Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > advertising > Torah Trading: On Rabbinic Marketing and its Pitfalls

Torah Trading: On Rabbinic Marketing and its Pitfalls

Rabbinic endorsements are traded today on a million-shekel market. If it doesn't stop, rabbis stand to lose the confidence and trust of those they lead.

Tevet 5782, December 2021

“You and your family will be forever healthy if you donate to such-and-such a charity!”

Rabbi X promises blessings, financial success, and sons who are Torah scholars to those who donate to organization Y!”

“Buy this air conditioner/wig/refrigerator/book with mehadrin kashrus and the commendation of Rabbis A/B/C.”

Anyone who has visited a Charedi neighborhood sometime over the past decade is sure to have come across ads of this type, linking rabbis to a plethora of products and charities. They fill Charedi newspapers and media outlets, Shabbos newsletters, endless pamphlets distributed in Shuls and public places, and the huge billboards on street corners and at entrances to apartment buildings. Their incessant messaging has flooded our consciousness, turning halacha and rabbinic approval into a valuable and eminently marketable product.

The linkage between halacha and marketing has become so ubiquitous that we barely notice it anymore. However, it is important to realize that matters were not always such. Moreover, the introduction of such linkages can have serious repercussions that do not always come to mind. Below, I wish to discuss some of these potential consequences.

 

Torah Marketing

Developments in the Torah world are often triggered by circumstances external to the Shuls and the study halls. The needs of the time, changing fads and fashions, and a variety of threats to Torah life have produced (and continue to produce) a wealth of Torah literature on a huge range of topics and areas of Jewish life. In our case, it seems that marketing opportunities within Charedi society have brought about a significant change in the way we perceive rabbis, rabbinic promises, and halachic decisions.

Many halachic terms and concepts hitherto reserved for discussion in Study Halls and Torah literature have penetrated public knowledge and discourse through marketing. Savings and investment plans are thus advertised not only for their financial gains but also on the merit of their conformity to “halachic rulings” of one type or another. Vendors of air conditioners and heater units solicit the approving signature of a rabbi, which, together with the customary photograph, promotes the relevant product to the Charedi public.

I have been privy to stormy debates about whether and how to deploy spiritual resources––names of rabbis (and which name will have the greatest effect), a halachic norm, or some obscure yet piquant rabbinic statement––to the end of selling anything and everything

For some consumers, this might seem like a natural and innocent process: What’s wrong with affixing rabbinic approval for air conditioners? But from my perspective, as somebody working in advertising and marketing, I know the process is far from innocent or organic. I have been privy to stormy debates about whether and how to deploy spiritual resources––names of rabbis (and which name will have the greatest effect), a halachic norm, or some obscure yet piquant rabbinic statement––to the end of selling anything and everything. Sometimes, the item in question can be somehow connected to halacha, and the message is thus adjusted accordingly. A business will consider how to “educate the public” concerning a strictly kosher-for-Passover cleaning fluid (since when do cleaning fluids require rabbinic approval?). Another will market a hairbrush on the basis that its use does not violate Shabbos.

Of course, we cannot fail to mention the infinite number of charitable organizations requesting donations with the imprimatur of a great rabbinic sage. In many cases, moreover, rabbinic figures actually promise blessings in return for charitable donations. Segulos and yeshu’os have likewise become a business in every respect, bringing to the public eye a range of practices and auspicious prayer-times that nary a Jewish soul had ever heard of. Promises for the efficacy of children’s education, for having children in the first place, for abundance and wealth, for good health, a long life, and so on, are published in our newspapers and plastered on our billboards on a daily basis, making Torah promises for those who keep the Mitzvos sound pale by comparison. The recipe is pretty simple: a good rabbinic picture, a few dramatic words in his own handwriting, a headline shouting out the incredible promise, and the price, directly proportional to the magnitude of the promise.

Halachic rulings and rabbinic letters of recommendation have thus become a pricey and important asset, sought after by every businessman, Torah observant or otherwise, who works in the Chareidi space. Signatures, letters, photos, and videos have their tariffs; nothing comes for free in the world of sales and marketing. But the market for rabbinic approval has spiritual as well as financial costs. We should be clear about what they are.

 

A New Phenomenon

The first things to note are the phenomenon itself and its remarkable pace of growth. It has become difficult to envisage main streets in Charedi neighborhoods bereft of rabbinically-endorsed advertisements for consumer goods or segulos and promises in exchange for donations. This was not always the case. Posters signed by rabbis used to be reserved for warning the public about serious breaches of religious observance, for encouraging the public to study Torah diligently, or for some other Torah matter. Until recently, most Charedi individuals would have balked at seeing the photo of a great rabbinic leader adorning a list of promises and blessings, each with its own price. Nor would anyone have equated accepting the yoke of Heaven with buying this fridge or that AC unit.

Until recently, most Charedi individuals would have balked at seeing the photo of a great rabbinic leader adorning a list of promises and blessings, each with its own price. Nor would anyone have equated accepting the yoke of Heaven with buying this fridge or that AC unit

Today, however, the marriage between halachic authority and commerce is ubiquitously displayed, sometimes by means of traditional advertising, and sometimes by more subtle means. For instance, a company will ask a city rabbi to affix a mezuzah to the door of the branch it just opened. If you own a supermarket or a store selling electrical appliances or any other business (Israeli healthy providers, for example, are especially religious in this matter), the PR people will inform you how crucial it is to obtain pictures with leading rabbinic authorities.

It is no wonder that rabbis serve as honorary presidents or members of advisory committees for numerous businesses and organizations. Simply put, rabbis sell.

Having noted the phenomenon, we need to return to the question: Is there anything wrong with all of this? It could be argued that the developments noted above are positive, extending rabbinic authority, rulings, and personalities beyond their conventional spheres and into the world of commerce. Why should we complain, the argument goes, over rabbinic endorsement of hairbrushes for use on Shabbos, and what’s wrong with paying a rabbi to undersign a charity campaign if it promotes worthy aims? What harm is done when a rabbi is asked to hang a Mezuzah at a grocery store, and the act is duly photographed and publicized?

It seems to me that there is plenty wrong.

 

The Cost of Torah Trade

The arguments mentioned above—what’s wrong with using rabbis?—are deeply naive. First, anybody vaguely acquainted with good ethical conduct knows it is inappropriate for an organization publicizing a halachic issue with opening refrigerators on Shabbos to sell the product that resolves the issue. Committees approving cultural events should not be funded by the producers of the same events. These are straightforward conflicts of interest. Often, as it happens, there are easy ways to detect them––if you only learned about a halachic issue by means of a well-funded advertising campaign, chances are that powerful economic concerns, rather than disinterested religious guidance, stand behind it.

Such conflicts of interest can escalate. Say a rabbinic figure is invited to the Mezuzah-affixing ceremony for a new branch of a large corporation. The rabbi shows up, is led to the “mizrach” by the CEO, and asked to say a few words. After issuing public approval by his presence, and having been gratified by the honor shown by the company, the rabbi might then be asked to reciprocate by issuing a halachic ruling or to pose for PR purposes in marketing a given product. This creates a system whereby rabbinic authorities are sometimes bound, financially or otherwise, to commercial interests.

But the problems go far deeper. The public’s perception of halacha can be deeply warped by rabbinically-adorned advertising. As an advertiser myself, I know that many products advertised in halachic language solve pseudo-halachic problems alone—minor or non-existent issues made to sound credibly urgent by a well-marketed rabbinic voice.

This, of course, is a problem in itself; it distorts halacha. Not long ago, a tissue manufacturer started to spell the word “Shabbat” with hyphens between the letters, indicating a halachic preference that the word, properly written, must not be brought into a bathroom (see Chesed Le’alafim 85:1). The strategy presumably worked, since other companies followed suit, and behold the birth (or the popularization) of a new halachic norm, courtesy of tissue companies. This, of course, is but one example of many. Yet, there is still another, more profound problem in rabbinic marketing, irrespective of halachic distortion.

Many consumers, certainly of the Charedi variety, realize exactly what’s going on. They understand that new halachic norms, segulos and customs are being introduced for commercial purposes. Meaning, they know that halachic authority is for sale. This is a deeply problematic situation. Well-educated consumers, who know the difference between a serious problem and a marketing ploy, will lose their confidence in rabbinic rulings: Who knows which ulterior motive lies behind a halachic ruling that has commercial ramifications? Moreover, somebody who buys a more expensive product just because it has a “rabbinic stamp of approval,” only to discover the stamp was superfluous and they could have bought a cheaper alternative, may lose faith and dismiss rabbinic instruction on other matters.

We cannot afford a situation whereby every halachic ruling is scrutinized for its possible economic motives. Alas, even today I hear people wondering who exactly leads the community—our rabbis or the PR, marketing, and advertising people

This lack of confidence strikes at the heart of our society’s values. We cannot afford a situation whereby every halachic ruling is scrutinized for its possible economic motives. Alas, even today I hear people wondering who exactly leads the community—our rabbis or the PR, marketing, and advertising people. Even when a rabbinic committee of one sort or another is established, people raise their doubts: perhaps the entire committee is a product of some talented PR consultant. Charedi society is predicated on confidence in rabbis and rabbinic leadership, and such cynical and questioning attitudes present a grave danger to our community’s survival. If we are not aware of it, we may learn too late that “Slaves have now become our masters.”

***

I am not calling for an end to the advertising and marketing businesses. After all, I belong to those worlds, and would not wish to cut off the pipeline of my own income. Yet, ethical marketing sells the product for what it is. We should not be mixing the unmixable, enlisting rabbinic authority for financial purposes. We can convince people to buy refrigerators because, well, they preserve food. We can convince people to donate to a charity because of the importance of that charity’s activities, without trading rabbinic honor in the form of raffle tickets. We can market old age homes, nursery schools, and vacations abroad without exploiting the authority of our sages.

Please, fellow advertisers, let us separate halacha and marketing. Let us preserve and protect the honor of Torah and halacha even in the world of commerce.

 

Photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

5 thoughts on “Torah Trading: On Rabbinic Marketing and its Pitfalls

  • Your naivete is heartwarming. If I were to be ‘dan l’kaf zechut’ of the superannuated gedolim who ostensibly promise salvation as they walk around Har Habayit eleven times before Kol Nidre I would say they have no idea that they are being used in this way.

    Indeed, if some guy wants to sell a reasonably honest product like an air conditioner and he gets some minor league rav to hang his mezuzah for a photo op, it’s no big deal. After all, the shopkeeper is selling a real product and is seeking an edge by using the borrowed interest of the haredi version of a baseball player. No one has any illusions about that the rabbi/baseball payer getting his cut of the action.

    But it’s an entirely different story when it comes to those haredi tzedakah conglomerates that sell outright sheker to naive dupes; guarantying salvation, shidduchs, health and talmidei chachamim children to the fools who part with money many of them do not have. And this money mostly lines the pockets of the askanim, power brokers, haredi media moguls, and fiction writers who run this global cabal of grand larceny — with very little ever reaching a person or family in need.

    This exploitation of superannuated gedolim involves a gatekeeper – usually a close family member – whose price of admission to said godol enables him to live in grand style despite no visible source of income. Once the bag of cash has passed hands, the godol is fed words by his gatekeeper – words he may not even understand. He then issues an unintelligible grunt which is freely interpreted as approval of the scam that is then perpetrated.

    Other cases do not involve gedolim per se. Rather they are spearheaded by dubious rosh yeshivas in Ramat Bet Shemesh – the word capital of haredi larceny – or second tier individualss some of whom have already been convicted in court of bribery and embezzlement, yet somehow manage to maintain their aura of sanctity.

    It used to be that organizations like Kupat HaIr limited their thievery to local haredim; publishing booklets of wonder fables that happened to those who gave to the kuppah. But over the course of the COVID pandemic they got much more sophisticated, learning how to use the treif internet which they are not supposed to use, to pickpocket Jews all over the world with promises of priceless riches in exchange for hefty donations.

    I have spent my lifetime in advertising and marketing, and rarely have I come across anything as sophisticated and vile as this. Thank you for having the temerity to open the discussion. Alas I don’t think anything will be done to change things until these thieves are behind bars. And that is unlikely to happen as they are all protected behind the impregnable black wall of haredi omerta, and fear of the unfettered street violence that can be triggered when the wrong shoes are stepped on

  • Is the article suggesting that Gedolei Yisroel charge a fee for endorsing a tzedaka? Pardon my naïveté, but I have never heard of such a thing and find it hard to believe. Is there evidence that this has actually occurred?

    • I would not say that “Gedolei Yisroel charge a fee”, but it’s no secret that if you want a letter / picture / video from certain Gedolei Yisroel then this costs money. For certain causes, such as large charity organizations, the benefit to the relevant individuals could be a say in the distribution of funds, which as you can imagine is a lucrative matter. Unfortunately, this issue does not bring much respect to the institution of Gedolei Yisroel, and the article only begins to touch, in a respectful and delicate way, the challenges involved in combining money, power, and Torah.

    • No it is their grandsons or the shomenh shratzim that ‘protect’ them from knowing what’s really going on, which means they are not gedolim after all.

  • There is no such thing as gedole yisroel. It’s a myth created by and for the political parties

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