As a rabbi whose work is mainly with the interfaith and unaffiliated community, I’d like to discuss with you a recurring theme I discover when I first meet an interfaith or unaffiliated couple or family. Invariably I will hear these exact words: “Rabbi, I am a cultural Jew, not a religious Jew.” I want to blurt out, you are probably a Reconstructionist Jew, but usually I listen a little bit more to see why they consider themselves “cultural, rather than religious Jews,” before I disabuse them of that notion.
What is a cultural Jew? Someone who goes to museums and symphonies a lot? Someone who dances the hora and eats lox? For me, “cultural” is too wishy washy a word, that isn’t anywhere up to the challenge of describing the Jewish feelings that these unaffiliated Jews harbor.
Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a religious or social group.” When Jews claim to be “cultural” Jews, what makes me think we are not simply talking “the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a religious or social group?”
Allow me to use as an example, the brides and grooms who ask me to officiate at their interfaith weddings. These young people feel it is so important to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding ceremony that they have usually made an extensive search to find me, and once they have found me, they go to great lengths researching just what kind of a Jewish wedding they want. The Christian partner, who often attends church regularly, may be dismayed because the Jew, who hasn’t set foot in a synagogue in years, and who knows very little about Judaism beyond what he or she learned at age 13, often insists that the children be raised Jewish! I always think this takes a lot of chutzpah – but many of the brides and grooms have the necessary chutzpah to pull this one off. What gives them this chutzpah? I suggest that we are talking about a deep-rooted sense of being Jewish that is much larger than cultural issues. Although they don’t have words for it, these young Jews feel themselves to be links in the chain of a people who for over 2000 years have been a light unto the nations. A people who have lived, died, been persecuted, and been revered.
For the soon-to-be-weds, the sense of belonging to this people is part and parcel of who they are. In some innate way these young folk know that they are an integral part of the Jewish civilization - a community linked together by a shared past, a mutual concern in the present, and a shared sense of future destiny. Belonging to this civilization is so important to them, that they absolutely refuse to abandon it at the time in their life when they are making a statement about what they want their future to be. And they will generally do whatever is possible to see to it that their children become part of this civilization, as well.
When I hear one of my clients tell me that he or she is a cultural Jew, I know what we will be discussing for the next session or two – at least. Because first I have to help the Jewish partner understand what makes him or her Jewish, and then we have to explain it to the Christian partner. When we do get around to talking about the real issues of being Jewish – beyond the “cultural” ones, the brides and grooms often reach for the box of tissues. Even if the presenting issue was that the mother or father wanted a rabbi, it’s clear from the angst building up in them, that this is not about the parents alone. The Jewish partner will soon be a parent. A nest is being built, and the “cultural” Jew is doing everything to see that it is a Jewish nest, so as not to later come to regret that the chain of Jewish peoplehood was broken by not raising Jewish children.
How does this all fit in with Reconstructionist Judaism? Like my brides and grooms who say they are not religious Jews,Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, also said that to him Judaism was not primarily a religion. To Kaplan Judaism is neither religion, culture, nor civilization alone. It is the interconnectedness of religion, culture and civilization. You can’t have one without the other. For the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform - Judaism is, first and foremost, a religion. True, the three streams of Judaism have differing opinions on how that religion should be practiced - but they are in agreement that Judaism is, primarily, a religion.
In fact, the early reform Jews in Germany were adamant in their belief that Judaism was only a religion. They held to the belief that their nationality was German, their culture was German, and their ethnicity was German. They were Germans like all other Germans, except that their religion was Jewish. They were anti-Zionism, since the idea of a Jewish state was anathema to them. Nazism, of course, changed all that.
In contrast to the reform, from the very beginning, Reconstructionist Judaism rejected the notion that Judaism is essentially a religion. True, the Jews do have a religion, but they also have an ethnicity, a nationhood, and a peoplehood. Judaism is a combination of factors that are indivisible.
Each individual Jew may put more emphasis on one area, and less emphasis on another area - but any one area alone does not a Jew make.
Whenever I taught college level courses in Judaism, I always started out by asking my students for a definition of Judaism. Invariably they mentioned something about Judaism as a religion that believes in one God, and they became vociferous in their protest when I only gave them 1/3 credit. And this marking system wasn't arbitrary. Most dictionaries define Judaism as:
1. The religion of the Jewish people.
2. the Jewish way of life, and...
3. Jews collectively; Jewry.
Even the U.S. census takers must be Reconstructionists, for Judaism is the only category that can be checked off as both religion and ethnic group. In the category of religion, the entries include - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, Bahai, etc. In the category of ethnic group, the entries include - French, Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish etc.
In order for Judaism to thrive I believe Jews must see themselves as a people, interconnected through a common history, experience, and destiny; linked together by their shared past, their mutual concern in the present, and their shared future destiny. Individuals may choose diverse ways to link themselves to the Jewish people, but it is the belonging to that people that makes us all Jews. The secular Jews who express their Jewishness by making aliyah to a non-religious kibbutz, or by contributing to Jewish charities are not to be excluded from Jewish life because they are not "religious." Those of us who do not belong to mainstream synagogues are not somehow less genuinely Jewish than those who pray three times a day. Our Judaism may express itself through the arts, politics, teaching, cooking, family values, settling arguments, and a host of other illustrations.
Because one's Jewishness need not be measured primarily by synagogue attendance, Kaplan envisioned synagogues as cultural gathering places, along the lines of community centers. In fact, the first Reconstructionist congregations were called "centers" rather than synagogues. How fitting that this fledgling group is meeting today in the Magnolia Library Center. Unfortunately, the American Jewish community has developed its Jewish institutions primarily along religious lines.
Synagogues, where religion, is primary - have come to dominate Jewish life, almost to the exclusion of all of the other values of Judaism. It is only natural, then, I guess, that when I speak to young Jews preparing to get married, they often start with the disclaimer that they aren’t religious Jews. They think that that is what most Jews are, and they are the exception.
I remember officiating at a funeral for a man who was very active in the B'nai Brith anti-defamation league and who was a prominent philanthropist supporting Jewish studies programs at local universities. At the house of Shiva his widow confided in me apologetically - "Well, my husband wasn't a very religious man, he hardly ever went to shul, but he was a good person anyway." I was so saddened by her need to apologize, and her inability to realize that her husband's expression of his Jewishness was every bit as valuable as the quote, unquote religious Jew.
Some of you who are here today have arrived here because of different paths that you have taken. Don’t apologize for not being a “relgious” Jew. And don’t claim that you are merely a "cultural Jew". You are all genuine, concerned, fully legitimate Jews. You have made the effort to come here this morning to be counted among your brother and sister Jews throughout the world and throughout the ages, and that counts for a lot.
Together with millions of Jews throughout the world who will hear the shofar blasts this Rosh Hashanah season I welcome you to rise to hear the shofar blasts speak to your Jewish soul.
Other sermons from Rabbi Judy
Kol Nidre: 5767A People Apart or a Part of the People?
Reconstructionist Judaism: So Much More than "Cultural"
Cultural Jew - 5765 Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon
Doing Teshuvah in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina