Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Jewish Law as Invitation

Guest Blogger

Shari Motro

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

For Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, to be a Jew is to be a person who lives life in relationship with a particular body of law, with halakhah. The “cultural Jew”—the post Enlightenment notion that it is possible to disentangle Yiddishkeit from Torah—is a myth.

As a child of one of the bastions of this myth, of stridently secular north Tel Aviv, I have been asking מי הוא יהודי?, Who is a Jew? for a long time, and my initial response to Roberta’s thesis was reactive.
My high school history teacher would have me believe that I was a Jew because of anti-Semitism. Wherever you go, he intoned, eventually you will learn that you do not belong. That’s why we need a state of our own. Having tasted the fruits of American multiculturalism during my family’s stints in the U.S., this struck me as a sad way to construct an identity. If this was Jewishness, I wanted no part in it. So at 18, I left Israel determined to start fresh—not as a Jew, not as an Israeli, but as a human being. What I discovered—at Yale, the University of Jordan, Stanford, NYU, Davis Polk, and the University of Richmond—was that doing this was impossible. It was impossible not because of my relationship with Jewish law, but because of my inescapable bond with Jewish culture.

I was still Jewish the time I spent Pesach with a non-Jewish friend at a Japanese restaurant. I was Jewish (and quite thoroughly Israeli) when I introduced myself to Palestinians as an American from Connecticut. (“But what is your religion? What is your origin?” they kept asking. “No religion. American. Just American.”) I was Jewish at the Upper East Side trimming party where seeing the roasted pig, its head still on, I clicked to a scene my grandmother describes in her survivor’s testimony: washing dishes at a lavish Christening party as smoke billowed in the distance above the Warsaw Ghetto where she had left her father.

I am Jewish at the faculty meeting where my heart is at war with itself—do I name the elephant in the room or is this quagmire one I should stay out of? The impulse to speak up, the passion (some might say chutzpa) that poured out of me in my most recent scholarship come from the Israeli Jew in me. Of course Jews don’t have a monopoly on these qualities, but I recognize the flavor they take in me as particular, particularly Jewish. So too is my shame at the prospect of being perceived as pushy. The blood that rushes to my face comes from the part of me that was raised to follow not the laws of kashrut, but the laws of assimilation—to identify the Strunk and Whites of the world as the arbiters on aesthetic grace and integrity, to cultivate a distaste for anything that might be read as “Jewey,” to cover.

Halakhah is an element in some of these stories, but not all, and pulling the threads apart is tricky. This ambiguity is where my reactive self, the self that approached The Myth of the Cultural Jew ready for a fight, saw a strategic opportunity. Really? I could name plenty of counterexamples. The bacon-eating, Friday-night-clubbing, circumcision-questioning Israelis I grew up with are oblivious if not hostile to halakhah, and they are not a myth. My heroes Benjamin and Barbara Harshav—devoted translators and scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish art and literature, of Marc Chagall, and S. Y. Agnon, and Abraham Sutzkever—are not a myth. The aspects of Phillip Roth and Woody Allen and Jon Stewart that make them recognizably Jewish are not a myth.

And yet. When I read Roberta more slowly on a lazy Shabbat afternoon in my sunroom (not planning to work, just to peruse, but being drawn in) I found myself friendlier to her project.
I won’t presume to make pronouncements about what Judaism is or should be on a grand scale. I can say that beyond the title—which is more provocative than some of the book—Roberta’s less sweeping suggestion that Jewish law is more important to Jewish culture and to its survival than many people realize resonates with my own experience.

One piece of this arises when I meet American Jews whose connection with Judaism seems tenuous. Two of my most revered Buddhist teachers come to mind. Both women were raised in secular Jewish homes, both celebrate some version of Christmas. Neither harbors any ill will towards Judaism, but nor do they feel a particular affinity. It’s possible that their wisdom and the light they emanate when they lead meditations are part of the spiritual DNA they inherited from generations of scholars of Kabbalah and Talmud and Torah. It’s possible that this is also true of other American teachers of mindfulness, a disproportionate number of whom hail from Jewish families. Maybe yes, and maybe no. What seems likely is that they are the end of the line.

One of my teachers inherited a tallis and tefillin that had belonged to her great grandfather. Initially, she put them in a drawer for safekeeping. Then, recognizing that no one in her family would use them again and that the fabric of the tallis was eroding with the passage of time, she wanted to find a better way to preserve these items and through them, to remember her ancestor. So she framed them. They hang in her home beside a picture of the man who used them to davven. Seeing them, I felt a mix of appreciation for the honor accorded to these sacred objects and also צביטה בלב , a pinch in the heart over the fact that they live behind glass, like relics in a museum.

Again, I don’t think it’s my place to judge or even to wish that these incredible women should find a closer connection with Judaism, something that the project to save Judaism from extinction presumes. To the extent that this impulse motivates Roberta’s work, I differ. The part of me that sympathizes despite myself, the reason I feel the pinch 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.

The Myth of the Cultural Jew—which in addition to its main argument also 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.

On that sunny Shabbat afternoon, what I read beyond the p’shat 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.

Shari Motro is Professor of Law at the University of Richmond School of Law. You can reach her by e-mail at smotro at

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