The Commodification of Orthodox Judaism

What’s gained and what’s lost when religion becomes an individualist—or even consumerist—endeavor?

A "Not For Resale" sticker is juxtaposed on a Torah scroll, Star of David, menorah, and other symbols.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.

In the United States, the rituals of traditional Judaism can be likewise commodified. You can indulge in prepackaged experiences ranging from a pop-up Shabbat dinner to a customized dip in a ritual bath. There is, apparently, a market opportunity in the gap between some people’s desire to interact with a religious tradition on the one hand, and their disinclination to observe life-encompassing codes and rituals on the other. Thus Jews as well as non-Jews can pay to pick up individual rituals, whether to add meaning or just interesting one-off experiences to their lives.

Such practices represent one answer to the question of how religions that are ancient, rule-bound, and communal fit into societies that are modern, individualist, and consumerist. Looked at one way, the point of religion is not to be a leisure experience or a form of tourism. Then again, to the extent people value getting a sense of meaning in their lives from religious rituals, why shouldn’t they have the option to measure that value in money?

The irony is that in seeking a spiritual experience through commercial means, people risk doubling down on what causes a great deal of spiritual alienation in the first place: the commodification of everything. Westerners eager to escape the pressures of a consumerist society have long been sampling Eastern spiritual traditions in consumerist ways—just think of all those expensive yoga classes and Buddhist meditation retreats. Now, Shabbat meals have joined the list.

This appetite for Jewish rituals coincides with a growing popular backlash among diaspora and Israeli Jews against recent Israeli government moves that give the Jewish state’s ultra-Orthodox establishment tighter control over religious matters, including conversions and the prayer spaces at Jerusalem’s revered Western Wall. Perhaps individualized interpretations of religion are a response among some of those who chafe at state control over spiritual matters.

To some Jewish innovators, an individualized approach to Judaism makes perfect sense: “Pick and choose is the name of the game,” said the Israeli-born rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie. “We live in a universal marketplace of ideas, and people are looking at the most compelling and vitally enriching elements of the Jewish tradition.” This phenomenon is by no means unique to Judaism, nor to the present day; as far back as the 1980s the term “cafeteria Catholics” was applied to members of the religion who chose which elements of Catholic doctrine to observe and which to discard.

Five years ago, Lau-Lavie founded New York’s Lab/Shul, which its website describes as a “God-optional” and “experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings.” This non-Orthodox community offers public pop-up events featuring music, tapas, and drinks on Friday nights, where people are encouraged to put away their phones and connect with others as Shabbat begins. It also sells a Shabbat2Go DIY Kit, including placemats printed with liturgy options and conversation starters.

Lau-Lavie said that Shabbat meals, complete with blessings and ritual hand-washing, are increasingly attractive—even for those who do not participate because they believe God commanded them to, and even for those who are not Jewish.

“The digital, fast-paced urban world is pushing forward some of the oldest social technologies, like sitting around a table,” Lau-Lavie said. “Now take away the Shabbat, take away the Jewish, and that is just a super smart and super needed ritual that people want in their weekend.”

Physical rituals are the most likely element of any religion to become commodified, or taken out of their original frameworks and repackaged, according to Vincent Miller, author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. It’s not only that experiences and objects are easily packaged for consumers, but that demand for a sense of real-life community is strong in an era when so much of life occurs in the virtual realm.

“People are hungry for these embodied practices,” Miller told me.

According to the tour guide Yosef Spiezer, the manager of Israel-2Go, the perceived ancientness of Orthodox Jewish rituals are a major part of their appeal. “People want to experience it because it’s authentic,” he said, referring to the tour he leads of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. He added that people like to see Jews living in accordance with old ways, “like they did 100 years ago—with the Yiddish, the clothing, the food.” The phenomenon is not unlike that of tourist groups traveling to Amish country in the United States.

Rather than embracing the ancient out of a sense of moral obligation or desire to continue a tradition, many among the growing masses of religiously unaffiliated Americans are favoring old rituals for pragmatic reasons, said Angie Thurston, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School and co-founder of “How We Gather,” a project studying religious and spiritual practices among millennials.

“The sense is that perhaps there’s a higher probability that such rituals will help accomplish someone’s goals, since they stood up to the test of time,” Thurston explained. Because many people feel isolated and disconnected in a world of technological innovation and shifting family structures, their goals are often to experience belonging and promote self-improvement—and they see ancient rituals as tools to that end, she said.

One-third of Americans born between 1981 and 1996 are unaffiliated with a religious community, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey. But with one in three still considering religion at least somewhat important, this isn’t a shift away from spirituality, but a shift toward more individualized forms of spirituality, Thurston said. She and her research partner, Casper ter Kuile, have documented how millennials are finding meaning in non-religious organizations like the fitness program CrossFit, and at the same time are bringing traditional religious practices, like Shabbat meals, into non-Jewish and non-religious contexts. This repackaging helps ensure that the ancient practice doesn’t feel rote or forced.

“People are adopting a variety of spiritual beliefs and sacred experiences from a variety of sources,” she said. “So we see more people doing Jewish without necessarily being Jewish.”

In May, New York’s MediClub, a non-religious group that gathers for weekly meditation, sponsored a “Shabbat-inspired Friday Feast” together with the fast-casual restaurant chain Sweetgreen. The event’s 80 tickets sold out within a day, said Lauren Bille, a MediClub founding partner. Bille discussed the weekly Torah portion and, in place of the traditional Friday night Kiddush, people offered blessings from various cultures over the wine.

“Millennials are hungry to come together in meaningful community,” Bille said. “It just needs to be unattached to religion. More ‘inspired’ by religion.”

Most Orthodox rabbis probably wouldn’t view such a meal, with its eclectic remixing of ancient rituals, as authentically Jewish. But that raises the question of what really counts as authenticity. People who engage in these practices are implicitly challenging the premise that a ritual’s authenticity can emerge only as a function of an ancient rabbinic seal of approval.

“They are not concerned about whether or not something is ‘authentically’ Jewish, but rather that the individual practice has something to offer them,” Thurston said. “Authenticity is often measured vis-a-vis the effectiveness … Even when they are taken into new contexts, as long as they still feel meaningful, rituals maintain some aspect of authenticity.” In that sense, the “authenticity” is a function of consumer satisfaction, rather than of “ancientness” or of “official” approval.

For some, the traditional rituals of Judaism have the sheen of authenticity because they are unfamiliar and usually inaccessible, according to Miller. “There are all sorts of communities, churches, synagogues all around us looking for new members,” he said. “But when something is harder to access, it presents itself as a rare opportunity and it stands out as authentic.”

The mikveh—the ritual bath that Orthodox Jewish women dip in following their menstrual periods—is one such ritual now sought after and paid for by the non-observant, as some organizations are making the experience more accessible. There is typically a suggested fee for using mikvehs; as institutions sustained by donors, they aren’t for-profit enterprises, but they do illustrate the widening appeal of Orthodox rituals. Both women and men are immersing in mikvehs—not according to Orthodoxy’s rules about sexual purity or for conversion purposes, but to mark transitions like new jobs, the beginning and end of cancer treatments, and milestone birthdays, said Carrie Bornstein, the executive director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh near Boston. Mayyim Hayyim offers classes and tours for both Jews and non-Jews to learn about the history of the mikveh as well as its contemporary uses. Immersion itself is limited to Jews, however.

“It is really taking off,” Bornstein said. “We have reclaimed the ritual. And I think what makes it really compelling for people is the choice: knowing that I can do it on my terms, I can do what I want, say what I want, bring with me whomever I want to.”

Miller, for his part, questioned whether spiritual growth can really happen when people participate only in what feels meaningful in the moment. “Transformation often requires going beyond immediately gratifying experiences,” Miller said. “Sticking with something, even when it’s dry and boring, [that’s] when you are really being formed or changed. All the vigilance that goes along with keeping the traditions, and how that feels—you can’t buy that experience. Those things don’t come when the experience is prepackaged. Eating a Shabbat meal is easy and very much meaningful, but try keeping kosher for three days in your university cafeteria.”

Others, however, suggest there may be a different kind of value associated with making rituals feel more relevant. If people now have the opportunity to be exposed to a religious tradition in ways they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—if those traditions demanded complete lifestyle changes, can’t that be good for the tradition as a whole, as well as for individuals?

“There is a real desire today to do religious stuff in a way that feels integrated into life,” said Danya Shults, who quit her job at a New York venture capital firm last year to found Arq, a company that organizes events and publishes content for anyone looking to connect with Jewish life and culture “in a more relevant, inclusive, and convenient way.” Arq also works with a number of commercial partners, including the wedding-planning startup Zola, for which Shults has handpicked gift registry options “inspired by Jewish culture.”

Shults was motivated by her own experience of leaving behind a religious upbringing and marrying a Christian, but still wanting to integrate Jewish traditions into her life. She created Arq after noticing the popular interest in adopting bits and pieces of Orthodox Judaism.

“This is not cheapening the great depths of Judaism,” Shults said. “The fact that people, Jewish or not, are interested in rituals like Shabbat without having to commit to a whole lifestyle is an example of how people today are trying to find meaning. We are really living in an exciting time when people are trying to figure out what’s next for religion.”

Although there’s an inclination to view the commodification of religion as a contemporary phenomenon that represents a break from traditional religious practice, Shults’s perspective is a reminder that religion evolves, and in fact has never been a static thing. Viewed in this light, it should perhaps come as no surprise that “what’s next” for Judaism is to see its sacred rituals become commodities. Judaism, which transformed itself from a Temple-based cult of animal sacrifice into a faith centered around prayer and a comprehensive legal code, has always quietly relied on innovation to survive. Throughout history, it has adapted itself to the culture of the day in a way that aimed at customer satisfaction; the customers were observant Jews, and a particular form of Judaism sold insofar as it helped make sense of their lives. Now, as the customer base necessarily changes in a globalized world—with secular Jews and non-Jews sampling Orthodox Judaism just as they have sampled, say, Buddhism—it may be only natural to see the product changing, too.