Skip to content

The Myth of the Cultural Jew by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall REVIEW

July 30, 2017


Are you a secular Jew? Think that Jewish law is irrelevant in the formation of your purely cultural areligious (0r even anti-religious) identity? Think again.
Dr. Roberta Rosenthal Kwall in her very informative book The Myth of the Cultural Jew seeks to lay down a comprehensive and cohesive description of what Judaism was, is, and even what it ought to be.

It is instructive that Benedict Spinoza, who is often referred to as the “first secular Jew” was contrary to what one might expect deeply enmeshed in Jewish law and ethics. In my article “The Curious Case of Benedict Spinoza”, I elaborate how the eminent philosopher, (the anniversary of his excommunication by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam happens to be today incidentally), was in fact deeply Jewish in ways that many contemporary secular Jews would find incongruous with current conceptions of secular Judaism. Some examples of Spinoza’s Jewishness includes his extolling of ritual circumcision; his praise of the Jewish unique national character and identity, and the fervently-expressed hope for restored nationhood (some would later call this “proto-Zionism”). Spinoza was no atheist; Some Orthodox Rabbis, such as Chaim Hirschensohn were even convinced that Spinoza comprehended God in a way that nobody of his generation was yet ready to process.

In her masterful study of what shapes Jewish identity, Kwall utilizes the cultural analysis paradigm. As Kwall puts it, “cultural analysis rejects the view that law is objectively neutral and coherent and thus lacking a relationship to its surrounding cultural environment. Instead…[it] understands both law and culture as products of social context and historically specific circumstances. It also sees law as the product of discourse and debate, shaped in response to the push and pull of social forces. Halakah [Jewish law], like all law, both reflects and constitutes social and cultural practices. Jewish law which is binding upon Jews…produces Jewish culture, and Jewish culture produces Jewish law.

The study of the connection between culture and law is a fairly new discipline, Kwall points out and a comprehensive study of the interrelationship between Jewish culture and law is in its infancy and forms, of course, the substance of the book.
In order to better understand this interrelationship, Kwall lays down some definitions of law. Law is said to be a product of creation much like culture. Social stratification and power dynamics are likewise taken into account. As a former Supreme Court Justice put it, the law is not always necessarily a reflection of objectivity and laws are not necessarily always promulgated for the benefit of the greater good.

This is followed by a sweeping overview of the history of the development of the Halakha or Jewish law. Halakha, the oral law, tradition, and customs are discussed at length in Chapter 1.
Chapter 2 focuses on what Kwall calls the top-down view; that is the law as well as its accouterments as given over from on high down through the chain of command, all the way down to the layman. The chapter also discusses the pervasive influence of Hellenistic culture on Jewish law and methods of law; be it hermeneutic principles as well as the binary written/oral system.

According to Kwall, “the leaders of the Jews in Hellenistic Palestine saw no inherent contradiction between a Hellenized lifestyle and Jewish practice”. Even pagan imagery was tolerated if not eventually co-opted. Professor Eric Myers maintains that this “became the paradigm for future accommodations to other major world civilizations, such as Rome, Byzantium, Islam, and Christianity”.

This cross-cultural fertilization was apparent even in areas of law. For instance, Kwall quotes the Middle East scholar, Bernard Lewis who illustrates this point by looking to the issue of polygamy. “Islam permits polygamy and concubinage, Christianity bans both. In the Christian world, the Jews adopted and practiced monogamy to the point of making it a rule of law; in the Muslim world most Jewish communities practiced, or at least permitted, polygamy and concubinage until almost the present day”.
And while the Jewish communities in France and Germany were small and tight-knit, seemingly living in a shielded bubble, this was not, in fact, the case. Kwall cites the many sources that describe how Jews in Ashkenaz pulled back the restrictions on dealing with non-kosher wine and lending on credit-things that are seemingly blanketly prohibited in Jewish law. The Jewish authorities offered substantial latitude in fields that were essential to Jewish economic success in the societies within which they lived.
Chapter 3 devotes substantial space to what Kwall calls the bottom-up approach in the development of Jewish law. The bottom-up approach refers to practices by the people that were eventually enshrined into local Jewish law. One example cited is the famed medieval French sage knows as Rabbenu Tam restricting the ability of a husband to inherit from his deceased wife’s estate if she died within 12 months after the marriage. This is in seeming contravention of a law clearly set down in the Bible but it caught on quickly among the people-so much so that when the Rabbi wanted to overturn this rule, it was too late; it had already become deeply enshrined.

Other examples of Rabbinic toleration (and eventually validation) of bottom-up practices are the widespread custom, stemming from Central Europe, to make an early Shabbat; to pray Maariv/Arvit way before the Halakhically mandated time for evening prayers (The custom originates at a time when towns were not regularly illuminated and evenings often came early. It was done for reasons of safety and practicality).

The safety aspect is also evident in other customs of early Ashkenaz. For instance the use of amulets and other seemingly superstitious rituals to guard newborns and the like. The Rabbis did not necessarily look upon these things with favor but were forced to concede to the powerful will of the people. These practices often became enshrined customs which became almost legally binding.
It is interesting to note, (because of the timeliness of the subject), in this context, the custom among German Jews to drink wine and eat meat on the night before the circumcision. So attached were the German Jews to this custom that the Rabbis were forced to allow this, (with a proviso that the celebrants give up either wine or meat), even when it fell during the nine days preceding the Ninth of Av-a time where Ashkenazim customarily enter a minor period of mourning sans consuming flesh or imbibing wine.

The bottom-up also takes into account what David Biale observes, namely the fact that “the people themselves actively participated in the redaction of the Talmud’s authority by virtue of their embracing and reaffirming the Talmud’s tradition and worldview”.
Other elements of dominant local Christian culture assimilated and “kosherized” by Jews are cited. For instance the institution of “sandek” (literally, Godfather), at a ritual circumcision and many of its attendant customs (such as the nighttime vigil) which resemble a Christian baptism.

Jewish mourning customs too, closely resembled, the Christian monastic practice of reading necrologies and the lighting of candles.

Interestingly, the term “yahrtzeit”, Kwall informs us, is taken from the same term used by German Christians to recall the souls of the departed on the anniversary of their deaths. Also interesting to note, observance of “yahrtzeit” was initially resisted by Sephardic Jews given its Ashkenazic origins (this is unrelated to the ancient and North African custom of sage veneration and gravesite vigils).
Kashrut standards too were often a bottom up affair.
It is interesting to note that the stringencies regarding separate dishes for meat and milk are just that: stringencies. The same goes for the 6 hour waiting period between meat and milk. The early Ashkenazic Rabbis were extremely lenient on this front often requiring no waiting period at all, (let alone separate sets of dishes). The stringencies in this area were a product of the actions of “the people” (apparently it was the German-Jewish Pietist movement known as Hasidim-not to be confused with their much later namesakes to the east) which eventually took on the force of enshrined custom.
Chapter 4 provides a sustained look into various Jewish denominations and their divergent views of Halakha.

It is interesting to note the development of early Reform. Aside from the sustained influence on the movement by a liberal German Protestant theologian named Julius Wellhausen, early Reform vociferously opposed assimilation and in fact called for strong, distinct religious identity among the movement’s adherents.

The initial reformers were proud of their Jewish heritage and sought to work within the Halakhic framework. Kwall: “consistent with their support of universal ethical monotheism, they invoked the ethical commandments of the Biblical prophets as their primary source of authority for change”.
When the first Reform Temple opened in Hamburg, its radical introduction of choral singing and the use of an organ on the Sabbath was defended on Talmudic grounds. They genuinely believed they were upholding “mesorah” (tradition) as Kwall puts it.
It was only, later, beginning in Frankfurt of the 19th century, under the leadership of leaders like Samuel Holdheim, that Reform took a turn toward the radical, with the latter for instance seeking to switch the Sabbath to Sunday as well as abolish circumcision.
Orthodoxy is also given the autopsy treatment. Kwall discusses the various groups and subgroups that make up Orthodoxy. The clear picture that emerges is that Orthodoxy was not and is not a monolith by any stretch of the imagination.

I do take issue with Kwall’s characterization of the German Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as “Modern Orthodox” in the modern sense of the term. Rabbi Hirsch is often described as such, giving off the erroneous assumption that institutions like Yeshiva University and the philosophy of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, for instance, grew out of this school of Orthodox thought.

But the truth is far more nuanced than that. While YU and the Hirschian Orthodox community, by a twist of fate, both ended up in the Washington Heights section of New York, they were as often ideological adversaries as they were allies (it is also important to note Hirsch’s sharp criticism of Maimonides in this context. Kwall mentions it on p. 111). The important differences revolved/s around the elevation of secular studies as an end in and of itself and Religious Zionism (which the Hirschians did not embrace at all).
Kwall does indeed hit the bull’s eye with her characterization of Orthodoxy’s steady shift to the right during the post-war years. I’ve covered the kosher aspect in my review of Roger Horowitz’s Kosher USA; how “glatt” suddenly became the standard, modes of dress became much more conservative (a glance at photos of Orthodox American Rabbis wives’ from the earlier part of the last century bears this out; Yeshiva boys did not perpetually garb themselves in black and white but took part in the prevailing fashion et al).

A brief discussion of the highly complex and paradoxical Chabad movement is also offered.

Kwall then moves on to a history of the development of the Conservative movement. It is interesting that the early advocates of this denomination were likewise deeply traditional (the name does give it away). Solomon Schecter’s avid Zionism is ironically juxtaposed with the anti-Zionism of contemporary Reform as well as that of large sections of the Orthodox.

Lawmaking in the Conservative movement is interesting and complex if nothing else. The Halakahic-making body is for instance not beholden to its Israeli counterpart (interesting, but not mentioned by Kwall is the effusive praise once offered by none that the Sephardic Orthodox Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to some Israeli Conservatives, better known as Masorti for their serious approach to — and keeping of Halakah).
Space is also devoted to the first homegrown American version of Judaism, namely Reconstructionism and its founder Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan is said by some to be the harbinger of a “Copernican revolution”.
Chapter 5 wades into the dicy areas of Who is a Jew and Sabbath Laws.
When the Reform movement (as a result of heightening intermarriage) introduced the so-called patrilineal principle which decreed that children born of non-Jewish mothers are still Jews (granted that they identify as Jewish), it all but guaranteed a firestorm of controversy and discord among traditionalists (it also ignited controversy among Conservatives and even among some Reformers; Reform Rabbi Donald Tam, for instance, called it destructive and harmful to Jewish unity and continuity).

Kwall cites Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen, who in turn cites a very interesting responsum from the Sephardic sage Rabbi Yomtob Algaze which allegedly “foreshadows reform’s position”. According to this, Algaze interpreted the Talmud’s matrilineal principle, (namely that only one born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish.) only when the child was raised by the mother and given a Jewish identity.

The Conservative analog to the aforementioned controversy is arguably the issue of driving on the Sabbath. In 1950, the Conservative Halakhic body published the famous Sabbath Responsum. In short, it maintained that being that operating a motor vehicle is a mild Sabbath prohibition (in Halakhic parlance, a “shevut” rather than a “Melakha”,), driving to the Synagogue in order to attend services (only!) is permitted. The responsum sought to justify this from within the Halakhic framework.

Significantly, the Masorti Conservative Jews in Israel did not accept this.
Within the ranks of Conservative American Jews, the issue was, likewise, far from accepted without controversy initially
Chapter 6 discusses the issue of homosexuality and its attendant controversies among the three different denominations. Of interest is that as late as 1973, the Reform Rabbinic body issued a responsum that referred to homosexuality as a sin, and stressed that “Judaism places great emphasis on family, children and the future”. It also advocated against establishing gay Synagogues in order “to decrease their mutual availability to one another”, although, it took pains to instruct that homosexuals are not to be excluded from the community or synagogue.

Within Orthodox Judaism, mention is made of a minority of left-wing Rabbis who seek a greater role for the Orthodox homosexual. While not agreeing with the eventual Reform and Conservative stances regarding homosexuals (namely full admission and recognition), Rabbi Asher Lopatin of the left-wing Open Orthodox Hovevei Torah pleads for Rabbis to plunge into the vast seas of our tradition in the hope of an eventual breakthrough on the issue.

Chapter 8 discusses the role of the State of Israel in forging Jewish law and culture.
The Who is a Jew controversy of the 70s still resonates to this day. In fact with the influx of so many immigrants whose ties to Jews and Judaism are not (historically) certain, it has taken on an even harsher and more immediate tone of urgency.

Who is a Jew? Who is an Israeli? Concrete answers to these questions don’t look like they will materialize anytime soon. Kwall mentions a group of Israelis who petitioned the High Court to have the ethnicity of “jew” erased from their identity cards because they identify as Israeli and see the category as discriminatory toward other Israelis who don’t happen to be Jewish. This radical move was turned down by the High Court.
I disagree with Professor Anita Shapira who saw this move as “something very revolutionary”, the “Canaanite movement” of the early 20th century is indicative of this type of disassociation which some Jews felt was essential to a revivified nation and people.

Different categories of Jews are enumerated. Aside from the Religious, the secular and the Ultra Orthodox, there are other still emerging categories such as “familists” (which sees the nation as one cohesive and distinct family). The people that are not easily placed into neat categories; those who are traditional (I am surprised that Kwall didn’t mention the Mizrahim Jews from Arab countries who are not Orthodox in the strict sense of the term but tend to be deeply traditional; they might sit down for a Sabbath lunch after prayer in the Synagogue and then drive down to the stadium and watch a soccer game) can occupy a valuable “middle ground” and may be the key to solving latent conflicts among various sectors of the population.
I don’t think that any of the categories listed are particularly new; in the pre-state Yishuv labels like “Torah Observant Seculars” and “Religious-Seculars” were not unknown.
Kwall cites the upsurge of interest in Judaism among a young generation of Israelis. Secular Yeshivot where religious texts are intensely studied -sans the fire and brimstone aspect- is now a ubiquitous thing.

Kwall feels that the study of Jewish lore (Aggadah) can serve to unify a people whose views of what Judaism is or ought to be, differ so significantly. I was immediately reminded of the great secular poet Hayyim Bialik who published a highly popular compendium of Agadic sayings from Rabbinic literature. I often find this very book, well thumbed, at my local Orthodox Synagogue (granted I live in the US).
While Israelis tend to not be drawn to non-Orthodox forms of Judaism (this is due to their tendency to see things in black and white; Orthodox or not. I also think this is due to that fact that a large number of Israelis are of non-Ashkenazic stock where non-Orthodox denominations seem utterly foreign).

Chapter 9 deals with Jewish identity in the United States
The Pew Research Poll of 2013 is liberally cited although its drawbacks are recognized. Not surprisingly, Orthodox Jews are still in the minority; the vast majority of Jews identify with liberal denominations of Judaism or eschew denominations altogether (an increasingly large and growing group among the youth).
Most American Jews identify with Israel but a growing minority among the youth feel increasingly alienated.

Political liberalism constitutes the belief of the vast majority of American Jews.
Chapter 10 concludes with the introduction that sums up the entirety of the book: “The myth of the cultural Jew is that one can adhere to Judaism on just a cultural level. In reality, those who claim to be “cultural Jews” still are embracing Jewish law and tradition regardless of whether they are aware of this reality or acknowledge it”.
Further: “From a cultural analysis perspective, the human element of Halakah is of vital importance..cultural analysis of law concentrates on how law reflects and shapes humans and their world. This human component of Halakha not only represents a search for the divine will but also establishes that Halakah is embedded figuratively into the DNA of the Jewish people regardless of the level of the religiosity of any one person. Recognition of this reality may help explain why people are proud to be Jewish even if they do not explicitly recognize the role of Halakah with respect to their pride. further, because Halakha as it has been developed over the centuries also is the product of culture, environment, and historical circumstances, it essentially embodies the entirety of the Jewish people’s existence and experience.

I can only conclude myself by paraphrasing the Talmud, This is indeed Torah, the rest, go out and learn.

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: