Franchising Judaism: The Politics Of Exclusion

A good name is better than oil (Kohelet 7:1)

One of the most important business commodities, intellectual or material, is the brand name. More than just a logo, a brand name is the symbolic representation of the entire company, implicitly defining the quality and integrity of its products. Building widespread brand name recognition can take several years, let alone correcting a negative impression, but acquiring an established reputable brand name quickly improves a company’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public. For instance, Rupert Murdoch’s purchasing of the Wall Street Journal gives his new business channel instant credibility (at least in theory).

On a smaller scale, brands can be leased to individuals in the form of franchising. In this system, a small business can leverage an existing brand name and benefit from it’s reputation and advertising. However, the corporate office usually dictates uniform policies from products, pricing, and interior design in order to protect its brand and ensure a consistent experience for the consumer.

Religion follows a similar pattern in terms of connecting name recognition to external expectations. We expect Orthodox Jews to keep kosher, observe Shabbat, and follow the laws and ethics defined by Jewish law. The difference is that Orthodox Judaism has no authoritative “home office” to enforce uniform regulations. As such, the religious “franchisees” are left to argue over who has the most authentic characteristics, and in turn discredit and delegitimize their competitors.

Let’s look at three recent examples from the world of Jewish news:

The most expansive example in this paradigm discusses “Jewish” brand itself i.e. who is a Jew. This question has come up recently thanks to the controversial policies of Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar who is now in the US to discuss those policies with the RCA. As we’ve discussed previously, the RCA has been trying to reach a compromise by instituting a national standard for conversions. Defining which conversions are “acceptable” has obvious and sweeping consequences for the entire Jewish people from not only a legal perspective, but also in terms of asserting ownership over and protecting the “Jewish” trademark.

Regarding an ethnic franchise, Zev Chafets writes in the New York Time Magazine about the protectionist measures taken by the Syrian community. In order to maintain the “purity” of their culture, the Syrian community follows an “edict” banning intermarriage not only with non-Jews, but with converts as well – despite Jews laws prohibiting such discrimination. Even born-Jewish Ashkenazim are not welcome, since they too will dilute and destabilized the Syrian ethnicity. In other words, in order to sustain the franchise of Syrian culture, outsiders must be exclusive.

Finally, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) demonstrates how religious franchising manifests on the organizational level. The NCYI recently instituted a policy in which the national office now claims veto power over rabbinical candidates for its member shuls. Young Israel is a recognized name in the Jewish world such that affiliation implies religious expectations. As one Young Israel congregant told me recently, if you hear a shul is a “Young Israel” you know it’s a legitimate Orthodox synagogue.

But these days what counts as “Orthodox” is a matter of opinion, and NCYI must ensure it can maintain its religious perception. As The Commentator reports:

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel and a graduate of Ner Yisrael of Baltimore, explained that while this policy should eliminate from consideration any rabbi with inadequate knowledge of Jewish law, its primary focus is to bar rabbis with inappropriate ideological beliefs from Young Israel synagogues. “Being a rabbi is so much more than just being able to answer questions of Halakha,” he explained. “It’s about interacting with personalities and ideas. We need to protect the reputation of all Young Israel shuls – yours, mine and the overall brand.” [emphasis added]

Young Israel superimposes its own rabbinic standards over that of ordaining institutions, primarily for the sake of protecting its franchise. The article continues that a concern is how a Rabbi will change, so it will be interesting to see if NCYI eventually moves to regulating contract renewals as well.

The ironic, though not unexpected, pattern is that in the process of issuing exclusions with religious rhetoric, God and Torah take a back seat to the pettiest of social concerns. Brand recognition signifies less about the quality or merits of a product than it does about how it is perceived by others. Instead of following and defending the principles of Torah, the franchises chose to defend their territory and reputation.

I just hope we don’t wait too long for the home office to set things straight.


  1. Yvette
  2. Josh
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