Thursday, May 2, 2013

Aish HaTorah and Multilevel Marketing Scams

(Photo source: All Twitter)
     I've been approached countless times in the past year by too many people, each wanting me to get involved in one multilevel marketing scam or another. I've been approached to join businesses and/or purchase products, by well-meaning people who were convinced that 1. my life would be better if I got involved with them; 2. I didn't know what I was missing; 3. they could help me make big money fast!; 4. this new business would make my life exponentially better. Yes, I know I mentioned that already, but that part gets mentioned so many times, that it deserved to be mentioned again. A friend recently made a good point about such businesses. "If these businesses are so great and if the products are so good, they should be selling themselves. I shouldn't need to be convinced to get involved in a business venture. The business venture and products should speak for themselves and I should be approaching you to find out how to get involved."
     I feel the same way about orthodox Judaism. If this product is so great, it should sell be able to sell itself. Aish HaTorah's Kiruv Primer lists the four universal needs, as pointed out by Rabbi Noach Weinberg,  and attempts to use tactics to recruit non-orthodox Jews to ultra-orthodoxy that are very similar to those used by people selling the opportunity to engage in multilevel marketing.
1. Meaning

Weinberg claims that without Torah, life and the world have very little meaning. He states that "With the Torah, the most mundane and routine activities of life are elevated. With the blessing "Asher Yatzar," even going to the bathroom becomes an opportunity to enhance our appreciation of G-d's[sic] greatness and our love for Him"(Coopersmith 50.) In some communities there are even blessings uttered before sex.*  Some may find this spiritual. Others may find it obsessive-compulsive. Rabbi Weinberg finds that the "Torah lifestyle removes the specter of meaninglessness that haunts our non-observant friends and neighbors.... It rescues us from foundering helplessly in a sea of confusion and illusion"(Coopersmith 50-1). This claim is quite biased and presumptuous, at best. Just as multilevel marketing people believe that without their product, or without becoming a business associate, the rest of our lives are mundane, the ultra-orthodox Aish HaTorah outreach professionals believe the same about non-orthodox Jews.
2. Lasting Pleasure
Weinberg claims that Western ideology is all about escapism, "designed to distract from the reality of life" but that "to be fulfilled, a human being needs higher, more sublime pleasures than the experiences a physical world can provide"(Coopersmith 51). If we trust Rabbi Weinberg, we would automatically assume that he knows what he's talking about when he states, as if factually, what a human being needs to be fulfilled. A charismatic leader or speaker from any walk of life, can elicit a chorus of hallelujahs and applause if he or she is believable, excited, and promising that his/her product and business can provide beauty, health, and a secure future. In this case, Weinberg tries to convince his audience that without Torah, a Jew will always be left wanting something, and without Shabbos (the Sabbath day of rest,) people "feel an emptiness in their lives--despite being "free" to partake in all the pleasures the world offers"(Coopersmith 52). However, with the Torah, people get the full range of pleasure. Sounds like our pyramid scammers: you may think you're happy, but you're nowhere near as happy as you could be if you just used our products and joined our business.
3. Tools for Living
 Under this heading, Weinberg claims that "there is nothing inherent in Western life that imbues man with the clarity or focus to live life effectively"(Coopersmith 53) and that
left to his own devices, man is bound to confront obstacles which he is ill-equipped to surmount. The evidence is all around us. The rampant problems plaguing our society--divorce, drug abuse, depression, suicide, alcoholism, murder, rape--speak loudly enough (Coopersmith 53). 
However, if people ultimately acquiesce to outreach professionals and accept ultra-orthodox Judaism, they will gain clarity and focus for effective living. Multilevel marketing recruiters make similar claims. Their product and this business opportunity will give you a clarity that everyone else is lacking. At the very end of this section, Weinberg does leave readers with the disclaimer that "while Torah society is not entirely problem-free, most of the difficulties that do exist occur precisely when its members subordinate Torah values to that of popular culture"(Coopersmith 54). So if you leave popular culture behind completely, you'll never have a problem. It's only when you allow popular culture into your life will you have troubles.
4. Reaching Our Potential
Weinberg states that "Western culture spawns generations of people who are frustrated at not being able to realize their potential, people who are confused about who they are and what direction their lives should take"(Coopersmith 54.) So don't worry your little heads. Line up for a dose of ultra-orthodox kiruv from Aish HaTorah and they'll help you realize your potential. Wait, I've heard this before. I may be successful in my present field, but what's this? If i get involved in, let's say...Amway...I'll be able to reach my potential? What? I'm not really all I could be? And you can help me attain this potential?
     Aish HaTorah uses tactics similar to cultish multilevel marketing shemes. Much like multilevel marketers, they attempt to convince you that there is something lacking in your life that you need and they are the only ones who can make sure you get it. And make no mistake about it, kiruv professionals coming from the Aish HaTorah school of thought will be relentless. Rabbi Noach Weinberg instructs fellow outreach professionals that they have no choice but to do kiruv:
G-d[sic] sends a limited number of opportunities for growth and spiritual  closeness into everybody's life. Your "chance" meeting with another Jew may just be the last door that will ever be opened to him. The very first principle you have to understand is that there is no choice. It's you or nothing. When you realize that, you will find a way to become effective, because necessity is the mother of invention (Coopersmith 31.) 
Feeling a bit uncomfortable? Sort of like you're being pursued?
That's because you are. Multilevel marketers are told to look to their friends, family, neighbors, community members, workmates, classmates, etc. for business. They tell you that everyone is a potential customer or potential client. It is up to you to pursue your contacts and turn them into one or the other, or both. But shouldn't it stand to reason that if pyramid schemes and ultra-orthodox Judaism were perfect business and living models, that they would sell themselves?

Coopersmith, Yitzchak, ed. The Eye of a Needle Aish HaTorah's Kiruv Primer. Southfield: Targum/Feldheim, 2005. Print.
* specifically Chabad communities. Chabad and Aish HaTorah stress different customs. See Rabbi Fishel Jacobs' book Family Purity. Campus Living and Learning, South Royalton, 2000.



8 comments:

  1. Kiruv clowns can also be likened to second hand car sellers: there is always some caveat.

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  2. Brilliant comparison, Rebecca. I think that this model will be a powerful means of conveying the true face of kiruv to those who have not had contact with Orthodox outreach "professionals." Thank you again for using your writing to protect others from this very real danger.

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    1. Hayley, thanks for your continued support.

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  3. > Weinberg claims that without Torah, life and the world have very little meaning.

    To be fair, providing meaning is one of the many useful things that religion does. On the other hand, that a particular belief system provides meaning says nothing about whether it is true or good.

    I had a post with a similar idea a few months ago:
    http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/2013/01/infomercials-for-frum-world.html

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    1. Thanks for your comment, G*3 and good point. I think that Weinberg has a very ethnocentric view of the world, which is understandable as many people subscribing to a particular belief--whether religious or political, etc., tend to believe that their system of belief is superior to others. With that understanding, it seems that he also fails to take into account that there are many other religions and belief systems out there that don't follow the Torah and manage to convey a sense of meaning to life and the world to their adherents.
      By the way, excellent post. Thank you for providing the link.

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  4. I was invited recently to an art exhibition and 'talk', and attended, though the content of the talk was deliberately not specified because a 'friend' had invited me. It was my first direct exposure to 'multi-level marketing' (Leisure-something-or-other). The speaker happened to be orthodox, replete with kippah (or hat?) and other trappings. I was so repelled that I bolted half-way through. Given your article I now understand my reaction - it rang all the bells of my experience at aish a decade ago! The pumped up enthusiasm, the bad jokes, the fancy and sometimes slightly complex projections - and the complete lack of credible substance. And, sadly, a needy, impoverished audience reaching for any promise.

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    1. Mage, thanks for your comment. You make an excellent point about the "needy, impoverished audience reaching for any promise." We, as human beings, are most susceptible to these promises of wealth, fulfillment, a better life, etc., when we're down on our luck, or when we've endured hard times, or even when we're just not as happy as we thought we'd be by a set time. Unfortunately, these organizations--whether they're selling spirituality or monetary gain--prey on those in need.

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Your respectful comments are welcome.