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February 6, 2003

The Consumer

Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/the_consumer_20030207

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. 

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.  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 partnerships.

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 him. 

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.  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).  

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