Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cultural Judaism as an American, Jewish (and Israeli) Identity

Mark Graber

For the Symposium on Roberta Kwall, The Myth of the Cultural Jew

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.  Cultural Italians, cultural Jamaicans and cultural Koreans feel no obligation to obey Italian, Jamaican or Korean law.  They are Americans bound by American law, even as they may consciously and unconsciously interpret American law in light of their original or ancestral legal culture.  Their cultural Italian, cultural Jamaican and cultural Korean identities are predominately American identities.  Italians, Jamaicans and Koreans recognize that their former countrymen are citizens of the United States, even as they buttress those cultural identities when urging their cultural brethren to support Italian, Jamaican and Korean causes and offering paths back to Italian, Jamaican or Korean citizenship not available to persons with different ancestry. 

The obvious non-mythological existence of cultural Italians, cultural Jamaicans and cultural Koreans in the United States highlights how Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall’s wonderful analysis of Jewish legal culture is beside the point when thinking about the phenomenon of the cultural Jew in the United States.  American cultural Jews are not confused about the inextricable connections between law and culture in Jewish (or any) legal culture.  Professor Kwall has confused predominantly Jewish identities and predominantly American identities, and she may be confusing a lack of commitment to Jewish religious observance with a lack of commitment to Jewish law.  The origins of American cultural Judaism and similar identities primarily lie in the legal and cultural struggles responsible for the development and acceptance of cultural pluralism in the United States and only secondarily in the evolution of Jewish legal culture. 

The The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition powerfully describes how Jewish law and Jewish culture have historically evolved in tandem so that one cannot be understood in the absence of the other. Professor Kwall provides a rich analysis of how the interaction between and interdependence of law and culture have shaped Jewish practice throughout history.  Her point that one cannot have a predominantly Jewish identity in the absence of some commitment to Jewish law, however, hardly requires that detailed history.  No legal culture sanctions participants who declare that while they identify with the culture they are not bound by the law.  Italy mandates that Italian citizens obey Italian law.  Italian law does not give Italian citizens (and American cultural Italians while in Italy) the option of eating pasta, enjoying opera at La Scala, but not obeying the speed limits.  Jewish law mandates that Jews be guided by Jewish law, even though, in sharp contrast to Italian law, no human being is the authoritative interpreter of Jewish law.  Jewish practice permits disputes over whether Jews may drive to religious services on Saturday morning and perhaps whether Jews must attend religious services on Saturday morning, as long as both sides to the dispute are grounding their positions in Jewish legal culture.  There is a difference, as Professor Kwall recognizes and documents, between claims that Jewish law, properly interpreted, sanctions same-sex marriage and claims that, as a non-observant Jew, one is not bound by Jewish law on marriage.

Kwall’s discourse on legal culture in general and Jewish legal culture in particular does not capture the nature of American cultural Jewish identity.  American cultural Jews are Jews in the same sense as American cultural Italians are Italians.  They celebrate Passover, eat bagels, go Israeli folk dancing, tend to socialize with other Jews, and cherish what they regard as Jewish values.  American cultural Jews, at least as they are defined by Professor Kwall, are nevertheless not guided by Jewish law when they express their Jewish identity.  They may celebrate Passover but not fast on Yom Kippur because the former feels more satisfying that the latter, not because they have concluded that celebrating Passover is more central to Jewish legal culture than fasting on Yom Kippur.  What appears random practice from the perspective of the Jewish legal culture that Professor Kwall details at great length is makes far more sense from the perspective of American cultural pluralism that is largely (not completely) absent from The Myth of the Cultural Jew.

The primary path to American cultural Judaism was forged during the debates in the United States over the nature of American national identity.  For much of American history, immigrants were expected to assimilate.  “Hyphenated-American” was a term of opprobrium.  Immigrants were not fully American to the extent their identities remained partly rooted elsewhere.  A person who was twenty percent Jewish could only be eighty percent American.  Over time, cultural pluralism, developed by such Jews as Horace Kallen, achieved a foothold in American legal culture.  Cultural pluralists insisted that immigrants could best contribute to the United States by retaining their cultural commitments, as long as those cultural commitments were not inconsistent with American values and law.  One could be one-hundred percent American and twenty percent Jewish, provided that twenty-percent Jewish made a positive contribution to American legal culture.  American cultural pluralists were not concerned with whether that twenty or even fifty percent Jewish made any sense from an internal Jewish perspective.  One could identify as a cultural Jew as long as the fragments of Judaism one retained were internally consistent with one’s American identity. 

Cultural pluralism provided American Jews with various options for balancing American and Jewish commitments.  Many observant Jews are guided by both American and Jewish law.  Jewish legal culture sanctions such dual identities.  An elaborate body of Jewish law concerns Jewish obligations to obey the laws of the land of their residence.  American legal culture sanctions this dual commitments to American and Jewish law as well.  The free exercise clause of the First Amendment and such measures as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act provide all religious believers with an ever changing space in which they may be guided by their religious commitments.  Other American Jews choose not be guided by Jewish law.  American legal culture sanctions this option as well.  Cultural pluralism lets individuals choose the degree and manner of their cultural expression.  No Jewish organization may prescribe how an American may express their Judaism or any other cultural heritage.  Americans who identify as culturally French may make coq au vin with wine from the Napa Valley, even though all true Frenchmen would insist the wine come from Bordeaux.  So American cultural pluralism allows cultural Jews to choose whatever facets of Jewish identity they find satisfying, even if those choices seem incoherent from the perspective of Jewish legal culture.  One may dance the hora and eat a cheeseburger, or get drunk on Purim while eating bread during Passover.

Jewish law and contemporary Jewish practice buttress cultural Judaism, even as many Jews find that practice (and the practice of Jews they believe less observant then themselves) inconsistent with traditional Judaism.   Jewish law does not make a commitment to be guided by Jewish law a condition of being Jewish.   You are Jewish if your mother was Jewish or, if you are Reform, if one parent was Jewish and you were raised in that legal culture.  Jewish organizations adopt highly capacious understandings of who count as Jews.   Neither the United Jewish Appeal nor AIPAC ask Jews about their commitment to Jewish law or their degree of religious observance before they ask for monetary contributions or political support.  The state of Israel welcomes Jewish immigrants  from the former Soviet Union and throughout the world without paying strict attention to their level of Jewish commitment and enthusiastically champions ”birthright” programs directed at luring Jewish youngsters to visit Israel that are indifferent to whether the potential immigrant  speaks Hebrew, attends religious services regularly or keeps kosher.  American cultural Jews who are regularly solicited as Jews by other Jews whose Jewish identity is unassailable naturally conclude that their Jewish identity is similarly unassailable.  If the United Jewish Appeal, AIPAC and Israeli immigration policies do not distinguish between the cultural Jew and the Jew is guided by Jewish law, who is Professor Kwall to say otherwise? 

Contemporary Jewish legal culture may also provide the foundations for a secular Judaism that is guided by Jewish law, but does not regard religious observance as central to that law.  Professor Kwall details at great length how Jewish legal culture has evolved in light of broader ethical commitments.  She praises various Jewish denominations for interpreting Jewish law in ways that permit congregations to celebrate same-sex marriages and encourage women to play an active role in Jewish religious observance.  Kwall regards congregations that support same-sex marriage as being guided by a living Judaism that adjusts religious practices in light of more general Jewish commitments and the best ethical commitments of the broader society.  Given how many adjustments many contemporary observant Jews have made to their religious practices, some Jews might conclude that a living Judaism requires that all forms of Jewish religious observance be maintained only if consistent with more general principles of Jewish ethics.  The Myth of the Cultural Jew does not make clear whether Kwall thinks Jewish legal practice is consistent with this (my) position that a person guided by contemporary Jewish law could eschew most religious observance.  If so, then the debate between the secular and traditional Jew is over the best interpretation of Jewish law and not over the binding nature of Jewish law.

The darker path to cultural Judaism was forged by anti-Semites during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  During the debates over Jewish emancipation, many assimilationists concluded that the Christian goal of suppressing Judaism was better achieved through carrots than sticks.  Jews wanted to fit in just like everyone else, the reasoning went.  By dramatically increasing Jewish economic opportunities and increasing the dating pool for Jews by approximately 5000 percent, moderate anti-Semites counted on market forces to weaken Jewish identity far more effectively than repression. Cultural Judaism in the United States and elsewhere often seems a waystation between a strong Jewish identity and no Jewish identity because that was partly the intention.

We might derive three conclusions from these paths to American cultural Judaism.  First, American cultural Judaism is likely to be a weak form of Jewish identity, in part because American cultural Judaism is predominantly an American identity and in part because such identities were created to weaken Jewish identity.  Second, many American Jews are far more attracted to the secular/cultural dimensions of Judaism than the legal dimensions, even as students of any legal culture remind us that those dimensions cannot be fully disaggregated.  Third, efforts to buttress Jewish identity should focus on the secular/cultural dimensions, given their important to persons whose Jewishness is at least a part of their identity. 

The Myth of the Cultural Jew provides strong foundations for American Jews willing to adopt voice and loyalty strategies rather than choose the exit option.  The resources exist in the Jewish legal culture, Professor Kwall argues and I agree, for liberal American Jews to engage in a liberal religious observance that is both consistent with Jewish practice and their commitments to liberalism.  Indeed, the resources may exist in Jewish legal culture for secular Jews to place liberal values at the center of Judaism, decentering more than is presently the case religious observance as a central pillar of Jewish legal culture.

Cultural American Jews are likely to need more to strength their Jewish identities.  Young persons born of Jewish parents may want demonstrations that the Jewish community or at least important Jewish communities are committed to their liberal Jewish values, and not merely that Judaism is open to those values.  They must be able to see that being an active participant in the Jewish community or a Jewish community is a means for deepening and realizing what they believe are the best understanding of their Jewish values.  Whether liberal Jews can make this leap of faith has become increasingly problematic, given the nature of contemporary Jewish and Israeli politics.

Consider the difference between Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who Kwall celebrates, and Benjamin Netanyahu, who is never mentioned in The Myth of the Cultural Jew.  Liberal Jews of my generation were inspired by Rabbi Heschel.  When we saw Heschel arm in arm with Martin Luther King, we were proud to be Jewish and, at least for some of us, we thought that participation in some Jewish community was an importance means for realizing and deepening these our Jewish values.  Liberal Jews of my children’s generation are ashamed of Benjamin Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies.  When they see Netanyahu arm in arm with John Boehner and what they regard as the most repressive forces in American politics, they question whether the Jewish community is really committed to what they regarded as Jewish values.  Liberal American Jews may not want a Judaism that is merely a big tent in which progressives peacefully coexist with those who think the appropriate response to the murder of innocent Israeli civilians is the murder some innocent Arab civilians when doing so is collateral damage in strikes in which some guilty terrorists are also killed.   My friends who support Netanyahu are certainly correct that the world applies a double standard to Israel.  Moreover, the place of Israel in the identity of cultural Jews who live in Israeli is surely different the the place of Israel in the identity of cultural Jews in the United States.  Cultural Jews is Israel may regard a Jewish state as the best place on earth for Jews to avoid persecution. Nevertheless, American cultural Jews are likely to want more and need more.  If the best argument Jewish citizens of Israel and their American allies can make for Israel policies is that Israel has the right to be a nation just like any other nation, then many liberal Jews is the United States are likely in the long run to conclude that no good reason exists for automatically preferring Israel among all of these nations or even retaining a liberal Jewish identity.  For better or worse, Israel is a prominent marker for Jewish identity in the contemporary United States and unless young Jewish-American citizens in the long run can identify with the values of the Jewish state, they are unlikely in the long run to identify as Jews, cultural, secular, or otherwise


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