Ancient Greek democracy created the “citizen.” Renaissance
Europe invented the “gentleman.” Colonial America produced the
“frontiersman.” Each human civilization, it seems, fashions
its own unique character type. And ours is no exception. Contemporary America
has spawned the “consumer.”
The consumer is a character type unique in human history.
The Greek citizen saw himself as an inseparable part of an organic community.
The European gentleman conceived of himself in terms of a code of obligations —
chivalry and noblesse oblige — that bound him to others. The frontiersman, a
loner in human community, felt himself an integral part of a natural
environment. By contrast, the consumer seeks absolute independence. He is
sovereign, complete unto himself, and in need of no one. No unfulfilled
existential need motivates him. The consumer engages the world only as a source
of stimulation and satisfaction. To protect his sovereignty, he presses every
encounter into the form and shape of a commercial transaction so it can be
easily controlled. Ever notice how the newspaper’s personal ads and the
classified ads are almost interchangeable? “Clean, quiet, reliable. Sleek
exterior. Warm interior. Runs great. Low maintenance. A steal at this price!”
Even the most personal becomes a matter of barter and trade.Â
Henry James called America a “hotel culture.” A hotel —
where you eat and sleep, but never fully unpack and move in. You never set down
roots. You never really own the place. You can mess up your room knowing that
while you’re out, someone else will come and straighten up. You care nothing
for the people who live next door for soon you’ll be checking out and moving
on.Â So, too, the consumer joins, but never belongs. Never will he allow the
obligations that come with relationships, values or community to compromise his
sovereignty. He has no attachments, only a series of limited-liability
In politics, for example, he has no deeply held convictions,
visions or loyalties. He asks only what his country can do for him. Candidates
are sold to him on television alongside soap and aspirin, and with the same
claims: New and Improved! Brighter and Cleaner! Quicker Relief! He doesn’t want
to be too deeply involved. The causes of the day, the problems of society, the
issues of civic life are not his personal concerns. He allows nothing to claim
Even in religious life, he is a consumer of services. He may
contribute but resists commitment.
He’s a member of the synagogue. He’s also a member of AAA,
Blockbuster Video, Blue Cross and Bally Total Fitness. And he has same
arrangement with them all: He pays his dues, drops off his kids, visits
occasionally, but wants and expects little else.Â In a moment of crisis, he’ll
call for Emergency Roadside Judaism. Otherwise, he keeps his distance.
It works. In a culture so saturated with entertainment,
diversion and distraction, the consumer can always find something else to
occupy his time and make life pleasant. It works — until one of those life
moments arrives when all is called into question. And then the consumer finds
he’s truly bereft. He hasn’t the resources to construct a sense of personal
meaning. He hasn’t a community to offer support, nor the intimacy of a good
friend willing to listen. He hasn’t access to eternity, to deeper values, to a
larger narrative that would provide context and purpose for his struggle.
Having allowed nothing to claim him, he has nothing to stake his life upon.
“Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among
them,” we are commanded in this week’s Torah portion (Exodus 25:8). An awesome
responsibility: Build a place for God in this world. A remarkable opportunity:
Create the conditions for Eternity to be present among us. But this is no
casual weekend project. We are commanded to bring our best — the best of our
hands, hearts and minds; the best of our resources. A sense of life’s meaning
isn’t a consumer product. The assurance of life’s purpose cannot be purchased
or rented. No infomercial can sell them. They are fashioned out of the gifts we
bring in response to the claim we feel upon us, the claim of a covenantal
community that asks us to share in the work of making a place for God in the
world. They are available only when one is prepared to donate the entirety of
the self. Greece had its citizen, Europe its gentleman, America, its consumer.
The Torah projects the character of the tzadik (righteous person). Â
For much of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky’s talk last Shabbat afternoon on “Speaking Truth to Power,” I got really pumped up. The leader of Bnai David...
It was fitting that a panel discussion I recently attended — titled, “Politically Homeless in the Age of Extremes” — took place on Bleecker Street...
I spent my Rosh Hashanah this year in Uman, Ukraine, where a remarkable Jewish phenomenon continues to unfold: the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the grave...
[caption id="attachment_239170" align="aligncenter" width="1800"] Photo from Wilderness Torah[/caption] By During Sukkot — zman simchateinu — everything we acknowledged with awe and trepidation during the Days...
It goes without saying that in every profession there is a hierarchy — a system where those in authority wield varying degrees of power over...
At this moment, I can see the sky through the holes in my roof. That’s not because I’m celebrating the holiday of Sukkot early. It’s...
It wasn’t exactly the pampering honeymoon I’d had in mind. With no electricity, no running water and no bathroom to speak of, this was about...
How do you solve a problem like Jeremy Corbyn? I just returned from England, and everyone is concerned. An anti-Zionist prime minister might be elected,...
It is not easy to ditch orthodoxies — and not always advisable. This is as true for the political arena as it is for religion....
One of my closest friends from childhood, who is of Russian descent, was recently at my 3-year-old daughter’s birthday party here in Los Angeles. After...
I pray that I will find humility When I’m sure I am right. I pray that I will find compassion When my heart feels indifference....
One question, five answers. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist If you could invite anyone to your sukkah, who would it be? Rivkah Slonim Education Director, the Rohr...
By the time sukkot rolls around, many home cooks may be feeling burned out from the constant stream of preparations they have been making for...
During Sukkot, we gather with in our temporary structures (sukkot) meant to recall those used by the children of Israel after they left Egypt and...
Sukkahs are governed by laws of halachah. They need to cast more shade than they allow in sunlight. Walls that move in the wind are...
Act.il, a smartphone app that urges its users to take action against online anti-Semitic content, has received a $190,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation...
Editor’s note: Over Rosh Hashanah, local rabbis spoke on a variety of topics, but three in particular took aim at the policies of President Donald...
An airplane encounters severe turbulence midflight and lands safely. When the passengers disembark, they’re astonished to discover that five years have passed. This intriguing scenario...
As a skinny teenager growing up in a working-class neighborhood southeast of London where Jews were the minority, Steve Spiro was beaten and bullied on...
Every year, 1,700 of the best and brightest high school students from 80 countries compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). At stake...
New Year, New Questions Another wonderful editor’s note (“Happy New Questions,” Sept. 7). It is an invitation to readers to ask themselves even the toughest...
“My prognosis for the Jewish future is grim,” announces Tal Keinan at the very outset of “God Is In the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism” (Spiegel...
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has honored Annette and Leonard Shapiro with its 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. At a gala dinner on Sept....
Debra Agam died Aug. 25 at 63. Survived by daughter Karen (Dan Freedman) Agam Macarah; son Nathan (Kimberly); 5 grandchildren; mother Ruth Fine; sister Cricket...
I have to confess that when it comes to decorating the sukkah, I like to hang large garlands. They make a much bigger impact than...
After years of working in advertising, Michele Prince decided to go back to school to pursue a joint master’s degree in social work and Jewish...
Events this week include Trybal gatherings, Volunteer fairs, honey tasting and events for Sukkot. THU SEP 27 [caption id="attachment_239313" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Bari Weiss[/caption] Bari Weiss New...