One of the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the Pardoner, a corrupt, low-level cleric who goes around selling pardons, indulgences and fake relics to credulous believers. He begins his tale by exposing the tricks of his trade – how he gets his customers, anxious to buy their way out of perdition, to cough up their cash for his bogus wares. After he finishes his tale, he launches into his spiel, either out of hutzpah or total stupidity, since he’s just admitted to his hearers that he’s a fraud. The Host retorts: That’s enough! Do you think we were born yesterday? If you thought you could get away with it, you’d have us kissing your dirty underwear as a saint’s relic, too!
I thought of the Pardoner late last week when I got a phone call from an unidentified number. Usually, I don’t answer phone calls from unidentified numbers, but this time I did.
When I heard a pause on the line and a bit of static, I thought that this might be an overseas call with a bit of delay. So I waited, and after a second or so, I heard a click, and then a recorded message began.
A male voice – the voice of an actor, of course – told a story of how his life had been going well, and then his luck had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. His business began to suffer, his finances dwindled, his home lost its peace and tranquility and his health declined. Then he found out about a marvelous remedy and decided to try it: prayers offered by a tzaddik (Hebrew: “righteous person”) on his behalf at a particular holy site. Once the tzaddik prayed for him, his good fortune was restored just like the old joke about the country song played backwards: his business recovered, his prosperity returned, his family relationships improved and his health problems vanished.
Although I didn’t buy the spiel for a moment, I wanted to see where it would lead. So I stayed on the line and obeyed the actor’s exhortation to “Press 1” if I wanted to see similar salvation in my life.
I was connected to an operator at a call center, a young woman who read me an additional little spiel telling me how much it would cost to buy this salvation: more than three hundred shekels. I had no intention of buying in. I simply wanted to say my piece. I told her my concerns and asked to speak to the manager. She gave me a number to call.
I called the number and soon was on the line with the manager, an older-sounding woman with a friendly, professional phone manner.
“I’m a religious woman,” I told her, “and I felt I had to tell you how disturbed I was by this phone call. It’s such an obvious fake. Anyone could tell that the speaker in the recorded message is an actor reading from a script.
“As a religious person, I find this whole thing disgusting. It’s nothing but a cheap scare tactic – a marketing gimmick of the worst kind. Luckily, I have some background in Judaism, and I know that isn’t what Judaism is about. I was always taught that one of Judaism’s basic teachings, and one of the things that makes it different from other faiths, is the belief that every person can approach God on his or her own, without an intermediary. On top of that, the message is a prepared script being read by someone who is obviously a hired actor, but you’re trying to pass it off as real. This insults people’s intelligence. If I were a secular Israeli with little background in Judaism, it would turn me right off. I would say to myself: ‘If this is what Judaism is, I want no part of it.’ Is this the image we want to present? Is this what we want people to think Judaism is?”
The manager answered: “Our target audience is secular and traditional people, not necessarily religious people. We really do send tzaddikim to the holy site to pray for the people who donate, and the money goes to needy families. We can prove it. And Judaism does teach that the prayers of tzaddikim are more effective than those of an ordinary person.”
“I don’t agree,” I said. “That’s not a basic teaching of Judaism, and anyway the idea of the tzaddik came much later. There are plenty of scholars and teachers who disagree with it.”
“We just had two women call us up to tell us that the prayers really helped them,” the woman said. “You’re the only one who thinks there’s anything wrong with what we’re doing. We’re helping the needy. Don’t you think that’s a worthy goal?”
“I’m glad if the women were helped,” I said, “and helping the needy is always a worthy goal. As for being the only one who thinks you’re going about it the wrong way, I’m not sure about that. It’s entirely possible that other people think so, too. I’m just the only one so far who’s taken the time to call you and tell you about it.”
I could have asked more questions then, such as who decides how the funds are distributed and what percentage of the collected funds actually reaches the needy families. But I didn’t have the time to pursue it. Instead, I asked: “How did you get my number?”
She named my long-distance provider. “They sell us their subscriber list, and we go on from there,” she said.
I thanked her, and the conversation ended on a good note.
Once I hung up, I got the urge to call my long-distance provider, tell them to stop selling my phone number to spammers and threaten to cancel my subscription if I ever got another spam call. But then I found myself wondering something else. Maybe this whole thing had nothing to do with offering prayers on behalf of people looking for relief from life’s vicissitudes or helping the needy. Could it be that all this was nothing but a devilishly clever ploy to lure customers away from that particular long-distance company?