Over at Balkanization they have published an interesting symposium on Roberta Kwall's The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition. Seven legal scholars with interest in Jewish identity issues have written their reactions to the book. Some of these are intensely personal, all of them are well worth reading. [They are linked below]
In her book, Kwall, a professor at DePaul University School of Law, wrestles with the interrelationship of Jewish culture and Jewish law (halakhah). Specifically, she asks can there be Jewish culture without reference to Jewish law? Kwall argues "No." And, more significantly, is it possible to pass on Jewish culture without a continued active involvement with halakhah? And what is the nature of that (necessary) interaction?
Jewish Culture/Jewish LawKwall explains her thesis in an exchange with Shmuel Rosner in the Jewish Journal (I have edited to streamline):
[M]any Jews in the United States would identify as “cultural Jews” (meaning) not religious but who identif(y) as Jewish and (are) even proud of this designation. [F]or those who care about Jewish continuity, it is vital to unbundle what it means to “be Jewish” and to nurture this quality. Toward this end, it is helpful to understand that Jewish law (known as halakhah) and what we think of as Jewish culture are completely intertwined.
... [All] legal systems and the cultures from which they emanate are the products of human enterprise, shaped in response to specific historical circumstances and environmental influences. Any legal system not only reflects the influences of its surrounding culture but also takes these cultural influences into account in its formation and development. The recent Supreme Court decision supporting same-sex marriage is a current illustration of this very phenomenon. Specifically, the Court’s decision can be seen as a response to current social sensibilities concerning this issue.
... [H]alakhah (Jewish law) both reflects and is shaped by social and cultural practices. Jewish law, which is binding upon Jews according to the tradition, produces Jewish culture and Jewish culture produces Jewish law. .... Even Orthodox authorities ... have recognized that Jewish law has developed in human society rather than in Heaven. As a result, the development and formation of Jewish law is the product of human production, despite the tradition’s position that its origin is Divine. As for its content, Jewish law covers far more than ritual matters but extends to virtually all aspects of human behavior including money, sex, and even the order in which one puts on and ties shoes!
[T]he content of halakhah ... has been shaped by the cultural practices of the Jewish people and by the circumstances in which they have lived.... Over space and time, Jewish law and culture have borrowed from, and even subverted, cultural elements from the host societies of the Jews. ....In Part 2 she elaborates:
[Because] the laws and the cultural aspects of the Jewish tradition are completely intertwined[,...] those who claim to be “cultural Jews” cannot help but embrace a degree of Jewish law and tradition regardless of whether they are aware of, or acknowledge, this reality. ... [M]any self-denominated cultural Jews celebrate Chanukah, Passover and fast on Yom Kippur, although they do not necessarily associate halakhah as the source of these behaviors. Many cultural Jews still want to celebrate the birth of a male child with a ritual circumcision known as a brit (or a naming ceremony for a girl) and want to have their children celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. ....Similarly, when cultural Jews marry, the ceremony often contains significant Jewish trappings such as a chuppah and the breaking of a glass, even if the spouse is not Jewish. We also see the importance of Jewish tradition at life’s end given the enduring popularity of the shiva, despite its frequent truncation to a shorter period than the traditional week. All of these examples illustrate the reality that so much of what American Jews do and how they behave has very much been shaped by the norms of the Jewish tradition, norms that embody not only the culture but also halakhah.
.... If individuals are inclined to identify as “culturally Jewish,” they clearly appreciate something about the culture. So my two questions for such Jews are: 1) What are the elements of Jewish culture that make you want to identify with it? 2) Is your identification as a cultural Jew sufficiently positive to foster a desire for the culture’s transmission to future generations?
I suspect that most secular, cultural Jews would have a hard time giving a precise answer to the first question .... [M]ost self-defined cultural Jews would not list religious engagement among these elements (that make them want to identify with the tradition). .... [H]owever, viewing the ritual and the culture as distinct entities of the tradition completely misses the mark. One reason I wrote The Myth of the Cultural Jew was to call attention to the fundamental interconnection between Jewish law and culture. Although recognition of this interconnection may not automatically instill a love of Jewish observance, it does lead to a better understanding of the Jewish culture that cultural Jews value. Cultural Jews need to understand the importance that halakhah has played in the creation of their beloved Jewish culture.
I suspect that what drives the Jewish identity of many cultural Jews is a pride of peoplehood. In other words, many cultural Jews value Jewish culture and want to identify with it because it is a part of who they are, and how they see themselves. But it is vital for cultural Jews to understand that the religious aspects of the tradition that they eschew both create and reflect the same history and culture that cultural Jews embrace. ...In short, Kwall contends that cultural Judaism in a secular U.S. environment (e.g. celebrating Passover, Hannukah, Yom Kippur, the odd Shabbat, sitting Shiva when a parent dies, sometimes avoiding pork) must be understood in light of the legal tradition from which the cultural traditions arose, otherwise the traditions will die out.
As for the second question (many Jews) ... feel strongly about the importance of Jewish continuity and transmission of the tradition.... [but] ... [t]he “Jewish” content of American-Jewish culture is becoming less apparent and important to those American Jews who do not recognize or appreciate the halakhic roots of Jewish culture. Those cultural Jews who embrace Jewish continuity but avoid religious practice need to be educated to understand, and care about, the fact that halakhah provides the basis for the particularity of the cultural tradition about which they do care. The continuity of Jewish peoplehood depends upon a discourse grounded in halakhah, given the law’s pivotal role in shaping our people over the millennia. Halakhah allows Jews to connect the past with the present through a concrete tradition, and helps mold a path to the future by providing the essential ingredients for modern interpretations of this tradition.
In Israel, where the majority of Jews claim to be secular, it is far easier to create and maintain Jewish identity. Even Israeli Jews who are not highly educated from a Jewish standpoint have a greater familiarity with Jewish texts, customs and traditions than most Diaspora Jews. Jewish culture is the majority culture in Israel and the country operates according to “Jewish time.” The situation is completely different in the Diaspora where the majority culture is not based on Hebrew or Jewish roots, and the land on which the Jews live is not their historic homeland. These realities present tremendous challenges for Jewish educators and for lay leaders in the United States who are concerned with Jewish continuity.
Legal Tradition and ChangeSeveral of the commenters in the symposium note the book's strength in tracing the connections between Jewish culture and its legal antecedents, and in demonstrating the effect of culture on Jewish law over time. Kwall embraces an egalitarian and modern feminist interpretation of halakhah. Her book makes an effort to explain how halakhah, which traditionally has prohibited homo-sexual relationships, denied women the right to read from Torah, and precluded women from becoming rabbis, can (in our 21st century post-enlightenment culture) accommodate homosexual marriage, women reading from the Torah, and women becoming rabbis.
Jack Balkin in his contribution focuses on the process by which the law might be updated in this manner. It entails a slight of hand he says (my word), wherein the legal guardians deny that they are being influenced by the culture around them (even as they are), and assert that they are merely "applying the law" (even as they are importing new cultural norms). Read More.
Woody Allen or What's Up with Halakhah Without God?
All of the commenters bristle to varying degrees at the normative notion in Kwall's book: that because Jewish culture such as it is today has its roots in halakhah, cultural Jews must therefore (in order to be good Jews?) embrace halakhah as a reference point, accept halakhah as somehow binding, or look to halakhah to derive meaning for an ongoing cultural relationship with Judaism.
Hillel Levin asks why? Why is it necessary for a cultural Jew to engage with halakhah if they reject the underlying claim to divinity or obligation? As Alan Brownstein notes, the problem for secular Jews is not simply that they doubt that the commandments of halakhah are an accurate description of God's laws, secular Jews do not believe in God. Sandy Levinson adds that without a belief in God, halakhah lacks legitimacy and cannot be "binding" on anyone in any sense. If halakhah is not binding and lacks political legitimacy, how can halakhah be instrumental in perpetuating Jewish culture moving forward? Brownstein laments that the book does not wrestle with that question more.
By making halakhah central to perpetuating Jewish culture, Kwall implicitly argues that there is something unique about Jewish culture in the U.S. But Mark Graber observes that there is, in fact, nothing unique about cultural Judaism in the United States. Cultural Jews are simply Jewish-Americans the same way that there are Italian-Americans, and Irish-Americans, and African-Americans. Jewish-Americans celebrate Passover, eat bagels, go Israeli folk dancing, socialize with other Jews, and cherish what they regard as Jewish values. In partaking of this culture, they are not guided by Jewish law. If they celebrate Passover but don't fast on Yom Kippur it is not because they have concluded that Passover is more central to Jewish legal culture--Passover simply feels more satisfying than the more somber Yom Kippur. "What appears random practice from the perspective of the Jewish legal culture," says Graber, "makes far more sense from the perspective of American cultural pluralism."
Halakhah does not seem necessary for cultural self-identification. Cultural identities can in fact last a long time without reference to separate laws. Cultural Judaism in the United States may not be as robust as Kwall would like, says Sherry Colb, but this does not make a purely cultural Jew an impossibility. Moreover, says Colb, a hyphenated ethnic identity may be more robust than Kwall imagines. As Shari Motro notes: "The aspects of Phillip Roth and Woody Allen and Jon Stewart that make them recognizably Jewish are not a myth."
Ethnic Identity: Is it Enough; is it Desirable?
Hyphenated Jewish-American cultural identity is cemented strongly by a history of persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, together with an ethnic identity, and a strong Zionist nationalism. As Colb puts it:
Tribalism is a powerful force, and the mix of blood (in the form of racial identification), land (in the form of nationalism associated with having a state where Jews, broadly defined, are welcome), and the persecution itself from which Jews might be fleeing to that state (paradigmatically exemplified by the Holocaust) could conceivably keep the Jews “going” for a long time as an identifiable group with cultural norms bereft of what I would concede are the richness and beauty contained in the halakhah.But the tribalism reflected in the nationalist Zionist project makes Sandy Levinson nervous. The only kind of state worth having, he implies, is a secular state with equal rights for all:
I find it easy to agree with Walzer that perhaps the greatest tragedy of post-Independence Israel is that the Labor Zionists who founded the state and put into place what in many ways has been a vibrant democracy totally “fail[ed] to produce a strong and coherent secular culture to go with that democracy.” That failure, repeated in India, which Walzer also analyzes at length (along with Algeria), is precisely what gave space for the non-secular to use democratic procedures to come to power. But Kwall presumably believes that it is basically impossible “to produce a strong and coherent secular culture” that would still deserve to be called distinctly “Jewish.” That simply states the fundamental dilemma rather than necessarily provides a solution.As it is playing out, the end point of ethnic nationalist Zionism is the settler terrorist movement we see reflected in the front pages of our newspapers today, says Levinson. Sherry Colb hints at agreement when she says that an enduring tie to some sort of halakhah is preferable as a vehicle to perpetuate Jewish culture and identity than tribalism.
Halakhah and the Lamentations of JobWhich leaves us with Shari Motro's contribution, which is the most vehement in its reaction to Kwall, but which also leaves us with some hope for continuing the search. It reminds me of the lamentations of Job.
Here is Motro wrestling with her own doubts:
The part of me that sympathizes despite myself... is that assimilated Jews reflect something in me that I’m not at peace with, an anxiety I have felt about my own Jewishness fading.Where this leaves me, a non-Jew engaging with the tradition because I'm married into the tribe, I have no idea. But it's enough to keep the conversation going.
The Myth of the Cultural Jew—which ... offers a window into the incredibly rich tapestry that is my tradition—helps me connect some of these dots. It helps me realize that notwithstanding the gifts that have come my way through meditation, notwithstanding the lessons I’ve learned from Buddhists and Quakers and Christians, when I lose touch with Jewish practice there is a voice within me that says: חבל, it’s a shame.
The second way in which I resonate with Roberta’s project has to do with celebrating Judaism’s commitment to pluralism. Israel does, after all, mean “God wrestler.” Pluralism, the multiplicity of narratives, the rejection of “textual fundamentalism”—these are at the heart of what Judaism means, as Roberta so beautifully illustrates.
The Myth of the Cultural Jew—these words are not so inviting. But other words throughout parts of the book are. The ones I resonate with most dovetail with the tikkun, the healing reversal, I’ve experienced from other observant Jews who accepted me as I was, at every point along my path from secularism to my evolving idiosyncratic observance.
Some of these angels are Orthodox or Modern Orthodox, some are practitioners of Jewish Renewal, and some refuse to be categorized (when asked, they simply say: I am a Jew). Not only did they reverse the cold shoulder I’d experienced from less tolerant religious Jews, they genuinely embraced the possibility that davka the secular world I come from is essential not as fodder for conversion, but as its own expression of Israel. They assured me that my midrash on the Exodus is every bit as legitimate as theirs, that I have a place at the table not only as a polite guest, but as a co-creator. By curbing the impulse to dismiss my kind of Judaism as a myth, these fellow travelers helped me drop my resistance to theirs, and to open to the possibility that Jewish law might be part of my path too. They helped me understand that law can be a vehicle for transcendence, an incredibly powerful spiritual technology.
...[W]hat I read beyond the p’shat (the surface meaning) of Roberta’s argument was an invitation, an invitation to all Jews—cultural, religious, and all shades in between. The actions, the words, the nigunim (tunes), the history, the Yiddishe Kopf (discursive habits), the neshama (spirit), the kavana (intention) that Jews bring to our lives—they are all important, in different degrees to different Jews.
Let’s not judge one other. Let’s get together. Let’s open a conversation. Not because we want to save something from extinction. Because we’re family, we share a history, and connecting through this history is incomparably meaningful. We share a history that includes some pretty violent breaks, breaks that led some of us to lose track of relatives, so it’s quite possible that any two Jews are literally kin. Our great-grandparents might have been cousins in Warsaw or Baghdad or Shanghai. They might have said kaddish together in Alexandria or Kobe or Brisk. Saying it together today, or breaking bread, or doing tashlich can connect us to them, and through them to something in ourselves.
Observing these rituals is participating in law and culture. Law broadly conceived, with its infinite, kaleidoscopic interpretive possibilities is not the only vessel of our tradition. But for me, nor is it expendable.