Rabbi Leon A. Morris, The Jewish Week, June 10th, 2004
Has narcissism become the predominant religion of American life?
Personal fulfillment, the individual’s search for meaning, and other self referential notions indicate the ways in which traditional motivations for religious observance have fallen by the wayside. In pre—modern times, our behavior was exclusively regulated by the authority of society, religious texts and teachers. While modernity abandoned the yoke of much traditional authority 200 years ago, nonetheless society, family and community continued to hold sway. Modernity helped forge new communities with their own set of rules and expectations, freed from a centralized hierarchical structure, be it the Church or the Crown. But society, family and community continued to tell us what we needed to do and what was expected of us. Today, except for those in the most
traditionalist camps, the vast majority of Americans, and Jews among them, frame their religious life more and more exclusively through the lens of the self.
Such a climate produces a religious way of life that fails to challenge us sufficiently, minimizes a sense of obligation and duty, and does not inspire us to grow and change. When religious experience focuses primarily on self—fulfillment, it tends to lack consistency and discipline. Moreover, while religion should motivate us to look beyond the self — to the “other” who is our neighbor and to God, the ultimate “other” — American religion deepens and affirms own inclinations toward self obsession.
Today, the meaning of Judaism for most American Jews takes place almost exclusively within the individual and his or her particular family. This was documented most clearly in Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen’s qualitative study of American Jewry, “The Jew Within” (Indiana University Press, 2000). For most American Jews, the relevance of belonging to the Jewish people lies in the potential enhancement of one’s self and one’s family. The sense of being part of a nation or ethnic group, and a feeling of obligation to support Jewish institutions is waning.
The emphasis on individualized meaning and self—fulfillment so saturates Jewish life in America that personal autonomy (understood as choosing Jewish activities and rituals that best serve one’s individual needs and desires) is now seen as being an intrinsically Jewish value. According to the Jews interviewed in “The Jew Within,” “every Jew is free to make his or her own decision in these matters, no one can judge the morality, let alone the propriety, of another person’s Jewish choices.”
This over-emphasis on ourselves as the ultimate authority erodes our commitment. The more options we have, the more tenuous our commitment becomes to each one. Choice also wears away at our sense of community. When everyone is “making Shabbos for himself,”