Is Jewish Culture More Appealing than Jewish Religion?

Almost a century after the last major wave of Jewish immigration to the United States, surveys show that almost two-thirds of American Jews relate to Judaism as a culture rather than as a religion. Fewer and fewer, especially outside of the ultra-Orthodox community, attend synagogue on a regular basis, perform Jewish rituals in the home, or circumcise their sons.

But as negatively--or, perhaps more accurately apathetically-- as many Jews feel about Jewish religion, almost none have anything other than positive associations toward Jewish culture. There is no better way to get a group of Jews smiling than to mention matzoh ball soup, pastrami sandwiches, bagels and lox, Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller, Chanukah menorahs, Passover seders, and Yiddish. (Or, for Sephardic Jews, kibbeh, Ladino music, and the Moroccan-French-Jewish comedian Gad Elmaleh.) Freedom from religion, for many Jews, is profoundly liberating. No one tells you what to think, what to believe, how to feel about Israel. You're on your own.

But what exactly is Jewish culture? For the vast majority of Jewish history, there was no such thing as Jewish "culture" apart from Jewish "religion." The 613 commandments contained in the Torah dictated every aspect of daily life, from the order in which one put on one's shoes in the morning to the words that one uttered before falling asleep at night. Foods were prepared according to the exacting standards of the dietary laws, clothing was sewn in line with the prohibition against mixing different kinds of fabric, music was an outgrowth of synagogue liturgy, and entertainment took place at weddings and other celebrations.

It would not have been possible to call oneself a "secular" or "cultural" Jew--the category simply did not exist. Indeed, as the late scholar Amos Funkenstein noted, the distinction between "sacred" and "secular" in Jewish heritage was never between people, but always between things, including periods of time like the six days of labor and the Sabbath. A person would never be described as secular.

If you were born Jewish, then you remained Jewish, even if you did not observe all the commandments. Excommunication was rare; the seventeenth century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza had to go to great lengths to get himself formally expelled from the community for his rejection of a supernatural God. It was almost impossible not to be Jewish, or to be partially Jewish, or to be Jewish in a non-religious way. Even those who converted out of the Jewish religion were still seen for the most part as Jewish by blood. The Jewish people had a claim on you, and you felt an obligation to fulfill the expectations of the community.

All that began to change a couple of hundred years ago, when, after more than 1500 years of persecution, Jews were finally admitted to citizenship in the republics of Europe, largely on the condition that they keep their religion to themselves--"a Jew at home and a man in the streets" was the ideal. Before long, a "secular" or "cultural" way of being Jewish began to develop, one that was non-religious, or even anti-religious, and that extended from high culture (visual art, literature, plays and music) to low (folk songs, food, tapestries, jokes). While this distinction between high and low culture has for the most part collapsed in our society, the Jewish community has inherited this relatively young tradition, and cultural forms of identification substitute, for most American Jews, for religious ones.

Jewish culture, while it may sprung originally from Jewish religion, is now an autonomous realm of its own. No knowledge of Judaism, or membership in any Jewish organization, in order to read a Jewish book, listen to Jewish music, or laugh at a Jewish comedian. You don't need a minyan (quorum of ten adult Jews--traditionally all men--for prayer) to eat a potato kugel. You don't need to hire a rabbi (actually you never did--a knowledgeable Jewish person was always sufficient to perform the rite) to have a Jewish wedding. More and more bar and bat mitzvahs are taking place in backyards and on mountaintops rather than in synagogues, often with very little, if any, religious content. And, for many Jewish families, there is no Passover seder per se, but only a family meal with matzoh ball soup and brisket.

Much of this "autonomous" Judaism is the result of intermarriage and assimilation--of Jews no longer marrying other Jews, having a majority of Jewish friends, or joining Jewish communal institutions. Jews no longer want to feel segregated from other Americans and no longer want to keep their traditions to themselves. And so the common language of Jews is one that is accessible to non-Jews as well--the language of culture.

Whether or not this non-religious Jewish identity has any staying power is a matter of debate. A decade ago, sociologists Antony Gordon and Richard M. Horowitz projected, over the course of the next three generations, a drop of 93% in the population of secular Jews compared to a staggering rise of 3400% in the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews--based on the much higher birthrate of Hasidic Jews and a much lower tendency to intermarry. Nevertheless, as long as there are Jews by religion, there will be non-religious Jews as well--those who find meaning not in religious practices but in cultural ones.