Jewish Culture vs the Jewish Religion

I’ve written a few pieces recently advocating for an Israel based on Jewish values. I’ve also written advocating for separation of synagogue and state. Some have asked me how that could be:

My answer is very simple -I distinguish between Jewish culture and the Jewish religion.

The Jewish religion is Jewish law + the pantheon of Jewish religious texts, from Tanach, to midrash, to rabbinic law books, to philosophical writings by Jewish religious thinkers. So, a Passover observed according to Jewish law is a religious Passover.

What do I call Jewish culture?

I call it the holidays, stories, and values transmitted in Jewish texts (which I define as religious texts, from Tanach, to the Talmud, to rabbinic writings throughout Jewish history,  and “secular” texts by Jewish writers about Jewish identity/society -including literature) that have been ritualized and embraced by communities of Jews for generations. So, a Passover where the guests eat matzah and discuss the Exodus, but have leavened cookies for dessert, is a cultural Passover, even though it is in direct violation of Jewish law.

I admit that this vision can get iffy: If certain communities have embraced an exclusionary vision of the concept of a “chosen nation” for centuries, what makes it more or less authentically “Jewish culture” than the Jewish tradition of “fixing the world” that I rely on to justify my left-wing values?

I guess this is where the second part of my Zionism fits in: I believe that Israel should be a Jewish, democratic state. This means we should focus on embracing the Jewish values that jive with modern democracy. Of course, I don’t think we should pretend that the other parts of our tradition don’t exist -but acknowledging a tradition’s existence is very different from trying to make it part of the current legal policy or political discourse.

I admit, the boundaries aren’t always clear. My own Zionist philosophy, like the Zionist state, is a work in progress -so thanks for sticking along for the ride, and listening (reading?) to me share my thoughts.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.