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Progressive Judaism needs more ‘doing Jewish’

Renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen recently furnished research showing that the American non-Orthodox population is sharply declining. His recommendations include suggestions that non-Orthodox Jews marry younger, marry Jews, and “raise their children as Jews.” But the critical question is what does it mean to raise one’s children as Jews in a non-Orthodox context?  The answer really is quite simple even if its execution raises complexities. American Jews interested in preservation and transmission need to become more sensitized to making a greater number of affirmative Jewish choices, including choices perceived as more religious than cultural.  In short, they simply need to “do Jewish” more.

There can be no doubt at this point that most American Jews do not believe strict religious observance is fundamental to their Jewish identity.  The 2013 Pew Report, the most recent comprehensive study of the American Jewish community, found that “observing Jewish law” was “essential to Jewish identity” for only 19% of the respondents. But if observing the laws of the Jewish religion is not important to the vast majority of American Jews, how would they define Jewish identity?  The answer to this question is far from clear in the Pew Report and other sources.  At best, we know that American Jewish identity is multi-faceted and fluid, particularly among Millennials.

We also know that, despite the dwindling numbers of non-Orthodox, the majority of identified Jews in the United States still fall somewhere along a spectrum ranging from fairly traditional (although not Orthodox) to self-denominated purely cultural. Paradoxically, even many cultural Jews many feel it is important that their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren share their Jewish identity and cultural affiliation.  The Pew Report also shows that today’s American Jews are proud to be Jewish. They seeing being Jewish as an important part of their lives and they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.     

Unless these Jews, and their progeny, can find a way of practicing and transmitting a meaningful form of non-Orthodox Judaism, the result will indeed be an eventual disappearance of many, if not the majority, of Jews into the greater vortex of American culture. This result is unthinkable, as it would mean that so many Jews would lose not only any remaining ties to their religion, but also to the culture and identity they claim to love and cherish.

For many Progressive Jews, the concept of faithfully following Jewish law in its entirety, simply because God commanded that we do so, is foreign. We live in an age where many people do not respect the authority of religious figures, particularly the rabbis who shaped Jewish law hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Our society prizes autonomy and customization. Most people pick and choose that which feels meaningful and have no second thoughts about discarding everything else.

Although Progressive Jews may be uncomfortable with the largely unfamiliar language of “Jewish law,” they respond far more positively to the concept of “Jewish tradition.”  I first noticed this distinction during the time I directed a center for Jewish law and Judaic Studies at my law school.  I soon began to appreciate that although the language of Jewish “law” suggests hard and fast rules and consequences for disobedience that are alien to most non-Orthodox Jews, 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 formulated by the rabbis as well as the more amorphous cultural aspects of the religion practiced by the people over the centuries. In other words, Jewish tradition includes both Jewish law and culture.

Most people do not recognize this interconnection between Jewish law and culture.  Throughout history, the rabbis shaped Jewish law, halakhah, in response to their surrounding cultures.  These cultures included both the cultures of the Jews specifically as well as the host nations in which Jews have lived for centuries.

Similarly, what we think of as Jewish culture has been greatly influenced by the existence of the law the rabbis formulated. When self-denominated cultural Jews will soon light Chanukah candles, they may see this activity as purely cultural.  The same is true for celebrating a Passover Seder.  Yet, the roots of these behaviors come from Jewish law even if many Jews do not recognize this origin.  In short, Jewish law and culture are completely intertwined. Today, the majority of Jews see Judaism as more cultural in nature, and many do not appreciate the law’s impact upon this culture.

The Jewish tradition can serve as the foundation for inspiring and educating Jewish adults and children to appreciate the beauty of the religion.  I believe most Progressive Jews feel, or can be educated to feel, a responsibility to perpetuate the tradition even if they do not see Jewish law as “binding” or representing the direct word of God. It is enough that one appreciates the beauty of the Jewish tradition and desires to benefit from its content and wisdom.

It is vital for all Jews to be taught why and how Jewish tradition can provide the basis for the particulars of the culture about which they do care. This tradition has played a pivotal role in shaping the Jewish people over the millennia.  It has allowed Jews to connect the past with the present, and it can furnish a path to the future.  Elements of the Jewish tradition can touch the heart, soul, and mind of every willing Jew, and add meaning to life.  

All identified Jews, including the Orthodox, have a stake in this enterprise because its success will result in the preservation of a rich and vibrant Jewish tradition for a greater number of Jews. Many conventionally religious Jews understand that a stronger appreciation for Jewish tradition across the board will strengthen the Jewish community on a global level, despite inevitable differences in degrees and manners of observance.  Several years ago, one of my students—an Orthodox Jew—told me that his grandfather used to say that the Jewish people are like a symphony, and therefore, all parts are needed for the whole to function well.  I cherish that sentiment and strongly believe in its truth.


Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law.  She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and is currently working on a book about transmitting Jewish tradition in a diverse world.

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