The case for 'Cultural Judaism'

As our three-year-old skipped around the room singing 'Little Donkey', my wife and I were a mess of confusion, horror, shock and mirth. What should we do?

December 20, 2016 11:56

There’s a story that’s become folklore in our house. One December evening, our then three year old bounded in from her non-Jewish nursery joyously exclaiming: “I’m in a play!”

When we asked her what role she’d be playing, she gleefully explained: “I’m Mary. Me and Joseph can’t stay in the hotel. So I have to sleep in a barn. AND JESUS COMES OUT OF MY TUMMY!”

As she skipped around the room singing Little Donkey, my wife and I were a mess of confusion, horror, shock and mirth. What should we do?

We were flabbergasted that a non-denominational, mostly Jewish, preschool, would do this. But we didn’t want to crush her excitement towards something she clearly didn’t understand but very obviously wanted to do. Plus, a lead is a lead. Nachas.

When I called the nursery, the administrator responded with a line I’ll never forget: “but it’s just a cultural story for the season.”

What?! The defining story of Christian faith? A “cultural story”?

But maybe she had a point.

It’s undeniable that the December 25 is, for most, a bonanza of retail, movies and TV ads. People of all backgrounds and faiths will swap presents whilst tucking into a turkey-based family meal on Sunday.  

As an observant Catholic said to me, “there’s no Christ in Christmas anymore.”

Observant Jews have similarly snappy one liners, like, “It’s more about the “Bar” than the “Mitzvah””, and, ”Simchat Torah is all about the “Simcha” and not the “Torah””.

And maybe they also have a point. In the same way that the biblical equivalents of JLS didn’t perform at the biblical equivalents of Barmitzvah parties, trees, baubles, crackers and turkey dinners weren’t handed down from Bethlehem. Red-suited, black-booted Santa Claus was created in 1931 for a Coke advert. By a Swede.

Maybe traditional observance has been hijacked by “cultural” practice.

But - and I’m saying this as a relatively observant Jew - so what? Even if you question their religiosity, every December 25 in the UK, more than 2.5m people attend church. That’s a massive, year-high, 300 per cent spike from a regular Sunday.

It’s the church-going equivalent of our “Three-a-Yearers”. And they, like ours, deserve more respect.

They may not measure up to the standards of scripture, but still they come. “Culture” makes them turn up in the pews with their families. It’s carols and crackers, not catechism, that gets them through the door to participate in their heritage.

And so to us. I fear  “Culturally Jewish” has become an almost derogatory term to some, levelled at those who enjoy their own take on Friday night dinners, Yom Kippur and Seder Night.

They’re happy enough with their set up, yet some amongst us, inexplicably, aren’t. We tut and deride their inconsistency and lack of adherence to the codified law.

This mindset is simply arrogant idiocy. It isn’t heroic to label or devalue the actions of the people less “frum” than you. Heroism is bringing your kids to the alien environment of a shul, seder or school - one you’ve no knowledge of, background in or connection to -  to encourage them to experience and participate on some level.

Cultural practice hasn’t hijacked observance. It’s made it more accessible to the vast majority who, for all manner of reasons, haven’t been raised within it.

So yes, some celebrations may seem inaccurate or “modernish”, but for the people participating, they provide an approachable, less foreign way to authentically engage in their religion. I say good luck to them.

Plus, Judaism’s an ever-evolving melting pot of cultures anyway. If it wasn’t, we’d still be in tents in the desert.

December 20, 2016 11:56

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