Roberta Rosenthal KwallThe Myth of the Cultural Jew—
Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition
Oxford University Press, 2015
Today, a majority of Jews are secular: they reject the notion that Jewish identity is founded on a covenant with God at Sinai, or that Jewish law is binding on them, or even relevant. For many Jews in Israel the state forms the sole content of their Jewish identity, and for many American Jews, according to a Pew Research study in 2013, Jewish identity revolves more around remembrance of the Holocaust, being intellectually curious, having a good sense of humor, and caring about the state of Israel, than about observance of Jewish law or being part of a Jewish community. Where, then, do we look for meaning in this cultural Judaism and what is the meaning that will get passed on to future generations?
Judaism has sustained itself for 2,000 years of diaspora with the belief that God commanded the Jews to preserve their particularity as a “nation apart” (a nation even without land or sovereignty) and gave them Jewish law (halakhah) as a path to follow in this endeavor. Can cultural Judaism sustain this particularity without reference to halakhah? This forms the central question in Roberta Kwall’s rich and rewarding new book “The Myth of the Cultural Jew.”
Description of the BookRoberta Kwall has written a scholarly work, detailed and annotated with copious footnotes. But the book is very accessible and invaluable to anyone interested in the issues of concern to Judaism today.
She explains the processes by which halakhah is kept relevant and fresh in light of changing cultural values over the centuries. She vividly explains how culture and law interact in any legal system, and how, even in an orthodox world, Jewish law is no exception. Along the way, she delves into questions like who is a Jew, what is a Jew, what is the meaning and role of Israel for Judaism.
You’ll find a clear and succinct history of the main movements that have shaped Judaism since the Enlightenment (e.g. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Social orthodoxy, etc.).
Kwall’s cultural analysis of Jewish law explains how halakhah affects Jewish culture from the top-down (Rabbis to laity) and how culture affects halakhah in a reciprocal bottom-up process (laity to the Rabbis). With great focus and clarity she illustrates how this process works in the three main strands of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Along the way, we learn about Bar Mitzvah’s, wedding ceremonies, death rituals, dietary laws, defining who is a Jew, Sabbath laws, and how the different movements have treated the issue of homosexuality, same sex marriage, and much more.
The example of how the different movements have treated homosexuality is instructive. The keepers of the law in each of the movements (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative) have responded to the cultural change in how we view homosexuality: the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in the case of Reform Judaism in the U.S.; the Rabbinic Council of America (RAB) in the case of orthodox Judaism; and the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in the case of Conservative Judaism. Indeed, a key difference between different strands of Judaism lies in how easily they can respond and modify halakhah in response to cultural pressures.
In each case these keepers of the law grounded their reasoning (their official stance towards homosexuality) on halakhah. In taking their stance on the great issues of the day—such as same sex marriage—each of these movements falls back on halakhah because it’s the only way they can be authentically Jewish.
[UPDATE: Roberta Kwall has written to me to indicate that she feels I overstate how much CCAR has grounded its position in halakhah. She says that although the Reform movement may cite to halakhic authority in its responsa, "that is different from working through the primary sources to reach a halkahic decision." She directs us to the first paragraph on p. 188 of her book. Do read her book]
Kwall worries about coalescence. By not attending diligently to halakhah, Jews naturally draw on values external to the tradition, and by doing so their Judaism becomes inauthentic.
Here is Kwall at p. 276:
Jewish and American values have become so blended that even knowledgeable American Jews no longer recognize the distinct origins of these value systems. (citation omitted) From a cultural analysis standpoint, the particular danger “coalescence” presents for Jewish survival is that this blended jewish american perspective will result in the eradication of Jewish particularity for a large number of American Jews who may not even realize this is happening.A cultural Judaism not grounded in halakhah will soon lose its bearings and vitality, argues Kwall. Cultural Judaism is a myth, she says, because in order to access what is authentically Jewish in the culture, Jews must engage with halakhah because that is where Jewish meaning comes from, how Jewish meaning evolves, and how Jewish meaning is transmitted.
What About Personal Observance?
[UPDATE 2: What follows are issues that I believe are raised by this book--the views expressed here are mine. Read this excellent book and see if you agree with me]
A 2013 Pew research study found that 62% of American Jews say being Jewish is mainly about ancestry and culture. Sixty-eight percent stated that being Jewish does not require a belief in God. Without belief in God, it is hard to conceive of observance of halakhah as anything other than personal choice.
It seems plain in our post-Enlightenment world that religion does not have a sufficient hold on us to compel halakhically observant lives from a majority.
Here Kwall writes on page 87:
Enlightenment thinkers wanted to replace religious obligations with individual autonomy, religious law and ritual with rational thought and particularistic interests with universalistic concerns. … These Enlightenment ideologies did not sit comfortably with the medieval Talmudic culture that resisted the norms of equality and personal autonomy.And, of course, that battle for autonomy and recognition of universal human values, like equality, and respect for rational thought has been won. For us in the United States, the Enlightenment is here to stay. The Enlightenment is not a myth.
So what of those Jews who relate to the culture and tradition of Judaism but don’t find halakhah personally binding? Are they not Jews? That is the unfriendly question that lurks in the background of the title of this book.
Kwall believes that halakhah is binding on all Jews. Does she thus deny the individual autonomy, rational thought, and universal values that are the legacy of the Enlightenment? I presume not, but her book does not confront that issue except obliquely though its title.
Here’s what I think. There will always be a minority of Jews, most prominently among the Orthodox, who consider halakhah as a personal obligation imposed by God. The Orthodox will not be disappearing any time soon. They will continue to progress halakhah within that tradition as Kwall so well explains, and they will continue to have a majority of adherents who uphold the practice of halakhah.
The Conservative movement, which also considers halakhah binding, but subject to human influence, will continue to update halakhah in its own, more liberal manner, also as Kwall so well illustrates. They will continue to suffer from the dissonance that comes from teaching halakhah as binding, but having few members who observe halakhah in the manner that the Shulhan Arukh envisions.
The Reform movement, too, will continue to issue responsa on questions of the day based on their analysis of halakhah—even though they don’t consider halakhah to be legally binding on individuals as such.
As for the 68% of American cultural Jews who don’t believe that being Jewish requires a belief in God, they will continue to consider themselves cultural Jews, the title of Kwall’s book notwithstanding. They will participate in Jewish culture, and they will study halakhah in order to deepen their appreciation and understanding of this tradition as they see fit.
In the final analysis, the lesson that Kwall’s The Myth of the Cultural Jew teaches us, may not be that we can’t be cultural Jews, but that it’s all culture: the myth is that Jewish culture can be separated from Jewish law when Jewish culture is suffused with halakhah—always has and always will be. And therefore, if we are interested in Judaism, we will do well to pay attention to halakhah, whether we feel bound by it or not.
You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.