A Law-Culture Perspective on the Future Vision of the American Jewish Community

By Roberta Rosenthal Kwall

Any lawyer will tell you that language matters. As a legal academic who writes in the field of Jewish law and culture, I have been following the commentary and articles responding to the Call to Action. As I read last week’s parsha Noah, particularly the narrative about the Tower of Babel, it occurred to me that a major problem with much of the discourse concerning the future of American Judaism is that everyone is speaking a different language. Sometimes this difference is more akin to a different dialect that allows for a degree of communication; at other times this difference is so fundamental that people simply cannot hear one another, and in truth, may not wish to.

Personally, I appreciate the Jewish tradition’s perspective that Jewish law is binding upon the Jews. In reality, though, this understanding of Jewish law does not resonate with the vast majority of American Jews. In fact, even the concept of “Jewish law” is completely foreign. I co-directed a center for Jewish Law and Jewish Studies at my law school for six years and the most common question I received from people was “What exactly is Jewish law?” Even Jews who consider themselves “traditional” would ask me this question. I learned that the most common conception of Jewish law was limited to Jewish ritual and therefore, many people simply could not understand how and why a center for Jewish law would have a place in secular legal studies.

Typically, I responded to these questions by explaining that Jewish law (halakhah) is an organic legal system that covers virtually all aspects of human behavior, and it not confined to what we do on the Jewish holidays and in synagogue. People typically found this conception of Jewish law interesting but of course, it always led to the next question: why do we have to follow Jewish law today?

To many Jews who are steeped in the theology of Torah most closely associated today with Orthodoxy, the answer is obvious and needs little explanation. Torah comes from God and it is our binding obligation to follow the law. To the vast majority of American Jews, this explanation of Jewish law and its importance simply does not resonate and cannot be heard. We live in a society infused by autonomy and customization. We pick and choose that which is meaningful. Indeed, this reality of “cafeteria Judaism” is part of what frustrates so many Jewish professionals in their search for how to promote a greater interest in Judaism among their constituencies.

In my conversations with Jews from a wide variety of backgrounds and levels of education, I began to notice an important shift in understanding my message when I replaced the largely unfamiliar language of “Jewish law” with the more comfortable and familiar language of “Jewish tradition.” The language of Jewish “law” suggests hard and fast rules and consequences for disobedience that are foreign to most non-Orthodox Jews. On the other hand, Jewish “tradition” connotes positive associations and the desire for transmission

So exactly what is Jewish tradition and how does it differ from Jewish law? The Jewish tradition can be analogized to an umbrella that covers both the concrete legal components as well as the more amorphous cultural aspects of the religion that have evolved over the centuries. Still, the law and the culture are not distinct entities. In reality, Jewish law has always been influenced by the surrounding cultures from which the law developed. These cultures actually include both the cultures of the Jews and the host nations in which they have lived for centuries. This reality of foreign influence is especially apparent in the Jewish laws regarding life cycle events such as birth and death, realities for all people. Similarly, what we think of as “Jewish culture,” has been greatly influenced by the existence of Jewish law. When self-denominated “cultural Jews” light Chanukah candles or celebrate a Passover seder, the roots of these behaviors come from Jewish law even if many Jews do not recognize this origin. In short, Jewish law and Jewish culture are completely intertwined, and this interrelationship is clearly evidenced in the formation and application of the Jewish tradition itself.

This insight of the interconnection between Jewish law and Jewish culture can inform our views about Jewish education, both for adults and children. For a Jew to appreciate and want to perpetuate our tradition, it is not necessary that he or she see the law as “binding” or representing the direct word of God. It is enough that they appreciate the beauty of the Jewish tradition and the benefits that living according to the tradition’s precepts can provide.

Such a culturally nuanced approach to Jewish education suggests that in reaching a greater percentage of non-Orthodox Jews, the language of “Jewish tradition” needs to replace that of “Jewish law.” But make no mistake about it – the operative word here is still is “Jewish.” For many American Jews, a big problem is that they have lost the ability to distinguish between what is Jewish and what is American. Still, I believe in the power of our tradition to inspire Jewish adults, Jewish children, and even non-Jews who are open to learning.

The Jewish tradition can speak to Jews who are not willing to follow Jewish law in its entirety. With appropriate language, the ritualistic aspects of the tradition can be used to communicate a wealth of content for living meaningful lives. And Jewish narrative (aggadah) has tremendous potential to instill an appreciation for the particular wisdom of the Jewish tradition. The Pew Report has demonstrated that American Jews are identified Jews, and identified Jews are educable Jews. We have the numbers but now we need to develop the blueprint.

Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, where she teaches numerous subjects including Women & Jewish Law. She recently received a Master of Arts in Jewish Studies and has published many articles on Jewish law and Jewish culture. Her new book, “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” was published this year by Oxford University Press.