Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Rites of Passage Gone Amok
Have you ever heard of a bar mitzvah for a company? Why not, I suppose, since the Supreme Court has defined corporations as people. Redscout is a branding and product development company started in 2000 in New York by Jonah Disend, a forty-one year old entrepreneur. When it came time for the 13th annual holiday party this year, Disend decided it would be appropriate to “brand” it as a bar mitzvah. Disend is quoted in The New Yorker magazine saying,
“I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and spent seventh and eighth grades going to a lot of bar mitzvahs without having my own. Thirteen is the most interesting time. A time of deep confusion and yet enough intellectual ability to do really interesting things. . . . I remember thirteen very well. This is our annual party, but calling it a bar mitzvah – well, there’s the symbolism of it all. And then there’s the fun, to be silly and celebrate. My clients think it’s creative and funny. It feels very on-brand for us. A little bit kooky.”
The event was held at nearby General Theological Seminary’s neo-Gothic refectory (like most seminaries, General rents out space to help support its budget). Attendees wore red Kabbalah bracelets and red felt yarmulkes imprinted with the company’s logo. In lieu of the traditional reflection on the Torah portion by the bar mitzvah boy, Disend talked about his inspiration for Redscout. According to The New Yorker account, Disend concluded: “I wanted to come up with really fucking creative solutions to big band and marketplace challenges.” How moving.
I can hardly be accused of being stuffy when it comes to religion. After all, I’m partially responsible for the United Church of Christ’s “bouncer” and “ejector seat” ads a few years ago, encouraged my seminary to employ the same wildly creative people to guide our marketing efforts, and had my picture taken with SpongeBob Squarepants while I was General Minister and President. But I like to think I draw the line when it comes to the church’s most sacred rituals and rites of passage. Disend may have attended a lot of bar and bat mitzvah parties as a young teenager, but apparently the religious service made a limited impression. How else to explain how the communal act of receiving a young man or woman into adulthood under the guidance of Torah and in the context of the synagogue can be reduced to a branding opportunity for a marketing firm?
Perhaps this is what happens when religious rites are handed over to individuals for whom tradition and communal habits are distant memories at best. Absent the guidance of a community that has practiced them faithfully through time, religious rituals simply become deposits to mine for self-serving consumerist impulses. Several years ago sociologist Wade Clark Roof described the story of religious life in America in the last half century as the “rise of a new sovereign self.” Liberated from the constraints of tradition, the sovereign self is free to create, innovate and, in cases like this, produce an icon to narcissism. There’s a reason we entrust our rituals and rites of passage to communities of trusted practice rather than to sovereign selves. It’s not just that they know how to perform them better; they actually know what they are for. It may be a battle in danger of being lost, but it’s still worth fighting.
Meanwhile, the dean of the venerable Episcopal seminary is now in the unhappy position of explaining why one of his hallowed halls was turned over to a rock band and a corporate executive whose ego far exceeds his taste. Seminaries do need money and no doubt there was a hefty rental fee involved. But to borrow Disend’s graceful prose, it doesn’t strike me as a really f-ing creative solution. Let’s hope for the sake of Jews everywhere – and I admittedly am about to mix up rituals and holidays – that this was a night different from all other nights.
John H. Thomas
January 16, 2014