- The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall
By Roberta Rosenthal Kwall. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 336pp.
Roberta Kwall’s new book wages a war on two fronts. Under the rubric of what she calls “cultural analysis of law,” or for short, “cultural analysis,” Kwall claims that Jewish law (halakhah) and Jewish culture are inextricably intertwined. For this reason—and here we come to the first front, to which the book’s title gives top billing—the “cultural Jew,” who identifies with Judaism in cultural but not halakhic terms, is mistaken about himself, because the culture with which he identifies is inevitably halakhic. Not only mistaken, but doomed to obsolescence, because a purely cultural conception of Judaism that is devoid of halakhic content is not sustainable. On the opposite side of the spectrum stands the hidebound, (ultra-)Orthodox traditionalist—Kwall’s second target—who does not acknowledge a cultural element in halakhah, but takes law to be a self-contained system that is not and should not be informed by cultural considerations. Kwall [End Page 133] thinks the traditionalist is as wrong as the cultural Jew, though she seems more sanguine about his viability (if you call that living!).
The argumentation in the book is in fact radically asymmetric, as most of it is devoted to illustrating the role of culture in halakhic decision making, rather than the role of halakhah in Jewish culture. Here, then, is the first problem in the book: It largely assumes half of its case, that is, that Jewish culture is incoherent without a conception of Jewish law. In the very last chapter of the book, Kwall comes finally around to arguing, ever so briefly, for this point, by way of two examples. “The liberal causes and social action models that attract many American Jews derive in large part from the Torah’s command to leave the edges of the field untouched to benefit the poor and others who are socially disadvantaged. Further, the preoccupation among American Jews with the benefits of intellectual curiosity . . . can be attributed to Judaism’s historically rich textual tradition and respect for education” (281). These examples are not, on their face, altogether compelling. To the extent that Jews involved in social justice work are motivated in part by the sense that social justice is a Jewish concept, must we say that they necessarily draw on a halakhic conception of social justice? The Bible and later Jewish sources are replete with injunctions to help the poor and the disadvantaged that are not “legal” in any meaningful way, and that closely resemble injunctions in various non-Jewish frameworks, such as Christianity, that do not privilege law as a conceptual category. Likewise, is Judaism’s “rich textual tradition” in and of itself halakhic, such that any preference for intellectual curiosity that is conceived of as Jewish is also, ipso facto, indebted to halakhah? Moreover, even if we suppose that such concepts as social justice and intellectual curiosity were in the past worked out through the prism of halakhah, does the association with halakhah color them forever? This point shades into the “so what” question. What does it matter that the Jewish concepts beloved of “cultural Jews” are in origin halakhic concepts (if indeed they are)? So what if the cultural Jew is a myth? People live their lives according to myths all the time. Kwall seems to think that if Jewish culture is in fact indebted to halakhah, then cultural Jews ought to integrate something of the halakhic ethos into their lives. But facts don’t straightforwardly create obligations; “ought” doesn’t follow from “is” (if there even really is an “is” here), at least not without an argument.
On the other front, which occupies most of the book, Kwall is fighting against something of a straw man. Traditionalists who would deny the role of culture in the development of halakhah are numerous in the Jewish world, but [End Page 134] much rarer if not altogether absent in the academic field of Jewish Studies, and among the...