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Uniting Jewish Culture and Jewish Belief

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

Frequently, I have conversations with Jews whom I love and respect, inside our Synagogue and out, in which my friend poses some version of the following:

“Rabbi, I like the community, but I’m just not into services.  I’m more into the culture.”

“I often like often what you have to say, but I’m a cultural Jew, not religious.”

“Rabbi, don’t take it personally. You and the Synagogue have been there for me and my family at very important times, but my identity is about family and food and customs, not about belief.”

I’m the last person to underestimate the importance, demands and uniqueness of our faith.  It holds forth very particular ideas about G-d, human nature, redemption, the future of humanity, and more.   As a Conservative Jew, our commitments include a sweeping network of ethical and ritual commandments, which govern everything we do from washing our hands upon arising to preparing for bed at night.

But I don’t get the sharp division of Jewish belief from Jewish culture.  From the Song of Song in antiquity to the Chagall windows of the Hadassah Hospital in modern Jerusalem, religious beliefs and motifs have inspired our cultural contributions.  “Faith-based” encounters from the call of Abraham to Joseph and his brothers to Moses and Pharaoh have occasioned monumental works of art and animated movements for social liberation benefitting billions of people, religious and secular, over the ages.

Conversely, the involvement of “cultural” or “secular” Jews has been critical   in Jewish religious growth.   Zionism was a modern movement for national liberation whose inspiration was significantly messianic and religious but whose foot soldiers were mostly nonobservant and assimilated Jews.  The Federation movement in America–and Jewish self-help societies going back centuries earlier in Europe—grew from the traditional norms and laws of Tzedakah,  although their leaders were often non-practicing, assimilated, socially prominent Jews.  Over several thousand Shabbat and Holiday services during my Rabbinic career, I’ve had the pleasure, and great challenge  of teaching congregations whose worshippers included very pious and strictly observant Jews and Jews who unabashedly identify as secular, nonbelieving and, yes, “cultural”.

So I wonder why we make these distinctions between realms which in reality , and to our great blessing, inter-penetrate.  I’m sure it has to do with discomfort about being religious in our proudly secular age.  Many identify an  observant, pious Jewish lifestyle with unquestioning obedience, with lack of social utility (what difference does it make?),  with a retreat from society and a parochial fear of the openness and diversity of our hyper-connected world.   All this may be found in segregationist or fundamentalist strains of Judaism today.  It does not represent the authentic , global faith of Abraham and Sarah and Isaiah and Maimonides and Dona Gracia Nasi and Henrietta Szold and Abraham Joshua Heschel and so many other far-sighted teachers.

Judaism is a civilization which embraces religion, culture, language, peoplehood, and a profound messianic vision for all humanity.  As a first step, we have to learn how to sit, praise, study and search together, across easy definitions and artificial boundaries.

“Ki Veiti Beit T’filah, Yikarei l’chol Ha’a’mim”.  “For my house is a house of prayer. It calls out to all people” (Isaiah 56:7)

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Weintraub

 

 

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