Away From Religion, Is Judaism A Culture?

I was told by an orthodox Israeli I met on a hike in the English Peak District that I was a Jew. Which made me feel extremely uncomfortable as I was daydreaming about the bacon cheeseburger I was surely going to order at the pub that night and I was looking forward to a side of chips, not a side of guilt.

Technically, I guess, maybe, depending on how you look at it… “but I’m not religious,” I wanted to blurt out – I didn’t, enough guilt for one day.

Judaism is a religion. There are no arguments there and if there is one thing everyone seems to agree on is this: the Torah is our text and even if its interpretation is the subject of never-ending debate and research, it’s ours and ours alone. But Judaism is so much more! In the 21st Century, it is also, somehow, a lot less.

According to jewfaq’s Judaism 101, “more than half of all Jews in Israel today call themselves “secular.” “In late 2013, the Pew Survey reported that 22 percent of American Jews said they had no religion and fewer than a third (31 percent) belonged to a synagogue,” as reported by Simon Rocker in the Jewish Chronicle. For British Jews, it gets even less religious, as a 2014 survey published by Jewish Policy Research (JPR) reports that being “just Jewish” was apparently a good way to describe yourself and that belief in G-d came at 16 (out of 20) in values that “were important to them in their Jewish life.” We get it: You can be an atheist and a Jew, which means that being a “Jew” is an identity that isn’t based on religious beliefs and now we’re entering very murky territory.

The discussion about the nature of Judaism isn’t new. In the U.S., legally, Jews are a race and don’t let me start on what ridiculousness that is. The Supreme Court couldn’t figure out what Jews actually were, so they went for the biologically inaccurate “Jews are a race” and got done with it. This brings back collective memories of persecution, Pogroms, Nazi Germany and the Shoah. But could this “collective memory” be what it’s all about? Could Jews be a global community, one with its own culture, as defined in Steven E. Barkan’s Sociology Brief Edition of 2012 as “symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts”? I’m no sociology professor but I’d like to add history to that list. A culture is defined by its history and adherence to a community within a culture means a shared history. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been to the Synagogue last week or even if you believe in G-d: if you’re a Jew, the Shoah has defined you in some way.

However, it is not “just” about history, even if you are “just Jewish.” Cultural Judaism includes symbols (Magen David, the Israeli flag…), artifacts and tradition, as well as food, art, books, films, music and even humor. Secular Jewish culture, in its most minimalist form, is described by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut) in an article for the 2012 American Jewish Handbook as comprising only three elements: “awareness of being Jewish, sense of connection with other Jews, and a concern for Jewish life and issues.” And this is where the limitations of Cultural Judaism are the most obvious: how can “Jewish life and issues” be the same for every Jew all over the world? How can we make an argument for “Jewish food” or “Jewish humor” when what comes to mind for the former is most probably Sephardi or Mizrahi and the later Ashkenazi? Israeli music is not “Jewish” music and the 1997 French film “La vérité si je mens!” might be considered a Jewish comedy but is in fact very much Sephardi.

Judaism isn’t “just” anything, it is, in fact, many things, many cultures, many groups of people with their own identities, many individuals scattered all over the world who somehow still manage to recognize themselves as belonging to a community with roots to a land, a shared history (the diaspora, the Shoah) and belief in a G-d.

Defining Judaism, and Jews by extension, is an impossible task. “There are as many Judaisms as there are Jews,” my mother, date: from as long as I can remember.

This means, of course, that the Israeli hiker was right: I am a Jew. I might not follow kashrut and never go to the synagogue, but you will find me greasing up the entire kitchen when cooking latkes at Hanukkah (great grandma’s recipe, very secret), I fast at Yom Kippur, and I own every Philip Roth book ever published. You can bet my mum sends me a text if the eldest son of the Rabbi is looking particularly good – unmarried, you see where this is going – even if I’m not in the same country and I have a lot of people to see when I go to Israel. Is it enough to be called a Jew? You bet.

Ultimately, to be a Jew is to be recognized by other Jews as such. And if it is absolutely necessary to define Judaism, let’s acknowledge the fact that it is most definitely the first monotheist religion and that it could, and probably should, be described as a collection of cultures. More importantly, let’s celebrate the fact that it’s complicated and let’s embrace the one word that seems to make the most sense when thinking about Judaism: community.

Sarah Kante is a writer with itchy feet. Born in Paris, based in London, she spends as much time as possible traveling around the world and learning about new cultures. When she isn’t hiking in the rain, you can find her trying out new recipes in the kitchen or checking out the latest exhibitions.