Earlier this week, my Facebook feed was alit with enraged friends sharing the same article, an essay by an unnamed Orthodox Jew who confessed that, unable to shoulder Judaism’s financial burdens any longer, he quit his synagogue, pulled his kids out of their costly day school, and cut back considerably on luxuries like meat. With two children of my own in an excellent—and exorbitantly expensive—day school, and with shul membership and kosher butcher bills to pay each month, I empathize with the nameless kvetcher. And I’m enraged, too! Why is it so expensive to be Jewish? And why won’t the most fortunate among us spend as lavishly on subsidizing Jewish education as they do on buildings and prestige trips to Israel, say? But just as the vein begins to pop, I remember the grim truth: It’s not really about spirituality or community or religion. It’s about economics.
To see this principle at play, don’t think about Judaism; think of milk. Ten or fifteen years ago, you’d walk into a supermarket, even the most rarified Manhattan market, and you’d be able to choose between skim, low-fat, and whole-fat. There were no other options, because there wasn’t a demand for anything else. But then, for a whole host of reasons, people started taking an interest in dairy and in food in general. They started to educate themselves, reading books by Michael Pollan and watching documentaries on Netflix and striving to better understand what goes in our bodies and make better nutritional choices. Organic goods became an immense industry into itself, as did alternative diets, from paleo to veganism. Walk into a Whole Foods today, and you’ll find, side by side with the good old two-percent milk, also soy milk and almond milk and coconut milk, organic milk and butter milk and goat’s milk and milk in every form nature and science can possibly create. The lesson here is simple to understand—once consumers began caring enough, the market began growing to meet their demands, and when it did, the number of options went up and the price of each alternative option, relatively speaking, went down.
If we approached our Judaism the same way, we’d likely meet the same results. But we don’t. Because, sadly, unlike milk, most of us are just not that invested in the outcome.
It may sound like a ludicrous thing to say about a community where many are still willing to pay the equivalent of the average American’s income to send a child to Jewish school, but if you examine our emotional communal dynamics more closely, you’ll see that it’s not an entirely preposterous proposition. Most of us, even those who had chosen to cough up the cash for school and shul, see these institutions not as the tentpoles of an organically wholesome emotional and spiritual and personal and social life, but rather as bastions, forts defending something we recognize as precious and imperiled. We know that we no longer live the kind of Jewish life our ancestors did just two or three generations ago. We no longer define ourselves as Jews first and only then Americans and human beings. Our politics and our socioeconomic class and our modern educations all complicate our affinities. We see the ancients texts as antiquated artifacts at worst and at best as subjects for a polite and detached light reading. We take pleasure in our passion for treyf, as if bacon is a symbol not of impurity but of individual discernment and free thinking. We speak tenderly about tikkun olam, but would much rather stand with the vulnerable crowds of other creeds and traditions than reach out to our own needy. We congratulate ourselves on our capacity for self-criticism, as if self-flagellation was somehow more emotionally healthy than simple and uncomplicated pride and joy in our heritage. We look at our religious brethren with suspicion and disgust, as if their entire essence could be summed up by a series of oppressions and repressions, as if there was no beauty and meaning and truth in what they strive to preserve. We do all these things—God knows I’ve been guilty of them, too—not because we mean to offend and not even because we’ve given it much thought. We do them because we’ve chosen, consciously or otherwise, to no longer live fully Jewish lives.
And so, we do what people usually do when there’s an easier and less demanding solution to a labor-intensive problem: We outsource. We still care about Judaism, so we turn to institutions for readymade solutions. We pay the school in the hope that it will help us raise kids who know something about Judaism and will feel just sufficiently anxious about it to somehow pass it on to the next generation. We pay the shul and go on the holidays and on some shabbats and hope that all that praying and chanting will somehow magically resolve the conflicts we feel in our heart, about God and His role in our lives and about our obligations to Him and to each other. Of course, that never quite works, because institutional affiliation is never a good replacement for deep and real soul-searching. Like Wilde’s proverbial cynic, then, we’re left knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. We grumble, but we never change.
We can, if we want.
I’m not advocating we all go strictly observant, or turn our backs on Plato and Locke and Kant, or sever ties with non-Jewish friends and family members. I’m simply suggesting we do the same thing with Judaism we had so successfully done with milk: Decide it matters very much, take the time to educate ourselves about what it truly means to us on a physical, intellectual, and spiritual level, and then demand that we be given alternatives that truly reflect our sensibilities. It doesn’t take the hand of God; the invisible hand of the free market will do.