Jewish Cultural Affirmation: Great Intent, Misguided Action

Debates about the merits of “Jewish Cultural Affirmation” are a proxy for a discussion about the things that we ultimately value about Jewish life.

by Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D.

First, thank you to Steven M. Cohen and Kerry Olitzky once again for opening up a wide space for conversation about the future of the American Jewish community. These two prominent observers and activists of Jewish life continue to challenge us with unconventional thinking. With regard to their idea of Jewish Cultural Affirmation as a new option for formal identification with the Jewish people, great intent, but misguided action. Here’s why:

  • The Jewish people worldwide as an entity is already fractured by competing definitions of Jewish status. Why compound the confusion?
  • Seriously – how possible will it be to gain agreement by a group of scholars upon the canon of knowledge and experiences required for Jewish Culture Affirmation? A definition by one group will spawn a number of alternative and likely contradictory ones, creating disputes among self-appointed Cultural Certifiers, and casting doubts on the bona fides of graduates of these self-guided programs.
  • Disconnecting religious practice from ethics is a likely way ultimately to undermine the place of ethics in Jewish life (if you’re interested, you can read a recent post of mine on this topic).
  • Cohen and Olitzky write, “We believe that some prospective converts to Judaism feel that religious conversion demands what, for them, would be an insincere affirmation of religious faith. Perhaps they are… even committed to another faith tradition.” Following their logic, their proposal can create active, practicing religious Christians who are also certified as culturally Jewish. Is this territory that we want to enter into?
  • Cohen and Olitzky offer a blunt interpretation of the statistical data of the Pew Study about religious behavior and belief, rendering their very premise for the creation of certified cultural Jews questionable. They write, “At the same time, we know that major segments of the American Jewish population exhibit little religious commitment and even go so far to say as they have no religion.” If read in isolation, tables from the Pew Study in Chapter 3 like “What’s Essential to Being Jewish” and “What is Compatible  – What is Incompatible – with Being Jewish” make their point clearly.
  • But, in Chapter 4, we see that over 70% of the “Net” respondents (that is, the total percentages of respondents in Pew’s two categories, “Jews by Religion” and “Jews of no Religion”) believe in God or a Universal Spirit, 70% participated in a Passover Seder and 53% fasted on all or a part of Yom Kippur. To add some complexity, 46% of respondents in the “Jews of No Religion” category report believing in God or a Universal Spirit, including almost 20% of those who say they are “absolutely certain,” and 42% of respondents in the “Jews of No Religion” category said that they participated in a Passover Seder last year. As some social scientists have suggested, another way to interpret these kinds of findings that appear to be confusing or contradictory is to conclude that the rubrics that social scientists use for describing Jewish beliefs and attitudes are outdated and broken. Therefore, blunt interpretations that Cohen and Olitzky offer risk missing underlying changes that, if identified, could lead to more effective policies. (For more about this, see Joel Perlmann’s article, Secularists and Those of No Religion: “It’s the Sociology, Stupid [and not the Theology].”)

One plausible reason that more American Jews self-identify as cultural or secular is that they don’t have even bad memories of religion as presented in synagogue and at home. They have few or no memories, because they are likely to be the children of an interfaith family that didn’t belong to or participate often in synagogue, as Dr. Theodore Sasson points out in his superb article. So another possible inference would be to provide greater opportunity for participation in traditional and experimental inspirational, intensive spiritual experiences and deeper engagement with religious texts on contemporary terms. (Hmm … sounds like what’s happening in Israel today, the largest scale “secular” Jewish project in contemporary Jewish history, doesn’t it?)

Bottom line: there’s no need for a new status of Jewish Cultural Affirmation. Outside of Orthodoxy (10% of the American Jewish population according to the Pew Study), non-Jews, regardless of their conversionary status, can participate already in the Jewish community to the extent that they wish. (And they even have some wiggle room within Modern Orthodoxy and Chabad.) We need to market participation in the Jewish community with no hidden agenda to non-Jewish seekers and travelers, whether married to Jews or not, with greater compassion and creativity. And thankfully, that’s a cause to which Rabbi Olitzky has passionately devoted himself.

Ultimately, debates about the merits of “Jewish Cultural Affirmation” are a proxy for a discussion about the things that we ultimately value about Jewish life. Is it worth investing resources in intentionally creating more cultural Jews? Or, despite the challenges, do we have to pioneer new ways to enable more Jews and interested non-Jews to experience the fullness, joy and meaning of Mordecai Kaplan’s concept of Judaism as “an evolving religious civilization?

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a noted thought leader and author on topics related to synagogue life and Jewish community, and C.E.O. of HayimHerring.com, a consulting firm that “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.