In her recent book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Intellectual Property Law, addresses an increasingly pressing problem for Judaism: How to preserve and transmit tradition, while ensuring the religion’s relevance in rapidly changing times.
Key to her framework for addressing that challenge is the argument that Jewish culture and law are inseparable: Jewish culture has a basis in Jewish law, and Jewish law produces Jewish culture. To value one is to value both.
Fern Siegel, a deputy editor of The Huffington Post, writes that “Kwall is to be applauded for a scholarly examination of one of the most intriguing issues in life: identity.” Martin S. Cohen, author of The Ruminative Rabbi, says that The Myth of the Cultural Jew is "a tour de force all the more remarkable because its author is not a rabbi, not a Judaic scholar in the traditional sense, not a Talmudist at all. She is, however, very insightful, very bright, and full of the wisdom she brings from her own field of scholarly expertise to the domain of Jewish studies.”
Here Kwall talks about her powerful messages.
What is a “cultural” Jew? And why is that a myth?
Cultural Jews identify as being Jewish but don’t think of themselves as religious. Yet, they often celebrate a Passover Seder and light Hanukah candles; at their weddings, the traditional seven blessings may be read, and the glass usually is broken by the groom. I might also ask them, "Do you give to charity?" The basis of giving is in the Torah. "Are you intellectually curious?" That stems from a tradition of Talmudic discourse. Religious practice is part of their lives and Jewish tradition shapes their values, even if they’re not consciously aware of the source of their behaviors.
So, I argue that there’s no such thing as a “cultural” Jew. In Judaism, culture and law can’t be thought of separately. Integral to this perspective is the fact that Jewish law has a human component that has developed over time and within particular communities. As a result, within Judaism there is a wide spectrum of what and how to believe: Judaism has never been a “one size fits all” religion.
Why are those insights important?
I wrote the book to show that Jewish law is not really monolithic; it’s more flexible than many people think. God paints with a big brush, but the little strokes are man-made. And within Judaism there’s always been dynamic interplay between the religion and social forces: More than a few of the familiar Jewish traditions come from the bottom-up—specifically, from the people rather than the rabbis.
Does that mean society's views should impact Jewish law? Some Jewish law authorities would say that Jewish law is countercultural and doesn’t take society’s views into account. Others would disagree, saying that social norms must be factored into legal decision-making to varying degrees. Consider a current example of social and legal evolution—the acceptance of homosexuality. There is a range of views on this issue within Judaism, depending on the denomination and the particular rabbinic authority within each denomination. But in keeping with societal norms, even some Orthodox communities are being pushed to make their synagogues more tolerant and inclusive toward gay people.
It seems like there’s some “right now” urgency to your book.
Judaism is much more than a religion: It’s also world view and a heritage. I am hoping that a better understanding of Jewish culture and Jewish law will make Judaism more meaningful to a new generation. Millennials have a mind of their own; they’re not typically rule-followers. So, how do we make Judaism make sense to people with a millennial mindset? That’s an important question if we hope to preserve and transmit the beauty of the Jewish tradition.
More Praise from Critics and Scholars
"A brilliant exploration of the relationship between law and culture in the context of Judaism.” — Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the Law School, University of California, Irvine
"Kwall [calls] her new paradigm 'cultural analysis,' a methodology which views law and culture as mutually influential and historically inseparable. [She] brings a fresh perspective to the questions that for generations have plagued those committed to Jewish survival." — Avidan Halivni, New Voices
"The Myth of the Cultural Jew is a fascinating book. It is both scholarly and practical, grappling with the challenges that face all of us in the contemporary world." — Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School
"... Kwall makes a major methodological contribution to the academic study of Jewish law and tradition. [Her] book deserves careful attention as we seek to transmit the beauty and richness of Jewish tradition to the next generation, and to enhance the quality of American Jewish life." — Richard D. Zelin, Jewish News Service
"What a fascinating book it is! She shows how generation after generation of Jewish sages, scholars, and commentators have been affected by the cultures in which they lived … [and] how debates over homosexuality, the role of women, and Sabbath observance have been influenced by modern cultural values." — Jack Balkin, Yale Law School
"The Myth of the Cultural Jew will change the way in which lay people, academics, and Jewish clergy and professionals think about the development of Jewish law. " — Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, American Jewish University
"There is so much brilliance in this book …”— Sherry Colb, Cornell Law School