The Commodification of Orthodox Judaism

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…

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