Does This Casual Insight Perfectly Capture the Contemporary Frum Consumer Spirit?
A very smart observation about Torah identity from seventy years ago
One of my first posts for this publication was “What Can't be Said: Social Engagement in the Torah World.” Among other things, I suggested that it’s consumer expectations that, to a large degree, drive the content choices of frum publishers. Here’s how I put it over there:
Book publishers can't afford the possible blowback from a controversial product that attracts the wrong kind of attention.
Because Jewish book stores would no longer stock their other titles.
Because most of their customers trust that anything on their shelves will be appropriate for the whole family. One noisy controversy, and that trust can be broken.
Things work much the same way for Jewish magazines, newspapers, and websites. Even senior Torah leaders will censure themselves out of fear they'll lose all influence over their communities or even that they'll be physically attacked.
This extends well beyond publishing. Kashrus agencies have been known to adopt policies that reflect the expectations of important segments of their constituency rather than actual halachic requirements.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a big believer in the power of lightly regulated markets. Consumers, according to my thinking, are much more likely to get the products they want if providers are left free to respond to organic demand. But the catch is that the things consumers want at a given time won’t necessarily lead to the ideal long term results.
Which brings me to something I read many years ago in a book called “An Onion for the Doctor and Other Stories.” If I remember correctly, one of the stories described the very first graduation celebrated by Bais Yakov in Williamsburg sometime in the late 1940’s. The key speech was given by a local rabbi named Krieger.
According to my memory of it, Rabbi Krieger noted how remarkable it was that, in the context of the many challenges facing Judaism at the time, frum girls could attend and graduate proper religious schools. Here’s how I remember his next words:
But this is only the beginning. One day, I predict, you’ll be able to purchase kosher, pre-cooked gefilte fish in a supermarket. And that’s not all. The time will come when you’ll be able to purchase cholov Yisroel ice cream in the supermarket. Even more: one day you’ll be able to purchase yiras shomayim in the supermarket.
A remarkable insight. Commercially available gefilte fish and cholov Yisroel ice cream of any kind were unimaginable back in 1947. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with their existence in 2022. But, at some point in our journey as a community, to some degree we came to define our Jewish identity by the consumer choices we make.
The hechsher, shechita, eruv, schools, books, and magazines we choose to rely on serve as signals to ourselves and our neighbors. Of course, all of those are important halachic choices. We shouldn’t rely on products or services just because someone claims they’re OK. And we should, as much as possible, use our own halachic knowledge to better understand why we accept one particular option rather than its alternative.
But there’s also signalling going on. And to the extend that it’s there, we’re using our supermarket shopping habits as a proxy for yiras shomayim. I believe Rabbi Krieger (whoever he was) would prefer that, as much as possible, we shift the defining of our identities away from superficial public expressions - or signals - and inwards, to the private, hidden spaces of our hearts and minds.
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