘the pattern seen in the non-Jewish world can be seen in the Jewish world as well’. We are tremendously influenced by the shameless use of religion to promote personal interest. It is becoming increasingly fashionable in the Jewish advertising industry to use our most sacred values; our most sacred and hallowed aspects of Yiddishkeit as cheap marketing tools.

Several months ago, I wrote a column describing the uneasy feeling aroused at the sight of the cheapening of our revered gedolei hador; at the sight of massive, almost life-like posters of one or another of our gedolei hador, our pure spiritual giants, plastered across telephone poles or shul bulletin boards. Underneath, the copy writer utilized some brash turn of phrase telling us to support that tzedaka as the Rosh Yeshiva/Admor/Posek is doing. Recently, numerous organizations and tzedakos have resorted to this kind of advertising.

It is not that we shouldn’t contribute to the tzedaka being advocated. We should. It is just so sad that brash “marketing of Yiddishkeit,” has become so cheap. Do our holy gedolei hador belong plastered on telephone poles, subsequently trod underfoot on the floor and tossed into trash cans together with the overflow of junk mail, junk circulars and posters?

Obviously, marketing a product with gedolim works, so it is done… in an increasingly shameless way. But just because it works doesn’t mean that it is correct.

Last week, my distinguished colleague Rabbi Yossi Rosenberg, wrote an extremely timely article decrying the desecration of Torah and pesukim by the ostensibly “Jewish Music” industry. There too, singing completely un-Jewish tunes, tunes that bring out the worst of instincts are given a “kosher stamp” by the accompanying Jewish words. If anything, I think Rabbi Rosenberg was too kind and overly understanding in his well thought out, powerful presentation.

What a desecration of Torah and Hashem Himself!  How can people desecrate the holy words of Hashem, the words of His pesukim, His mishnayos and Gemara, for cheap financial gain – in order to sell another tape?! “Rotzachta v’gam yorashata—not only did you murder but you also wanted to inherit—to derive financial gain?” the Navi cried.

And perhaps the next question should also be asked. How can we empower them to continue by buying their wares and listening to the desecration? Is that itself not a chillul Hashem?

Indeed, many of the singers call themselves “Chassidic singers” and their music “Chassidic music”. What fault did these singers and marketers find with the Baal Shem Tov and his holy chassidic successors, to associate gyrating noise and outright laitzanos in both Yiddish and English, with the Baal Shem Tov’s hallowed ideals?

Many of these so called Jewish singers have taken the most holy concepts – Shabbos, hashgacha pratis, kedusha and tahara and, with their inappropriate tunes and lyrics made absolute mockeries of them. There is no doubt that much of what currently falls under the guise of Jewish music and entertainment in actuality falls into the classification of what Chazal call laitzanos.

In the Torah there is a prohibition to be moel b’hekdesh – to use for personal benefit things that are consecrated for the Beis Hamikdash, or a korban, etc. Chazal were so strict about this that the punishment for me’ilah is kareis, an extremely stringent punishment.

Utilizing sacred items for personal use is me’ilah. We don’t mean to say that the above mentioned things fall into the actual halachic prohibition of me’ilah, but they certainly seem to fall under the concept of me’ilah.

Perhaps the greatest desecration lies in using the sacred concepts of Torah and ben Torah for cheap financial gain. A while back I happened upon an advertisement for an upscale milchig restaurant. I am already used to restaurants advertising the best hechsher, that type of selling Judaism no longer bothers me. This restaurant, however, advertised that it was the ideal restaurant for the Torah Jew. It implored bnei Torah to come and dine with their wives in a Torah true atmosphere…

Somehow it is hard to associate chomping on a slice of pizza, eating a succulent piece of poached salmon, a liberal helping of Fettuccine Alfredo, or a piece of fried flounder with Torah but this was the marketing scheme thought up by this presumably well intentioned business, obviously because they thought it would bring in customers based on the current advertising trends.

The fact that the Tana D’vei Eliyohu writes, that “before a person davens that divrei Torah should enter his stomach he should first daven that gastronomic delicacies not enter his stomach,” was apparently lost on the clever advertiser.

Upon seeing that marketing idea, I wondered is there nothing sacred? Does the Torah need to be used to market Fettuccine?

If a person has a restaurant, why can’t he just market the product as being tasty? I couldn’t help but think that soon there will be an ad saying that, “Gedolei Yisroel urge you to eat pizza at so and so’s restaurant.”

There is no reason to engage in advertising that smacks of me’ilah be’hekdesh. By all means, businesses should find innovative ways to advertise their product and from the bottom of our hearts we wish ever Jew abundant parnasah, but please; copywriters and marketing specialists, don’t use the sacred Torah as a shovel to earn money. Please don’t ascribe an ideal that has nothing to do with Torah in order to sell a product.

When it comes to marketing our products for financial gain, I think that it is high time we adopted the policy of Tony Blair’s press secretary. “We don’t do G-d.”

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