And so, yet again, a nice couple was sitting in my office the other week. They were young and attractive-looking, mid-twenties, well-groomed...but also nervous and slightly ill at ease. Trust me, I know the look. And I also know not to press them, just to let them get to the point on their own. And eventually they do get there. They’re in love. They’ve lived together for months, sometimes years. They want to get married. But one of them isn’t Jewish and that, they claim only recently to have learned, is going to be a problem if they wish to get married at Shelter Rock (or any Conservative or Orthodox synagogue). That part, of course, isn’t true: they’ve known it all along (or the Jewish party certainly has), just haven’t overly focused on it or wanted particularly to deal with it. But the time has come and I have finally taken my modest place, yet again, on a happy couple’s checklist: hire band, find florist, buy wedding dress, talk to rabbi, send out “save-the-date,” make up guest list, etc. Sometimes I’m closer to the top, sometimes not.
And then, having finally arrived at the actual point of our meeting, we start to talk more seriously about what’s involved. First, the easy stuff. If the non-Jew in the room is the future groom, I find some delicate way to inquire about circumcision. I mention the mikveh, also in as disarming a way as possible. And then we get down to addressing the elephant in the room, the issue that all concerned, myself most definitely included, would prefer ignoring altogether: that there is no such thing as converting to Jewishness, only to Judaism…and that, I explain kindly but also clearly, that is going to involve taking on a regimen of religious ritual and practice that, even liberally construed, will require making some rather dramatic changes in life as almost certainly lived to date.
I know that’s not what they want to hear. The Jewish partner is almost invariably not strictly observant, which detail is often revealed as though its revelator expects it to surprise me. He or she has no problem with being Jewish, he or she assures me. And I know that even before I hear it: the very fact that the couple has come to see me in the first place is itself ample testimony to the fact that the Jewish party in the relationship feels warmly and strongly about his or her Jewishness. And with that we come to the crux of the matter: the couple has come to me so that I can convert the non-Jew in the room to Jewishness, to membership in the House of Israel, to a sense of cultural and emotional attachment to the Jewish people…but not necessarily to Judaism and all that that entails. He wants her (or vice versa) to laugh at Jewish jokes, to know the difference between kreplach and kneidlach, to feel comfortable in Jewish settings and among Jewish people… not actually to insist on going to shul on Shabbat and keeping a kosher home, let alone meticulously and with attention to all those innumerable details! That’s not always how it is, of course. There are those who seriously do wish to make Judaism into their spiritual path forward, into the context for future spiritual growth…and who are willing to do what it takes to sign on. But more often than not we come to an impasse that no one in the room is entirely sure how to negotiate.
With such couples, the sticking point is that they want Jewishness not Judaism, ethnicity not religion, culture not halakhah. Every rabbi in every pulpit has met these people…and we are specifically not talking about people to whom none of this Jewish stuff matters at all. Just to the contrary, we are talking about people who have gone so far as to consult with a rabbi to see about solving what they perceive as an impediment to the wedding (and possibly even the marriage) they want. I do my best to explain, I hope kindly, that there simply is no such thing as converting to Jewishness, that I can help them if they’d like...but probably not in the way they’d prefer. Mostly, they’re semi-amazed I’m not willing to do anything at all so that they can have the Jewish wedding they presume, not entirely incorrectly, I hope that they do end up having. And so we reach a bit of an impasse, me wanting to help and not knowing exactly how to proceed and they wanting me to work my magic to make their problem vanish but not really being fully prepared to tote their half of the barge.
In other contexts, it goes without saying that ethnicity is a closed shop: there simply is no way in our American culture to become an Irish-American or an Italian-American. You can marry it. You can learn the cultural trappings that go along with it. You can learn to pass (or you can try)…but in our culture the term “Polish-American” is reserved solely for immigrants from Poland and their descendants, not for people who know how to polka or who like kielbasa but whose ancestors came here from anywhere but Poland. (Perhaps that’s a bad example—two of my own grandparents actually did come here from Poland but I’m still not a Polish-American, at least not in the sense in which the term is normally used.) But whereas ethnicity in our culture is a club you can’t join, that is specifically not the case for religions, which you actually can join. And that’s where the confusion comes in: Jewish-Americans function both as a faith group and as an ethnic group. But only one of the above admits converts…and, at least for some, that constitutes a serious, if unexpected, dilemma.
I’m writing about all this because I’ve just recently read a book by Roberta Kwall, director of the DePaul College of Law Center for Intellectual Property Law and Information Technology and the director of the university’s Center for Jewish Law and Judaic Studies in Chicago, in which she argues that this much ballyhooed distinction between religion and culture is, at least in the Jewish context, a bit of a chimera. Her book, entitled The Myth of the Cultural Jew and published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, argues cogently, in fact, that the notion that there even is such a thing as Jewish culture that exists independently from the Jewish legal heritage—in other words, that Judaism and Jewishness are discrete entities that only occasionally overlap in the lives of some specific Jewish people but which can otherwise exist fully independently of each other—that that notion itself is flawed and essentially inarguable. And then she sets herself to proving her point.
Because the author is a professor of law and not a rabbi, she writes from a vantage point not usual for authors of books about Jewish life. And because she is personally engaged by her material, she writes from the heart and not in the detached manner of legal scholars discussing points of law or legal theory. Moreover, because she is trained academically in law and not in Jewish studies, she has the advantage over many of seeing through her own eyes and then interpreting what she sees in light of her own training, not unlike the way in his day Theodor Reik, a trained psychoanalyst with a Ph.D. in psychology and the sole important disciple of Freud not to have been trained as a physician, was able to write remarkable books about Jewish life bringing his own training to bear and specifically not relying on what Judaic scholars imagined to be obvious or self-evident. (For an excellent example of Reik’s genius, I recommend his essays on Kol Nidre and the shofar that constitute the second half of his book, Ritual: Four Psychoanalytic Studies.)
Professor Kwall’s title summarizes her argument, but I should let the author speak for herself. “Cultural Judaism absent any connection to Jewish law,” she writes, “is an impossibility. Why? The answer lies in the assertion that Jewish law and Jewish culture are forged together in the composition of Jewish tradition.” And then, masterfully, she goes on to explain why she thinks that to be the case. Choosing her examples carefully, she shows that Jewishness itself—the cultural baggage Jews carry wherever they go and with the weight and scope of which they identify fully or, if they remain at all engaged by their Jewishness, at least partially—that Jewishness cannot successfully be analyzed as mere ethnicity without reference to the halakhah, to the law that underlies even the least overtly “religious” aspects of Jewish life.
It’s an intriguing argument, one made all the more appealing by the author’s background in the American legal tradition and her awareness of how interrelated American law and American culture truly are. (I should probably mention that I know the author personally and am thanked in the introduction for having read the manuscript and commented upon it before it was finally published.) Throughout the book, the author demonstrates her conviction that, to quote a recent on-line blog posting she created to bring her book to the attention of a wider readership, “Judaism is not a science but rather a form of art—a cultural product composed of law, wisdom, and narrative, all of which have been shaped by social forces over time and diverse geographic space.” This is not the dispassionate work of a disinterested pedant. Indeed, when Kwall writes that her interest in seeing the book through to completion was ignited by her passion for Judaism, as well as by her desire to transmit that passion to her children, no reader will have any trouble believing her. It’s a remarkable book, a tour de force all the more remarkable because its author is not a rabbi, not a Judaic scholar in the traditional sense, not a Talmudist at all. She is, however, very insightful, very bright, and full of the wisdom she brings from her own field of scholarly expertise to the domain of Jewish studies. I recommend her book to you all!
A fair number of interfaith couples that come to see me decide to pursue conversion to Judaism and end up getting married under a chuppah. Others, probably most, either end up hiring far more liberal rabbis than myself to perform their weddings without requiring conversion at all or else they give up on the idea of being married under a chuppah entirely. It’s always a painful moment, at least for me personally, when I realize that I probably won’t be seeing a couple again now that I’ve made it clear what conversion to Judaism entails. But Roberta Kwall’s book made me feel better about our refusal to treat Jewishness and Judaism as divisible quantities…and our concomitant insistence on seeing them as threads living tradition that simply cannot exist independently of each other. That actually is what I think—and my occasional encounters with Judaism absent Jewishness and the inverse, Jewishness absent Judaism, both of which I have experienced personally and uncomfortably, only make me more sure that we are doing the right thing by declining to make conversion to Judaism “about” Jewish foods or Jewish jokes. I like most Jewish foods and I inherited a million Jewish jokes from my father…but neither of those things would mean much without the ritual framework that grants Judaism both its cultural dignity and its ultimate spiritual worth. And that is what I tell the couples who come to see me even if it’s not precisely what they were hoping to hear. And sometimes they even listen!