Balkinization  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A symposium on Roberta Kwall, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: An introduction

Sandy Levinson



Over the next week, we will be publishing a series of responses to a fascinating new book by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, The Myth of the Cultural Jew:  Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2015).  Most obviously, as indicated by the subtitle, the book will engage anyone interested in what is often called the “law and society” project, i.e. understanding the interrelationships between what might be termed, on the one hand, “internalist” understandings of the law that constitute, say, much of the text of opinions written by judges or, for that matter, many law review articles written by law professors, and, on the other hand, “externalist” accounts, often written by political scientists, historians, and sociologists, that emphasize the importance of factors outside the “four corners of the law.” Think only of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous emphasis on “experience” over “logic” in explaining “the path of the law.” 
However, the subtitle is preceded by a quite polemical title, and Kwall’s book is certainly of interest in addition because of her strongly argued  views  about the potential costs (or even intellectual coherence)  of a notion of Judaism that pays inadequate attention to the legal underpinnings found, for traditional Jews, in the Halacha.  

In some ways, the challenge posed by Prof. Kwall can be analogized to that of Professor Paul Carrington about thirty years ago, when he suggested that adherents of Critical Legal Studies, whatever the obvious brilliance of many of the people attached to that movement, did not sufficiently “believe” in the law to warrant their (or, in my case, “our”) purporting to “teach law” to students in our major law schools.  They should have sought homes in departments of political science, history, or sociology (or even economics).  In my own book Constitutional Faith, I suggested that what Carrington was defending was the idea of the law school as a “seminary,” whose teachers are adherents of a given faith, rather than a “department of religion,” where no such adherence is required—and in many contexts might even be deleterious to the scholarly enterprise.  Although those argument may appear as if conducted on a far off planet long ago, they nonetheless addressed a recurrent question of precisely what one must/ought believe in order to claim a particular identity or to take on certain roles.   
Any discussion of law inevitably involves the question of its basis.  All positivists, for example, are united by a notion that law can ultimately be viewed as the command of a sovereign.  Candidates for such sovereignty have included “the people,” Parliament, a monarch, or, of course, God.  Halacha might be viewed as a common-law system instantiating the understandings of an ethnos, but, quite obviously, that is not the way it is usually presented, and a question underlying several of the responses, especially Alan Brownstein’s, is whether it makes sense to think of one’s being “obligated” to halachic norms—or, for that matter, if one is a Moslem, to Koranic norms—without believing that they have some connection with a divine presence (an ontological notion) who has means of informing us as to what his/her/its/their wishes are (an epistemological one).  

 It is surely no surprise that many of the people affiliated with Balkinization, in one way or another, are interested in the questions raised by both the title and the subtitle.   I anticipate that the essays responding to her book, by Jack Balkin, Alan Brownstein,Sherry Colb,  Mark Graber, Hillel Levin, Shari Motro, and myself, which will be posted throughout the coming days,will be both interesting and provocative.


Comments:

Prof. Sherry Colb has provided interesting perspectives influenced by her Jewish heritage at Verdict and Dorf on Law blogs. She is a good addition.

https://verdict.justia.com/2015/04/29/when-religious-airline-passengers-ask-women-to-move
http://mainstreetvegan.net/decoding-never-again-by-sherry-f-colb/
 

This is what the holocaust and Zionism wrought.
While Islam is secularizing, Judaism is turning in on itself. Israel was founded by secularists, but now in 2015, it's acceptable in polite company to debate whether cultural Judaism is a lie. You engage what 80 years ago you would have ignored.

Israel was founded as a model of utopian modernism, built on a lie. The Enlightenment was never secular; it was self-worship. Jews were in a better position than most to understand that, but that culture was lost. And now almost 70 years after the founding of a modernist utopia, Jewish culture is defended in the language of the counterreformation.

Arendt warned that Zionism would turn into a Spartan philosophy. Since people are debating Arendt again, how long till we restart the fights over Portnoy's Complaint?



 

I have read these reviews with great interest. Query: Is it planned that author Roberta Kwall will respond to the reviews here?

I am not Jewish. In reading the reviews, which were personalized, I did so through my lens of a first generation American in a comparatively short diaspora compared to the lengthy Jewish diaspora. (I reviewed Wikipedia on this subject for perspective.) I as a son of immigrants, born (1930) and raised in Boston and environs where I have continuously resided, have not been subjected to biases I noted personally borne by Jews in the area. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I was of a rather modest Christian minority. During my lifetime, I have seen many changes in the Boston area.

As to my personal situation, it has been much like those expressed in the reviews but without prominent biases. The reviews demonstrate, to me, progress in a changing world. We all have a history, a culture. There are many commonalities, primarily survival. "Never again" happened again ... and again ... and again. Maybe with understanding it can stop.

I may have some further comments on some of the reviews that I felt were quite relevant to non-Jewish cultures such as mine. This book wasn't aimed at me. But the reviews demonstrate to me common humanity. We can be proud of our ethnicities, histories, cultures, and still get along. Progress.
 

Prof. Colb's essay has an extensive "Quibble About the Title" of Rebecca Kwall's book that includes this:

***
The fact that the purely cultural Jew may not be long for this world does not, however, make the purely cultural Jew an “impossibility” or a myth. And I would go even further with this quibble. I would say that a racialized Jewish identity—combined with a sense of humor that predictably accompanies a history of persecution—may be more robust and capable of self-replication and preservation than Kwall imagines.

***

As a non-Jew I am in no position to quibble with the title but Prof. Colb's reference to a "sense of humor" struck a cord with my memories over the past 80+ years of the contributions of Jewish-American humorists/comedians. Humor is a significant part of survival for many "Others." (A big "Thank You!" to Jon Stewart and, hopefully, a short "retirement.")

Rebecca Kwall in the title to her response to these essay/reviews demonstrates that "sense of humor."

 

Prof. Graber's essay/review starts with this:

"Many Americans consider themselves cultural Italians, cultural Jamaicans, cultural Koreans or the like. They celebrate ethnic holidays, eat ethnic foods, dance ethnic dances, socialize with other members of their ethnic group and cherish the values of the mother country."

I am in the "or the like" category of hyphenated American. In my semi-retirement from the practice of lae just before the start of the 21st century, as a senior I audited at a local university several "Culture & Cuisine" courses in a gastronomy program. While I grew up in the Boston area with many ethnic groups, these courses were most interesting, as both culture and cuisine strongly contribute to survival. Prof. Colb touched upon her veganism in her essay/reviews with references to Jewish law and traditions. America, built upon immigration, readily permits for understanding cultures of "Others" by means of sharing cuisines. "Breading bread" connotes understanding of/by "Others." And as usual I appreciate Graber's sense of humor.
 

I was so impressed with Sandy's essay that I re-read it. I downloaded his article that he provided a link to: "The Possible Impact of Judaism and Israel, On One Particular Career as a Legal Academic." It's a short 9 pages with no footnotes. I as a non-Jew hyphenated American of a much shorter diaspora felt in sync with Sandy regarding my own ethnic Christian culture that I am proud of. Sandy's views on Israel are worth a read. Concepts of justice permeate his essay, his linked to article and his more recent post. And I was amused by Sandy's references to BBQ as between North Carolina and Texas. But I'm curious as to what other good things in Texas he can point to.
 

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