The Myth of the Cul­tur­al Jew: Cul­ture and Law in Jew­ish Tradition

  • Review
By – March 16, 2015

The terms sec­u­lar Jew” or cul­tur­al Jew” — or even bagel-and-lox Jew” — are much bandied-about expres­sions that non-prac­tic­ing Jews often use to describe them­selves. In her fas­ci­nat­ing new book, The Myth of the Cul­tur­al Jew: Cul­ture and Law in Jew­ish Tra­di­tion, Rober­ta Rosen­thal Kwall debunks those notions. Accord­ing to Kwall, Jews, even non-reli­gious ones, are mold­ed and shaped” by Jew­ish reli­gious tra­di­tion, despite the fact they often do not acknowl­edge its effect on their iden­ti­ties and dai­ly lives. 

This infor­ma­tive book is much more than the debunk­ing of mis­guid­ed notions about Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. It is a metic­u­lous­ly researched study of how halakhah (Jew­ish law) and cul­ture are inter­ac­tion­al forces both shap­ing each oth­er. Under­pin­ning this analy­sis is Kwall’s use of the legal ana­lyt­i­cal tool of cul­tur­al analy­sis: Cul­tur­al analy­sis, in legal rea­son­ing, starts with the premise that law is a human prod­uct” and is based on cul­tur­al influ­ences aris­ing in his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic con­texts.” Kwall deft­ly demon­strates how the use of cul­tur­al analy­sis can shed light on many impor­tant Jew­ish issues, includ­ing halakhah and rit­u­al prac­tice. She argues that Judaism is not a rigid, unbend­ing, one-size-fits all tra­di­tion.” Judaism is a set of legal prin­ci­ples, rit­u­als, prac­tices, and val­ues that have been shaped by top-down” approach­es like rab­bini­cal deci­sions and bot­tom-up choic­es of the peo­ple” — the incor­po­ra­tion of behav­iors of the sur­round­ing culture. 

Kwall pro­vides numer­ous bib­li­cal, Tal­mu­dic, and his­tor­i­cal exam­ples to illus­trate that Jew­ish law… pro­duces Jew­ish cul­ture and Jew­ish cul­ture pro­duces Jew­ish law.” Jew­ish cul­ture is, in turn, shaped by the sur­round­ing non-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. The book includes inci­sive com­men­tary on the devel­op­ment of Jew­ish denom­i­na­tion­al dif­fer­ences, the role of women in the syn­a­gogues, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, the Who is a Jew?” dia­logue, homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, the State of Israel, and how cul­tur­al analy­sis can shed new light on many dif­fi­cult issues fac­ing the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. This brief review doesn’t do jus­tice to Kwal­l’s impres­sive eru­di­tion. The Myth of the Cul­tur­al Jew is a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten book that will inter­est all read­ers who want to bet­ter under­stand Jew­ish reli­gious and cul­tur­al prac­tices. Foot­notes, index.

Relat­ed Content:

Read Rober­ta Rosen­thal Kwal­l’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

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

The Jew­ish Peo­ple Are Like a Symphony!

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing the Beauty

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

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