The ProsenPeople

Communicating the Beauty

Friday, March 20, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall wrote about how on how pluralism strengthens Judaism and shared the backstory behind her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition. Roberta is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the United States, and even in Israel, Judaism cannot be a one-size-fits-all religion. The degree of variations that currently exist simply cannot be undone, nor should they be. But all variations need to be more attuned to their target audience and how they can best serve the needs of their constituents. This requires understanding the realities of the larger societal culture and tailoring Jewish experience to serve these realities. And it requires being open to trying new and different ways of reaching potential followers, including non-Jews who are involved with Jews or otherwise open to learning about the beauty of the tradition.

Although the Jewish tradition includes both Jewish religious law, known as halakhah, as well as cultural elements, many modern Jews very much enjoy the cultural components of Judaism but are not so keen on the law part. This is particularly true when the legal demands are seen as placing burdens on people that are perceived as irrelevant to our modern lifestyle. That said, when the legal ingredients are completely lost, it is impossible to capture, and to pass down, the flavor and uniqueness of the traditional recipe.

More effective educational strategies are needed in most Jewish communities, particularly those in which the observance of halakhah is not a governing focus. I offer here two possible suggestions for further contemplation. One suggestion is to emphasize more how the demands of traditional Jewish practice comport with modern values that many Jews today embrace. For example, the culture of the twenty-first century furnishes appealing reasons to observe cornerstone traditions such as the dietary laws and Shabbat. Today, more kosher food options exist than ever before and there is a popular perception that these options are healthier. It has even been reported that more Millennials are keeping kosher than their baby boomer parents given their concern with environment and sustainability. As for Shabbat, in this day and age of continuous electronic connection, a mandated disconnection of one day a week can be seen as a welcomed relief.

A second suggestion focuses on unbundling the concept of “Jewish pride.” It seems to me that there is significant potential to harness the concept of “Jewish pride” so that it can serve as a focal point for educating American Jews. According to the 2013 Pew Report, a comprehensive study of the American Jewish population, 94% of the American Jewish population claimed that they are proud to be Jewish. Jewish pride and Jewish survival go hand in hand because people want to insure continuity of what they take pride in.

It is imperative that Jewish clergy and professionals develop an innovative yet effective strategy for educating this group, particularly those individuals who claim pride in their heritage but who are not religiously observant. Initially, such a strategy must underscore why religious tradition is indeed a fundamental part of what they are claiming a sense of pride in. But this is not sufficient because the needed education must also instill a love of the tradition’s beauty—both the legal and the cultural. It must persuade people that the Jewish tradition still has relevance for their lives, even if they are not living lives that are governed by Jewish law. In short, identified Jews are educable Jews. We have the numbers but now we need to develop the blueprint.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies. For more reflections from Kwall, visit her Facebook page here.

Related Content:

The Jewish People Are Like a Symphony!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall shared the backstory behind her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition. Roberta is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many 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: all parts are needed for the whole to function well. I cherish that sentiment and strongly believe in its truth. A pluralistic approach to Judaism does not merely tolerate differences, but embraces them as vital to the continuity and health of the Jewish people—indeed, differences of opinion are the backbone of Talmudic discourse. Today, the left end of the spectrum attempts to push the boundaries by incorporating what it sees as needed change; the right end counters this tendency by pushing back against innovation to ensure continued authenticity; and the middle seeks to navigate between these approaches. When all sectors appreciate the good-faith function of the each position, the Jewish people are at their strongest and maintain a sense of unity without uniformity. In short, pluralism does not see Judaism in black-and white-terms; rather, it values different perspectives within the discourse and understands that a multiplicity of perspectives strengthens (and does not diminish) the whole.

Throughout the time I was working on The Myth of the Cultural Jew, I had the good fortune to be co-directing a center for Jewish law and Judaic Studies at DePaul. The aspect of my work with the center that I most enjoyed was planning the center’s annual interdenominational program. This program typically featured a panel of Jewish clergy or professional leaders representing a spectrum of thought, discussing issues of interest to a wide range of Jews. The first program, for example, focused on the seminal issue of “who is a Jew” and featured a Reform and Conservative rabbi discussing their movements’ respective positions concerning whether a child’s status as a Jew should be determined according to only the mother’s religion rather than that of either parent. Subsequent programs included panels of rabbis from all major Jewish movements, and one program even featured an all-female lineup of clergy and spiritual advisors. The Jewish professionals who participated in this unique initiative provided me with tremendous insight and inspiration throughout the course of my work.

I am also grateful for many friends and acquaintances spanning the spectrum of Jewish practice and thinking. Not only has my work benefitted from their diverse perspectives, but I have grown personally from my ability to engage with people representing a wide variety of Jewish viewpoints. It is unfortunate that all too often, Jews tend to associate on a social basis mostly with other Jews from their own section of the orchestra, even if they have contact with a wider range of players professionally. As an academic, I feel blessed to share my love of the Jewish tradition with a wide audience of people through my teaching and writing; I am also very grateful that in my personal life, I count as good friends members of all Jewish and unaffiliated identities.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies. Check back later this week for her suggestions on Jewish education that may facilitate the Jewish people continuing to make beautiful music together!

Related Content:

The Art of Religious Tradition: The Backstory to The Myth of the Cultural Jew

Monday, March 16, 2015 | Permalink

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. Her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition, is now available. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I have always viewed human artistic creativity as a spiritual type of enterprise, even before the time I began to write about this idea on a more formal basis. I believe that any creative artistic work, be it literature, music, or visual art, is the product of the author’s personal story as shaped by her own experience and her reaction to her surrounding environment. I became an advocate for author’s rights in my role as a legal academic, and much of my legal scholarship has focused on an author’s right to receive attribution and to safeguard her work from unauthorized changes that compromise its message and meaning.

My legal research led me to an important book written by historian Daniel Boorstin entitled The Creators, in which he observes that the Torah’s language that “God created man in His image…” furnishes a path leading man to regard himself as a potential creator. I confess that I had never thought about this insight before, despite having read the Biblical text many times. Around the time I encountered Boorstin’s book, I had begun to reconnect with Jewish learning, which had occupied a large part of my adolescent and college years. It suddenly occurred to me that the Jewish tradition is very much like a work of art that has been composed jointly by its many human authors, and based (at least in my view) on its Divine origin. As such, the tradition can be understood as reflecting the personal and environmental circumstances of many of its authors, both the rabbis and lay people. Therefore, both the laws promulgated by the rabbis and the practices of the people have a basis in the cultures that have surrounded the tradition’s authors.

After this realization, it was not a particularly difficult stretch for me to see that so many of the issues I had written about with respect artistic works could also be asked about the Jewish tradition. Specifically, how much can a work (or a tradition) undergo modification and still be considered representative of its original meaning and message? What does society lose when a given work (tradition) loses its essential character and becomes something completely different? Further, who gets to make these changes and pursuant to what type of authority? At base, these questions are all concerned with “authenticity.” In a post-modern age where it is expected that the audience will interpret texts and forge new meaning, these issues loom large in the world of art, especially in our digital era. With respect to the Jewish tradition specifically, many would also argue that it should be subject to new interpretations, especially given the challenges of modernity.

There is a value to changes in any cultural tradition, particularly in more liberal pockets of the community. Still, changes that are not grounded in the fabric of the cultural tradition can compromise important values unique to the tradition. This concern with loss of value and dilution of the tradition’s authenticity justifies a perspective that embraces a degree of selectivity with respect to implementing changes in the tradition. This concern is particularly relevant to the Jewish tradition, and the issue of how much change and evolution it can tolerate and yet retain its authenticity is one that has occupied much of the discourse in certain circles of Jewish thought since the inception of the Enlightenment.

Based on this perspective, I believe that Judaism is not a science but rather a form of art—a cultural product composed of law, wisdom, and narrative, all of which have been shaped by social forces over time and diverse geographic space. My passion for Judaism ignited my work on The Myth of the Cultural Jew. And my desire to transmit this passion to my children served as the impetus for its completion.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies.

Related Content: