Have you ever heard of Howard Moskowitz? Neither had I, until I heard Malcolm Gladwell talk about him on Ted Talks. Howard Moskowitz is a man you will love if you love zesty pickles or extra chunky tomato sauce. Both of them are a direct result of his research. You may not be so fond of him if it bothers you that there are more than twenty flavors of Doritos on your supermarket shelves.
That may not seem like a huge discovery, but it was enough to revolutionize the food business in the early 1990s. Today, the industry no longer assumes that there is one perfect version of any product. Instead, adept food makers try to produce as many different versions of their products as there are tastes and preferences.
This is the world that Howard Moskowitz gave us. Where there used to be only one flavor of tomato sauce from each manufacturer, we now have Prego Roasted Garlic & Herb sauce, Prego Veggie Smart Pizza sauce, Prego Chunky Garden Combo sauce, Prego Mushroom Supreme Portabello sauce, and no fewer than eighteen other varieties.
And this revolution has done even more than that. Not only are supermarket aisles filled with dozens of varieties of the same food, we consumers have come to expect the multitude of choices.
We have been trained to seek the flavor experience that exactly matches our preferences. We no longer go to the store looking just for any orange juice. We now scan the refrigerator section for orange juice with no pulp, some pulp, or lots of pulp. We can find added calcium, vitamin fortification, added antioxidants, low acid, or any number of combinations of all the above. We have been convinced that we want these choices—whether we want them or not.
What does this have to do with joyful Judaism? Plenty.
During the same time period that Howard Moskowitz revolutionized the food business, there has been a proliferation of flavors of Judaism. I don't think it's a coincidence.
In many American cities today you can find a "classical" Reform congregation where most of the prayers are in English and the cantor performs for an attentive, quiet audience. There is also a "new" Reform congregation where the congregants are encouraged to clap their hands while the cantor leads on guitar.
There is a Conservative congregation featuring prayers sung in hundred-year-old melodies, mostly in Hebrew, with men and women sitting together. A few blocks away, there is a Modern Orthodox synagogue where the women and men sit separately and chant similar staid and steady tunes. There also is the Chabad House with its curious mixture of traditionally observant Jews and those who appreciate the sense of "authenticity" with a dash of Chasidic fervor.
There might also be a Reconstructionist or a Renewal congregation for those who seek Judaism that features tambourines, chanting, meditation and left-wing politics. Some cities might also have a Humanistic congregation or a Workman's Circle that offers Jewish culture and ethics, but without belief in God.
The fact that we have different movements of Judaism is not new. What is new, though, is the way we treat the potpourri as a shopping experience. People no longer connect to a movement out of ideology or family history. We pick and choose the synagogue that fits best into our lifestyles and preferences. Instead of looking to belong to something that is larger than ourselves, we look for something that conforms to our own personal tastes.
Now, before I get too huffy about all this, let me first say that there are some very good things about Judaism in an age of many choices. The fact that there is lots of competition has forced congregations to reach for excellence. Synagogues can no longer afford to be boring; if they do, they will lose support faster than a supermarket that does not offer products people want.
Variety also means that Judaism is no longer one-size-fits-all. There are different kinds of Jews with different tastes. Choice means that a person who does not feel moved by the style of worship in one congregation can generally find another that suits him or her better. If that keeps more people connected to Judaism, it's a good thing.
But there is also a downside to all the choices. The focus on giving each individual exactly what he or she wants is so common today that even within a single congregation there is division. On a typical Friday night or Saturday morning, some congregations might have a "traditional" service in the main sanctuary, a "musical service" in the chapel, and a meditation service in another room. Such segmentation can be good and useful if it helps make more people feel included, but it can also make a synagogue feel like we've turned it into a supermarket aisle.
When the focus of the congregation is no longer on the kahal—the collective community—but only on the separate individuals within, it is no longer a single congregation. It is no longer a unified community. Our focus on the individual and meeting the needs of the individual can make us blind to the reality that genuine community requires people to put aside some of their individual preferences for the greater good of the whole.
That sense of genuine community, I believe, is what makes Judaism Judaism. As Jews, we can only find real joy, real fulfillment, through the experience of being a part of the Jewish people. If, instead, we drive people apart with the unintentional message that individual tastes and preferences trump community, then we will miss the truly authentic flavor of Jewish living, Jewish culture, Jewish values and Jewish tradition.
Our society does not really need to have twenty different flavors of Doritos to make people happy. It seems to me that the food industry has gone overboard in trying to please everyone, but a Dorito is just a cheesy corn chip. It doesn't really matter. Judaism, though, should be about much more.
Through our tradition and our people, we are meant to experience life meaningfully. When we make ourselves part of something larger than ourselves, we find greater comfort in our sorrows and fuller joy in our celebrations. Happiness, we discover, is not the realization of our personal desires. Rather, happiness comes from making the community's desire a part of our own desire. It makes us matter beyond our own small selves.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community
I Got My Family Back
Bringing the People Together