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!
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul Law School. A prolific scholar whose work focuses on Jewish law and culture, Kwall lectures widely at synagogues, Jewish organizations, and law schools in America and Israel. Her popular writings on topics of relevance to the Jewish community have appeared in many of the most established Jewish media venues.