Sunday, June 19, 2011

Selling Snake Oil - Hitting a New Low

I should have already gotten used to it by now. But I haven’t. It seems that every week in just about every Orthodox Jewish medium, my senses become assaulted with yet another pitch for Tzedaka via purchasing a Segula of some sort.

A Segula is an artifact or action that is seen to provide miraculous Godly solutions to whatever ails you.

Frankly I’m not even sure how the word came to be understood that way. Segula is used in the Torah in connection with the word people and it refers to the Jewish people. We are told by God that we are an Am Segula - a treasured people (Shemos 19:5; Devorim 7:6, 14:2, 26:18). I doubt tha as used today they have any real validity.

Be that as it may it has come to be used by certain segments of our people - most notably by Sephardim and Chasidim and has apparently gained increasing popularity in other segments of Orthodoxy.

There are many such artifacts that have gained currency even outside of Jewry in recent years. Most notably the ‘red bendel’ -a red piece of thread that has been wound 7 times around the monument of our Matriarch Rachel located in Bethlehem. Wearing it on your wrist is supposed to give you some measure of Divine protection or good luck. Pop music icon, Madonna wears one constantly.

Most of us just laugh it off. At least that is what I thought. But apparently a lot more people take is seriously than I thought. Not just the ‘red bendel’. But just about any Segula that is being sold on the market today – if the right people are selling it.

We of the more prominent ones is Talimdei Chachamim, saying Tehillim for you at the Kotel for 40 days straight. Others have included giving a certain amount of money to the right Tzedaka in exchange for make a woman fertile. These Segulos are being sold’ by Tzedaka organization desperate to provide funds. The idea being that if you ‘this or that’ Segula your specific problem will be solved.

The need for funding the poor in Israel these days is so great that the Tzedaka organizations are desperate for additional funds. The traditional (and respectable) methods of straight forward appeals to the public for Tzedaka because the need is so great has obviously not produced enough money to meet the current need. But selling Segulos has been very successful in ‘increasing the take’ for these organizations. I don’t know if all their needs are met, but there can be no doubt about the success of selling Segulos.

So the pitch is no longer about the need. The pitch is for the Segula. The actual purpose of the Tzedaka is hardly even mentioned. The ads – usually in the form of slick a multi colored pamphlet designed by talented graphic artists – are all about the wonders of the particular Segula. There are always pictures of respected Charedi rabbinic leaders in Israel liberally plastered all over those pamphlets showing them donating to that charity and by implication endorsing the Segula.

These adds also feature testimonials by those who used the ‘Segula of the week’who tell us how it miraculously helped them achieve the claims made of it in the ad.

The latest such Segula is featured in Marty Bluke’s ‘The Jewish Worker’ blog. It is a Segula ring made out of silver. The ring is promoted as the salvation to a myriad of problems: From curing mental and physical illnesses, to solving financial and legal problems, to providing Shidduchim… you name it!

And whose name do we find at the bottom of this ad? Among others, Rav Moshe Sternbuch. I don’t know Rav Sternbuch, but I seriously doubt that he would approve of this ad – even if he approves of the Tzedaka organization behind it.

It is rather well known that rabbinic leaders allow their good names to be used to raise money for the poor. It is also rather well known that these organizations misuse those names to imply endorsement of the ‘Segula of the week’. They take general statements made out of context and put them in quotes on the ad to make it seem like they are endorsing the exact Segula they are selling at the moment.

To say these ads are misleading is an understatement. The ad bout 40 Talmidei Chachamim that will daven for you at the Kotel shows pictures of renowned and elderly rabbinic leaders that are photoshopped to make it seem like the are all saying Tehillim together at the same for purpose of the Segula in the ad.

I cannot remember a more misleading practice in my lifetime by any Tzedaka organization. I know the need is great. But appealing to desperate people by implying that all their ills will be cured via a donation is the oldest trick in the book. But the slick 21st century advertising methods used by the modern day snake oil salesman has taken this phenomenon to a new low.

Many of the people they appeal to have serious life threatening illnesses and are being goiven false hope in the name of Tzedaka. And names like Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman are being freely used in the cause.

I can’t think of too many things lower than giving false hope to desperate people. That the cause of Tzedaka is a legitimate one does not take away from the disgusting method they employ in raising funds. And yet we are in the midst of an explosion of these kinds of ads hitting virtually all of the Jewish media. They must really be successful in selling this snake oil.

Recently Rav Kanievsky was asked about a quote that was attributed to him in one of these ads. He answered that the quote was nothing more than a reference to a Gemarah he quoted in an entirely different context. But that didn’t stop the Tzedaka organization from using it to promote their snake oil.

I cannot understand why this is allowed to go on. Most of the people behind these ads are people who listen to their Gedolim. If even a single one of them would voice strong opposition it would stop. If they banded together and issued a ban on this type of advertising with the same force they put into bans on concerts, it would end it once and for all.

The question is, why don’t they do it? Why do they continue to tolerate snake oil salesmen in their midst? I truly do not understand.

Update: A history of these kinds of ads can be found in this link.