Can Jewish Culture Exist Without Religion?

I should be a cultural Jew. My upbringing and the trend away from religious Judaism covered in the 2013 Pew Research Center report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” ought to place me in the 62 percent of respondents who feel being Jewish is merely a matter of ancestry and culture.

I had a happy, culturally Jewish childhood in Highland Park, Illinois. Our parents were not likely to light candles, abstain from shrimp or put up a Sukkah. However, their desire to remain Jewish was steadfast. They joined synagogues and sent us to Hebrew school. They wanted nothing to do with a “holiday” tree, even if others considered those symbols innocuous and just “culturally” Christian. We used challah for our French toast and ate matzoh ball soup year-round. We did not need the religious aspects of Judaism to experience a sense of community.

Is Jewish Culture Enough?

At the time, I felt as if nothing was missing from my Jewish upbringing. Why, then, did I nod so vigorously while reading Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall’s The Myth of Cultural Judaism Oxford University Press? The book is a well-researched analysis of the connection between Jewish law and culture suggesting that Jewish culture cannot thrive without some connection, even a loose one, to Jewish law.

Kwall acknowledges that the future of Judaism in America, namely liberal Judaism, must include cultural Jews. She suggests that the Jewish community must engage in essential conversations about how to reach this emotionally connected, but not particularly committed, population. Otherwise, most of those culturally affiliated Jews and their descendants might be lost to assimilation. We have to give them a reason to remain tied to the Jewish community.

Though I’m just one person and the answer cannot be identical for every Jew, what has consistently connected me to the Jewish community for the past 17 years, resulting in a membership at three synagogues, children in Jewish Day School, and a tradition-filled Jewish home is one thing: strong relationships with rabbis, their wives and Jewish educators.

Connecting to Judaism on a Deeper Level

A shift in my perspective occurred in my senior year of college after I randomly attended a short study session with the Hillel rabbi at Washington University, Hyim Shafner. I had never analyzed Torah in depth before, but he took me seriously as a fellow Jew and wanted to hear what I had to say–what everyone had to say. He made it clear that there was not one “right” answer.

An awakening happened to me then, one that has continually encouraged me to seek the guidance of rabbis and educators from every denomination. Have more of my teachers been connected to Orthodoxy? Yes. (Not all Orthodox Jews are the same, by the way!) It’s not that I think they’re better teachers or more “authentic” than their liberal counterparts. The Orthodox rabbis have more time. Or there are more of them. Or they’re not in a system where they’re running synagogues with 3000 members and only one or two other clergy members to help. I don’t know. Either way, the relationships I’ve formed with rabbis and teachers of various backgrounds since I was 21 have changed my life for the better.

I have long stopped being a cultural Jew, but I’m not an Orthodox one either. I follow many more Jewish practices than I ever could have imagined, but I do not do everything…not even close. But the laws I do follow add meaning to my life.

If bagels, Hanukkah and movies on Christmas were enough for my childhood, then why isn’t it enough for my children? I suppose that when I saw the relevance of the religious aspects of Judaism, I realized that it wasn’t sufficient for my kids to inherit Jewish pride with no context of who the Jewish people are at the core.

I’m grateful to all the rabbis and teachers who nourished my Jewish soul so that I can give something enduring to the next generation. There’s no guarantee that my kids will choose to stay connected to Judaism, but I will certainly know that I tried, and enriched my life tremendously along the way.