Monday, November 21, 2011

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Steve Jobs

Inspired by a post by Garnel Ironheart as well as my response there, I've decided to expand on the issue of the Chief Rabbi's remarks about consumerism and how they may have been misinterpreted, which caused Rabbi Sacks' office to issue a statement of clarification.

Please read those posts before continuing on here.

Rabbi Sacks is entirely correct in criticizing the plague of consumerism that threatens our society today. In fact, he has done so already when he wrote about the riots in London and how they also indicated that the world has some deeply ingrained issues revolving around our consumerism sickness:

"But what we have witnessed is a real, deep-seated and frightening failure of morality. These were not rebels with or without a cause. They were mostly bored teenagers, setting fire to cars for fun and looting shops for clothes, shoes, electronic gadgets and flat screen televisions. If that is not an indictment of the consumer society, what is?"

Rabbi Sack's most recent remarks are entirely leshitaso (according to his previously established views). I think he has written other pieces about this devastating trend as well - and he is right to do so!

Here are a few of his sharpest remarks from the address that has come under scrutiny:

"The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i.

"When you're an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'i', you don't do terribly well."

He went on: "What does a consumer ethic do? It makes you aware all the time of the things you don't have instead of thanking God for all the things you do have.

"If in a consumer society, through all the advertising and subtly seductive approaches to it, you've got an iPhone but you haven't got a fourth-generation one, the consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness."

This is Emes, pure and simple.

I once heard a recorded shiur from Rabbi Dr. Johnny Krug in which he talked about how our consumerism has gone so far that we take the "use it and throw it away" approach to our relationships as well, especially marriage. He said that we're so used to the idea of disposable products, which are there for our convenience but have none of the responsibility of maintenance and upkeep as real glass or metal utensils, that we think we can do that to spouses as well. If he/she doesn't do exactly what I want, doesn't please me the way I want, or if someone tells me something better is out there - out he/she goes, and I'm on to the next spouse.

It's a disturbing, sickening way to think and live, no "if"s, "and"s, or "but"s.

Don't get me wrong, Steve Jobs was a revolutionary designer and businessman. We certainly owe him gratitude for the wonderful products he helped create, produce and market. He had a unique creative genius that won't soon be replaced.

However, as I began to read all the news reports, articles, and quotations that came out after his recent death, I came to the conclusion that all Steve Jobs was could be encapsulated by his accomplishments in the business world. As a moral person, he was no role model whatsoever, as a number of prominent events from his life attest to, such as cheating his friend and future partner Steve Wozniak out of a bonus at work, or leaving his pregnant girlfriend after she refused to have an abortion.

When ASoG and I were in an airport recently waiting for our connecting flight, I walked over to the nearby bookstore and flipped through a few of the prominently displayed books about Jobs. One book was a large listing of quotes on various subjects. I was struck by a particular quote that talked about the production of Toy Story 2 by Pixar, which he owned at the time. Jobs spoke about working his employees to the bone, making them miss family occasions/celebrations, holidays, and weekends for an extended period of time to make sure the movie was released on schedule. Jobs said it was grueling and difficult at the time, but the product was entirely worth it and he thinks his employees would agree.

I enjoyed the movie, but my perception of it now is a bit tainted by the fact that Jobs forced people to slave away and miss parts of their lives for the sake of a product, work of art, or whatever you want to call it. I don't think that's right - and Jobs did this a lot in his Apple product design and development as well. I read numerous pieces that talked about how much of an unforgiving task master he was in controlling his employees. None of that is something to be proud of or worth emulating. A true leader can and should inspire greatness in those in his charge without resorting to the tactics that Steve Jobs did.

A real model of leadership worth emulating can be found in Rabbi Sacks' essay on the concept of Jewish leadership based in the parshiyos Nitzavim-Vayelech here.

Another huge critique I discovered of Steve Jobs following his death was the fact that despite all the enormous sums of money he earned for his products, he never became a philanthropist of any sort. A short time before Jobs' death, reporters wrote about the breaking news that Apple had more cash than the US Government. These writers joked about President Obama looking to Jobs for a loan to help with the debt crisis. It was funny then, but not so funny to me now when I think about the fact that Jobs never did anything charitable with all his money. In my mind, anyone with a significant amount of wealth should use it wise to give and benefit others in need, as Jobs' rival, Bill Gates has done in co-founding The Giving Pledge.

In many ways, Steve Jobs was a big jerk. Yes, he revolutionized the way we compute, listen to music, and browse the internet/media with the Apple/Mac computer, iPod/iTunes, and iPad. But when it comes down to it, his lasting legacy is giving the world a bunch of fancy toys to play with.

As we say in Tehillim 49:17, which is recited at funerals - "When he dies, he shall take nothing with him. His wealth/honor will not descend after him."

I'm not writing this post to besmirch the name of Steve Jobs - I think he did that well enough himself while he was living. I want to support Rabbi Sacks' remarks, because I believe he is correct in his criticism. His message is one that we all need to hear - and that Steve Jobs may have benefited from, had he been given the chance.

Let us enjoy the gifts we have, and recognize their source as Koheles says 3:13 "And also every man should eat and drink and enjoy pleasure (or I might translate: see good) in his labor - it is a gift from G-d." I hope that we can all learn to lead lives that are charitable and full of caring for others. No one said that we should live austere lives without pleasure, rather, we should live comfortably within our means - and make sure to give to and do chesed for others less fortunate than we.

And in doing so, let's focus on what's really important, as the penultimate posuk in Koheles (12:13) says: "The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear G-d, and keep His mitzvos; for this is the whole of man."


  1. This very topic arose in a discussion group I teach. Does the morality of the individual impact their status as business genius, political leader etc. This piece was very well put. Thanks!

  2. I feel like this issue was probably discussed every time a new product comes out that simplifies life and allows more time for wasting. A hundred years ago, families spent all their time together with practically no distractions and probably sat around discussing how the automobile was going to ruin the world by making everyone fat and lazy...

  3. Ruchi Koval - thanks! The whole idea behind Jobs' veneration despite his personal failings always bothered me, but Rabbi Sacks helped me put everything together.

    Chanalesings - I think you're missing the point a bit, I'm not decrying a particular product as a potential ruination of morals, but rather the falsely created desire to own the newest everything when it comes out despite not having a need for it whatsoever. I certainly think the iPod is revolutionary and own one myself. It helped me bring all my Jewish music to Israel. However, I had the same iPod for 6 years, and did not feel the need to pay extra money for an iPod touch with less storage space just because it's nifty and trendy. That's my point.

  4. Steve Jobs'and Bill Gates' greatest triumph was to convince us to buy things we don't need but think we do.
    Having a genuine need is fine.
    Having a want and recognizing it as such is fine.
    Having a want and believing it's a need is not okay but is the basis of most purchases today.
    We don't need the brand name ketchup. We don't need the brand name jeans. We don't need the latest version of Microsoft Office, 95% of it's features are irrelevant to us. We don't need an iPod Nano when a ten year old version will play the music just as effectively. But we think we do when really it's about want.
    It's the lack of ability of distinguishing between needing and wanting that is destroying us.


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