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Monday, January 3, 2011

Self-expression

Are religious choices different from consumer choices? I sometimes say that my religious brand preference is “Reconservadox,” but in consumer terms that’s like having equal preference for Macintosh, Windows, and Linux computers. Nowadays people defend their operating-system preferences with the fervor that used to be reserved for religion.

The interplay between consumer choices and religious choices is, however, more subtle. Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Duke University School of Business have explored the idea that religion and brand reliance (investing subjective worth or value in a name brand) serve a similar psychological need: the need to publically express one’s self-worth.

In one study, they asked some subjects to write an essay on “what your religion means to you personally,” and other subjects to write about “routine activities that you typically do in an average day.” Then, both groups were told to imagine a shopping trip and to choose products that they would normally buy. Offered a choice between Ralph Lauren and Target brand sunglasses, those who wrote about routine activities were more likely to choose the Ralph Lauren sunglasses while those who wrote about religion were more likely to choose the Target brand.

This effect was limited to products where the choice represented a measure of self-expression. It had no effect on choosing among purely functional products, such as batteries (Energizer vs. a store brand). Separately, they found that individuals with high religious commitments were less likely to choose highly advertised brands, but again only for self-expressive products.

It is disturbing to think that the same psychological needs might influence both religious expression and fashion choices. Is wearing a Star of David really the same as wearing a designer-brand sweater?

The question particularly concerns parents and educators because some of the aspects of Jewish religious life that are most apparent to our children have conspicuous materialistic elements. Although we teach that Hanukkah is about religious freedom, to a child it’s eight nights of presents! The Passover seder may be a long ceremony, but at the end you get a reward for finding the afikoman!

And most of all there’s the bar or bat mitzvah celebration. Lots of presents and a big party!

It’s not quite the same, of course. To receive Hanukkah presents, a child need only be present to light the hanukkiah (and not annoy his or her parents too much in the weeks before Hanukkah). Celebrating as a bar/bat mitzvah typically requires months of lessons and practice, culminating in the terrifying experience of chanting Torah and Haftarah before the congregation.

An anthropologist would recognize this as a form of trial by ordeal. In the form that is most often described, a young man in a tribal culture is expected to go out on his own for a time, perhaps to hunt and kill a lion, perhaps to survive on his own in the forest. His success in the trial demonstrates that he has made the transition to adulthood, which the tribe celebrates lavishly upon his return.

In other words, the presents and party aren’t exactly rewards for the effort. They’re expressions of our gratitude for the young person’s having survived the ordeal.

There’s one significant difference. In the kind of ordeal that anthropologists have documented, there is a serious risk of life. Although b’nai mitzvah lessons may be tedious, they’re not dangerous, and to the best of my knowledge, no young person has ever died of mitzvah-itis.

A psychologist might look at the question slightly differently. In developmental terms, the trial by ordeal isn’t so much a demonstration of the transition to adulthood as a means of bringing it about. Developmental psychologists have found that individuals on the cusp of a major life transition usually resist it, defending their old thoughts and values vigorously, and need something to push them forward. The bar/bat mitzvah ordeal serves that function.

The weeks after Hanukkah tend to be a let-down, especially when Hanukkah comes early relative to Christmas, as it did this year. Furthermore, this is a leap year in the Jewish calendar, so Purim (carnival prizes!) is late relative to the civil calendar. (We do celebrate Tu Bishvat this month, but no presents for that.) To make things even worse, the weather may keep us at home more than we’d like.

It’s an ideal time, however, to strengthen your family’s celebration of Shabbat, not least because it gets dark early and the light of the Shabbat candles is especially welcome. Don’t worry about cooking an elaborate, traditional Shabbos dinner. Just light the candles, make kiddush and motzi, and sit down to a family dinner together.

Of course we don’t receive tangible presents on Shabbat—only the Sabbath peace. Instead, we give tzedakah before lighting the candles. I strongly encourage families to make this a regular part of their Shabbat ritual. Have a tzedakah box for each child and let the child put coins in it each Friday evening. And model good Jewish behavior: even if you prefer to make charitable gifts by check or credit card, parents should have a tzedakah box and put (folding) money in it each Shabbat. Tzedakah—it’s not just for kids!

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