What’s Right About Jewish Cultural Affirmation

by Deborah Dash Moore

“Jewish cultural affirmation” admittedly sounds a bit awkward, yet Steven Cohen and Kerry Olitzky’s proposal – despite its odd formulation – speaks to pressing realities of today’s 21st century. In brief, they propose an educational program designed to appeal to circles of non-Jews within the personal orbit of Jews. These men and women, having taken the first steps, per the biblical Ruth – wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge – then pause. Perhaps they hesitate because they are unsure what “people” might mean. Is it another way to say nation? Does it imply citizenship? What are the responsibilities of joining a people? And that’s even before the question of God arises, which Cohen and Olitsky address directly.

Rabbi Hayim Herring argues that “Jewish cultural affirmation” muddies waters already murky with competing definitions of what it means to belong to the Jewish people. Furthermore, getting anyone, especially Jews, to agree on what someone should know to make a Jewish cultural affirmation will be well nigh impossible. Then separating Jewish ethics from religion is both misguided and dangerous (Herring doesn’t cite Felix Adler who went down that path with Ethical Culture, although he certainly could offer Adler as exhibit A), and could lead to believing Christians making their own form of Jewish cultural affirmations. (Truth is, these folk already exist irrespective of whether Jews care to recognize or engage them.) Finally, he suggests that a better use of Jewish energies would be to focus on pioneering new ways for Jews and “interested non-Jews to experience the fullness, joy and meaning of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as an evolving religious civilization.”

Now, I’m a Reconstructionist and a fan of Kaplan’s understanding of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization which is why I think that a creative program of education directed toward diverse men and women personally within a Jewish milieu responds imaginatively to the reality of living in two civilizations – another of Kaplan’s concepts. Kaplan was always ready to experiment in ways to reach Jews even as he argued that Jews had to reconstruct Judaism before it could meaningfully inform their lives. If done well, a program of learning designed for non-Jews might easily come to appeal powerfully to all of those Jews who, as Herring correctly notes, undoubtedly have few or no memories of religion from either home or synagogue. As Jennifer A. Thompson observes in her recent book, Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples are Changing American Judaism, a successful Atlanta program designed to teach Christian women married to Jewish men how to create a Jewish home prompted Jewish women to request that they be given the same opportunity to learn. Indeed, one item on the Pew survey that few commentators discuss – perhaps because it is taken for granted – is the exceptionally high percentage of Jews who have graduated college (let alone gone on to obtain advanced degrees). Learning certainly helps define who Jews are and where they differ from many Americans.

Given the open marketplace of religions that exists in the United States, the relative failure of Jews to attract converts seems to me to speak to an implicit (and occasionally explicit) lack of desire. When Jews have seen that something is desirable – like a college education or earning a good living or creating a more equitable American society – they have pursued it energetically. Many young Jews apparently think that intermarriage is desirable, which is why they intermarry. Bringing non-Jewish partners into a Jewish cultural fold through an educational program – creating more cultural Jews – seems to me to be a worthwhile endeavor that builds Jewish civilization.

Deborah Dash Moore is the Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.