Are 'Bad Jews' Really Good After All?

As one of the only Jewish kids growing up in suburban New York in the 1980s whose family didn't belong to a synagogue, who didn't have a bar mitzvah as a teenager, and who knew embarrassingly little about Jewish religion, pretty much all that I possessed was the "cultural" aspect of Judaism.

My link to Jewish tradition came through my maternal grandparents in Queens, Jean and Lou Kaplan, who also weren't particularly pious, but who seemed Jewish to their pores. It was their ethnicity that rubbed off on me -- their outer borough Jewish accents, their penchant for salty, fatty Eastern European Jewish foods like sardines, pot roast and tongue, their vacations in the Catskills and Miami Beach, and their predilection for Jewish entertainers like the genial Danish musician and comedian Victor Borge who couldn't play a piece without falling off the piano bench.

Even today, there is no better way to get a group of Jews smiling than to mention challah, corned beef, gefilte fish, falafel, hummus, Manischewitz wine, and hamantashen. Or Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song." Or Jill Soloway's cable TV series, Transparent. Or to slyly refer to oneself as a "bad Jew" -- one who disdains Jewish religious observance and maintains a fondness only for Jewish culture. (Interestingly, there is no connotation of immorality; "bad Jews" are inadequate only in their rejection of Jewish law.)

What exactly is Jewish culture? We too often view it as a remnant from Jewish religion, as what is left over when the laws (keeping kosher, keeping the Sabbath and holidays, and so on) are no longer observed -- a residual fondness for Jewish food, music, and old Jewish jokes. But Jewish culture is not a Johnny-come-lately stepchild of Jewish religion. Religion, as much contemporary scholarship suggests, is a subset of human culture; it is just one form of human expression. Jews developed distinctive cultural practices but their beliefs and customs could not be walled off from the everyday life of working, eating, making music and art, having sex and raising children.

While it is commonly remarked that all of these daily activities were governed by religious law, they were also always in tension with those rules and regulations -- a fruitful tension that, in and of itself, can be seen as the essence of Judaism. So while Roberta Rosenthal Kwall's new book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew, suggests -- incorrectly, in my view -- that Jewish culture has always depended on Jewish religion for its definition, the concept of the "religious Jew" is equally mythic! Jewish culture has always been an overarching category that embraces and subsumes religion, making the idea of "religious Judaism" apart from Jewish culture a fiction. Isn't even the Torah, the central element in Judaism, just as much a cultural and literary artifact as a religious one?

As David Biale, the editor of the magisterial three-volume Cultures of the Jews, puts it, Jewish law was "only one aspect of a wider culture that as much shaped the law after its own values as it was shaped by it." So even Jews who define themselves as "Jews by religion" are also cultural Jews, because they participate in a form of Jewish culture that they call "religion."

"Tuchas afn tish," as my grandparents would say in Yiddish (meaning, literally, putting your ass on the table, metaphorically meaning laying your cards down). Cultural Jews can and should feel just as proud of their Jewish identity as ultra-Orthodox Jews do of theirs. Neither is better, truer, or more authentic than the other. Indeed, there is nothing that Jews do that they call "religion" (including worship, faith and ritual) that is not, at the same time, also just as much an expression of culture, which can be broadly defined as the means by which human beings create and share meaning in the world.

This is not a new idea. But for reasons that mystify me, scholars have largely kept it to themselves. Despite the spate of best-selling books (such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Armin Navabi's Why There is No God) over the last decade that have challenged the validity of religion in general, the primacy of religion in Judaism remains for the most part taken for granted, even, ironically, at a time when the percentage of self-defined cultural Jews is rising faster than ever before.

Rather than interpreting "cultural Judaism" as a twentieth century development, as Jews sloughed off Jewish ritual observance and developed more secular ways of connecting to their roots, it is actually "religion" that is a comparatively recent invention. Only in the post-Medieval period, with the rise of Protestantism, came the idea that one could identify oneself by reference to a particular means of worship and set of beliefs, apart from all the other markers of group identity. In the Jewish context, the rise of "religion" sowed the seeds for the sharp divisions that we see today among Jews of different levels of religious observance; it created an artificial hierarchy that had never existed before and that lamentably caused the Jewish community to splinter.

Some Jews obviously are more "religious" than others -- they attend synagogue with greater regularity, keep kosher, observe the Sabbath and holidays, and so on. Nevertheless, the vast majority do so without these activities being directed to making a deeper connection with God, or with however they define the divine.

In fact, even this minority of Jews who still attend synagogue on a regular basis and/or perform Jewish rituals have, for the most part, a stronger secular or ethnic Jewish identity than a religious one. More than half of the "Jews by religion" surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2013 claimed that their Jewish identification was mostly a cultural or ancestral one; two-thirds said that it is not necessary to believe in God in order to be Jewish. Perhaps because Jews were commanded not to make a graven image of the deity, or even to utter the ineffable name of God, (which, since it cannot be written, is also unpronounceable), they developed a conception of God which was so abstract as to border on non-existence.

So why do secular Jews so often refer to themselves as "bad Jews"? (Bad Jews is, of course, also the title of Joshua Harmon's 2012 off-Broadway play that has run in regional theater productions all over the country, sparking debate about the meaning, or lack thereof, of Jewish religion in a secular age.) There remains something sneaky and subversive about the term -- somewhere on the spectrum between self-mocking and self-hating. It is used, oddly, as an ironic badge of pride.

Nevertheless, the time has come to ban the term from our vocabulary. Cultural Jews need to shed the inferiority complex that being a "bad Jew" implies, and to celebrate with pride their own, just as valid, just as vibrant, just as vital version of Jewish identity.