Prof. Steven Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s proposal for an “explicitly cultural pathway to join the Jewish people” could keep the door open to future American Jews. What Cohen and Olitzky suggest is “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.” By this they mean a social identity acquired through study, mentoring, and group discussions. They argue that this “would allow prospective Jews to acquire a measure of familiarity with being Jewish and to undergo a non-religious pathway toward membership in the Jewish people.”
The proposal is appealing because “Jewish Cultural Affirmation” would not replace religious conversion. It would be overtly non-religious. “Cultural affirmation” might make religious conversion more amenable to those with a Jewish social identity. This is because feeling connected to Am Yisrael is an essential step toward religious conversion.
The Cohen-Olitzky proposal is important because it provides a long-term approach to reclaiming those who are falling away from the Jewish community in the U.S. Outside of Orthodoxy, the community is losing members. Many have discarded their Jewish identity because of intermarriage. Others acquire only a weak sense of being Jewish, making them likely to intermarry. Yet, the intermarried and their descendants represent a pool of future American Jews who can remain connected to Am Yisrael through culture.
Given their demographic losses, American Jews need to discuss precisely this kind of long-term initiative. Instead many responses have been hostile. The critics object that implementing cultural affirmation will be overly complex. Or they claim that it is impossible to divorce religion from Jewish identity.
That, however, is the point. A Jewish identity separate from religious texts is not just possible, it is actual. It emerged after the Enlightenment destroyed the claims of religious literalism. Am Yisrael’s greatest successes in the modern era have come from Jewish minds either untouched by religion or that rejected it.
One of these successes is Zionism, a movement with religious antecedents but led by secular, cultural Jews. To this day, many Israelis fight to protect a land given to them by a God they do not believe in. There is an ongoing quarrel about how people can become Israeli and the constitution of that identity.
Acknowledging formally that there is a cultural Jewish identity, and shaping it, is not very different. It also connects to the Jewish cultural identity that thrived during the last century in America; an identity that ran the political gamut from communists to conservatives. The problem, as Jacques Berlinerblau has written, is that this culture is in decline, in part because of “the graying and soon-to-come passing of that vibrant, incandescent 20th-century generation of secular Jews.” Cohen and Olitzky’s proposal could revive this secular, cultural Judaism.
The difference between 20th century American cultural Judaism and 21st century version is that the next generation of cultural Jews will not be halachically Jewish. They will need formal education in Jewish culture, a formation which the last century’s cultural Jews obtained at the kitchen table.
The tenuous Jewish identity of those likely to opt for “Jewish Cultural Affirmation” explains some of the reactions to Cohen and Olitzky’s proposal. American Jews are mostly Ashkenazim, which can lead to a defensive, suspicious attitude towards conversion. There is an assumption that most candidates for conversion are non-Jews who may bring their previous religious practices into the synagogue and Jewish families. This helps to explain some of the peculiar language of conversion “standards,” as if the discussion relates to products rather than people, and the desire of the haredim to make conversion near impossible.
Even the Reform movement, now part of the Ashkenazi tradition, displays elements of these attitudes. Rabbi Andy Bachman, who regards belief in God as unnecessary for conversion to Judaism, describes converts in a manner that indicates they were previously members of other religions.
Sephardi history, however, has a different message. Until recently the Sephardim rarely converted non-Jews. Historically the main candidates for conversion in Sephardic communities were those with a claim on Jewish identity. These were the conversos and their descendants, people who had unwillingly, or willingly, become Christians in Spain and Portugal. Many of the conversos who presented themselves to Sephardi communities in the Balkans had faint connections to Am Yisrael—weaker than the children and grandchildren of intermarriages today. Despite occasional misgivings, a pragmatic rabbinic view prevailed. The conversos who escaped Spain for such refuges as Salonika rejoined Am Yisrael.
Today, we have hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of American conversos. A Jewish cultural initiative is one means of reawakening a Jewish consciousness among these American conversos and their descendants. If this succeeds, let us hope that American Jews are as generous and welcoming as the Sephardim were.