The Cultural Jew Within

It’s a term often used for members of the tribe who see their membership as essentially ethnic in nature, informed by things like culinary choices, celebration of the Jewish calendar’s holidays (though not, to them, holy days), and—at least for some—certain political leanings: “Cultural Jews.”

They may attend synagogue on special occasions, in particular on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, on the anniversary of a parent’s death—and even recite the Kaddish—not because they perceive spiritual power in those days or that Kaddish but mostly because… well, because that’s what their parents or grandparents did. Because that’s what Jews do. Tradition, so to speak, for the sake of tradition.

Another kind of cultural Jew, less commonly acknowledged but not altogether rare, is the cultural Orthodox Jew.

That would be one who doesn’t limit his Jewish expression to gefilte fish and Chanukah but rather eats only foods graced with the best rabbinical supervision and drinks only Jewish-processed milk; who wears a black hat or fur one, and even a long coat; who prays with a quorum regularly and sends his children to yeshivot and may even attend Torah classes; but who does it all for much the same reason as his less Jewishly active counterparts: Because that’s what Jews—in this case, Orthodox Jews—do. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in the Creator. It’s just that he doesn’t give Him much thought—even while living a seemingly intense Jewish life.

Of course, valuing our forebears’ traditions, dressing like them, adopting Jewish family customs, are undeniably important. But when the trappings of observance are essentially all that there is, when they aren’t accompanied by a consciousness of why they are important, what’s left is mere mimicry, paraphernalia in place of principle.

That there are “Cultural” Orthodox Jews helps explain otherwise baffling things, like how an Orthodox Jew can engage in unethical business practices, cheat, steal or abuse. Or, more mundanely, how he can cut others off in traffic, act rudely, or blog maliciously. Or, for that matter, how he can address his Creator in prayer with words so garbled and hurried that, were he speaking to another mortal, they would elicit laughter—or pity, for the apparent impairment.

To be sure, desires, compulsions, selfishness and greed are always at work. But the check for such spiritual adversities is consciousness of G-d; and in some seemingly observant Jews it appears to have gone missing. Their observance is a Fiddler on the Roof sort of “Tradition!”—miles wide, perhaps, but mere millimeters deep.

The phenomenon of Cultural Orthodox Jews should discomfit us. After all, mitzvot, commandments, and Jewish customs are a Jew’s spiritual nourishment; but awareness of the Divine is—or should be—the very air we breathe.

Which leads to something even more painful to ponder: Don’t even we who think of our Jewish consciousnesses as healthy and vibrant lapse at times into our own sort of temporary “cultural Jewish” modes? Do we always think of what we’re saying when we recite a blessing on food (or even take care to pronounce every word distinctly)? Are our observances truly religious, or do they sometimes devolve into rote? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety?

The celebrated thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) maintained that most of what we do, including our mitzvot, contain mixtures of motivations—including peer pressure, selfishness and the inertia of habit. When the rabbis of the Talmud observed that “from lo lish’ma [ulterior motives] comes lish’ma [pure, Divine-directed intent],” Rabbi Dessler maintains, they mean that we are charged with elevating the pure motivation in our actions above the other intentions, intensifying it, making it the prominent factor in all that we do.

In truth, all of us live on a continuum here, some more aware of the Divine, of reality, some less. The challenge—for us all—is to transcend whatever degree of “cultural Jewishness” we may harbor, and allow our lish’ma to come to the fore.

© 2011 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

Communications: [email protected]
(The above essay, however, was not published in Ami)

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