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.
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