Cultural Judaism Opens the Door for Alienated Jews

Bradford Pilcher’s satiric comments about our work at the Center for Cultural Judaism illustrate the unfortunate position that frequently pushes cultural Jews out the door.

Mr. Pilcher relies on a source who believes that Judaism begins and ends with ancient literature and practices–as though nothing new has occurred in Jewish life and Jewish thought since the Talmudic period. Yet the largest portion of our population–cultural, secular, non-religious and Humanistic Jews–sees the world quite differently.

Cultural Jews rely on our secular education in the arts and sciences, and our understanding of the European Enlightenment, the Haskalah, and modern scholarship to understand our history. Judaism has never been monolithic. It has always, throughout history, evolved to meet the needs of the people living it. And it continues to do so.

Our contemporary sages–biblical scholars, archaeologists, anthropologists and historians–have called into question many of the legends about our history. They tell us that the Torah was not given to Moses at Sinai–it was written over hundreds of years. Accepting this modern scholarship does not make the Torah any less important to cultural Jews. We recognize it as our foundational literature and understand that it tells us important information about our people at a particular time and place. But our literature does not begin with the Torah and end with the Talmud. We can celebrate our full cultural heritage, and all the Jewish literature that has been created by Jews throughout history. At the Center for Cultural Judaism, our educational programs will explore the full Jewish literary heritage, from the biblical period to modern writers.

Archaeologists and anthropologists tell us that there is no evidence that a large number of our ancestors left Egypt in an exodus led by Moses. The leadership of all the denominations except Orthodox accepts this. Acknowledging the historical accuracy of the story does not make it any less important to cultural Jews. On the contrary, we understand that our ancestors brought the world a brilliant concept–the Exodus story appears to be the earliest writing of the idea that slaves could become free. This has inspired people throughout the ages. It is no less important because we acknowledge that it might not have been an historical event. An accurate understanding of our history does not shake our Jewish identity. In fact, our identity is strengthened by pride when we understand the contributions our ancestors brought to the world.

The people with whom I work and celebrate our Jewishness are far from lazy–and Mr. Pilcher’s headline completely misrepresents this population and even misrepresents what he includes in his article. It requires a much greater commitment to intellectual honesty to question inconsistencies in our heritage, address the errors in the historical record, and develop ceremonies and services enabling us to celebrate our identity in ways that are consistent with our beliefs. Perhaps the “lazy” path is to go along with others simply because it’s easier even when it doesn’t reflect one’s personal views. Perhaps the “lazy” path is to accept teachings simply because they were passed down from long ago, l’dor v’dor, without any consideration of science and modern scholarship.

During the Haskalah, Hatam Sofer created an irreparable breach between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox sectors of Jewry. His most notorious saying, in an English translation, is “even the slightest innovation is forbidden by the Torah.” It is unfortunate that 200 years later there are still those who would rather lose half the population than acknowledge that there have always been myriad expressions of Jewishness and Judaism. I prefer to be an intellectually honest, committed (and far-from-lazy) secular Jew, living happily in the modern world.

Myrna Baron

Myrna Baron is executive director of The Center for Cultural Judaism in Manhattan.


Author: Myrna Baron