American Orthodoxy

Is Remix Judaism for Everyone?

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Steven Gotlib

 

Book Review of Roberta Rosenthal Kwall’s Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World (Lanham, Maryland: The Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Company, 2020).

In The New American Judaism, Jack Wertheimer noted that contemporary Jewish individuals and institutions “remix” their Judaism. In his words, “Jews across the spectrum tend to decide for themselves which mitzvot (commandments) they will observe and which they will ignore. From an outsider’s perspective these choices may appear arbitrary and inconsistent, though presumably they make perfect sense to the individual.”[1] While Wertheimer noted this phenomenon with interest and interviewed many rabbis about their perceptions of congregants’ religious lives and the resulting changes made within their synagogues, he spent little time speculating about how the internal process of remixing Judaism actually works for each individual and family unit.

Luckily for those of us who wish to take a closer look at that underlying question, Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall explores it at length in Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World. Taking the fact that “most American Jews do not believe strict religious observance is fundamental to their Jewish identity”[2] for granted, Kwall aims “to open a dialogue with all Jews, and other willing listeners, about how to strengthen their connection to the teachings and practices of the Jewish tradition in a way that comports with the sensibilities of Jews who are not, and never will be, observant by conventional measures.”[3]

Kwall’s goal of dialogue is laudable, and I will address below how her book also speaks to Jews already committed to Halakhah. But first, how does remix work in practice? Kwall argues that although Halakhah need not be strictly adhered to, the practices one takes on must retain their fundamental Jewish authenticity. She then lists three steps for remixing Jewish practices authentically:

  1. Select rituals and/or traditions to bring into your life
  2. Infuse those rituals and/or traditions with your own personal meaning
  3. Consistently perform those rituals and/or traditions in a way that embraces their historical authenticity

“If these conditions are met,” Kwall writes, “it is highly likely that both the individuals and the communities of which they are a part will be successful in transmitting meaningful, specific elements of Jewish tradition as well as a more global appreciation for its beauty and relevance.”[4] Throughout the book, she gives examples of remixing rituals and traditions across realms such as Shabbat and holidays, food, lifecycle events, Tikun Olam, and more.

When it comes to Shabbat, a day frequently appreciated by both Orthodox and liberal Jews, Kwall writes early on about individuals and families who light Shabbat candles long past nightfall, wanting to celebrate the experience of welcoming Shabbat and finding meaning in the tradition even when it is in technical violation of Halakhah. Some did this because the family first gathered for dinner after nightfall, and others did so because it just did not feel like Shabbat for them until they could be completely done with work. Another example is of those who make time for having Shabbat meals as a family, even when the food itself is not strictly kosher.

Overall, “even if Shabbat is not observed to the letter of the law, its celebration … allows for a much needed break from our fast-paced existence by carving out sacred time and space on a consistent basis uninterrupted by electronics and other background noise. Shabbat facilitates time with loved ones and spiritual contemplation.”[5] Even when remixed, Kwall writes that Shabbat and Jewish holidays should be appreciated for fostering feelings of differentiation from the rest of the week through disconnection with usual routines, joyful celebration of the experience, and consistent performance of select traditional activities.[6]

Kwall’s description of Shabbat is actually quite inter-denominational. It’s similar to how many Orthodox Jews describe the purpose of the day of rest, largely echoes the emotional power of the day as articulated by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel throughout his popular work, The Sabbath, and well articulates how it’s appreciated throughout much of today’s liberal Jewish world. For example, Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of the rabbinical school at the pluralistic Hebrew College, follows nearly every step of Kwall’s remix formulation in advocating for stronger Shabbat awareness amongst contemporary Jews. He writes that Shabbat may very well be the greatest piece of wisdom the Jewish people can offer to the world at large. But how can that be done when most contemporary Jews won’t even accept the rules of the day as halakhically stipulated? Green answers that “Shabbat is not owned only by the strictly observant minority of Jews; it belongs to all of the Jewish people. If we are going to offer it to the world, we first need to find a way to observe it ourselves.”[7] He goes on to list five “Dos” and “Don’ts.” The “Dos” consist of spending time at home, celebrating with others, finding something new or interesting to study or learn, taking personal time for yourself, and marking both the beginning and end of the Sabbath in a meaningful way. The “Don’ts” include doing anything related to one’s work life, spending money, using electronic devices, travelling commercially, and refraining from TV and computer entertainment. Such an experience of Shabbat is very much in line with Kwall’s remix approach in that he does not describe commandments, but ways to create a general Shabbat spirit.

It is therefore clear that when it comes to Shabbat in particular, as well as to tradition in general, remixing Judaism is something which is not only already being done but also seen as much needed across much of the Jewish spectrum.

Indeed, although at first glance the book is not obviously aimed at Orthodox Jews, who are generally taking their ritual cues from the Shulhan Arukh and robust ritual-centric communal norms, the idea of remixing should matter to the Orthodox community at large for three reasons.

First, as Kwall herself has written in an article about why American Orthodox Jews can and should care about whether liberal Judaism thrives, kiruv efforts, kosher food services, kosher caterers, and Orthodox-affiliated teachers are all more successful when the liberal communities surrounding them are viable. Ultimately, “the preservation of a rich and vibrant Jewish tradition for a greater number of Jews is critical for a flourishing Jewish future in the United States” even if those Jews are not viewing Halakhah in the same way that Orthodox Jews do. Understanding how and why they make the religious decisions they do, then, can continue to aid those professional areas and beyond within the Orthodox community. In that sense, Kwall writes in Remix Judaism that the book’s publication is a kiruv project in that it is intended to bring Jews closer to Jewish tradition, albeit outside of an Orthodox halakhic framework. She passionately argues that all who identify as Jewish have a stake in that enterprise because it will result in preserving a rich and vibrant Jewish experience for a greater number of Jews than ever before.

The second reason why this book should matter to Orthodox Jews is a moral or spiritual one. I direct readers to powerful words on the matter from R. Aharon Lichtenstein:

[D]oes anyone imagine that if every non-Orthodox temple were to shut down forthwith, that on the morrow the membership would flock, en masse, to the nearest shul or shtibel? If indeed temple attendance and affiliation are waning, and on the assumption that the absentees are beyond the reach of our own message, is there not, beyond competition, as much cause for dismay as for gratification? If we are concerned, as we ought to be, about the future spiritual destiny of our siblings, and if we are convinced that, in certain areas, a measure of comity could enhance it, might the option not be at least worthy of consideration?[8]

I would argue that much of the comity that R. Lichtenstein wrote about above can be gained by appreciating Kwall’s work in Remix Judaism. Once we acknowledge that the people she writes about would likely not be compelled by Orthodox Judaism anyway, I’d hope most if not all Orthodox Jews would agree that some Jewish affiliation is better than none. From there, our understanding of how the decisions about which Jewish rituals to accept are made can be helpful not only for our own professional benefit, but to appreciate these individuals’ unique religious identities. They, like their Orthodox siblings, are ultimately trying their best to place Jewish tradition in conversation with the contemporary world in which they live. The more people who give traditional Jewish values a voice in the conversation of their lives, the better.

Finally, Kwall herself gives numerous anecdotes throughout Remix Judaism of Orthodox friends who gained from a remixed approach to Jewish tradition in their own ways. She briefly mentions, for example, the phenomenon of Social Orthodoxy — in which individuals select which rituals to observe or not to observe in ways that are not dissimilar from the non-Orthodox Jews written about throughout the bulk of the book. Even beyond that group, many (including R. Lichtenstein) have written about a lack of passion and spirituality that afflicts both the right and left of Orthodoxy. Understanding how liberal Jews remix their Judaism, I would argue, can inspire a more passionate and spiritual attachment to specific mitzvot even for Orthodox readers who merely seek new frameworks for old traditions rather than to break with the halakhic norms of their community.

Ultimately, there were two questions left in my mind after reading Remix Judaism. First, despite the value that Kwall’s framework has for Orthodox Jews, can they really come to accept remix as prescriptive rather than just descriptive? Kwall is clearly optimistic on that front, arguing that Orthodox Jews should appreciate and support this endeavor. Such support would require Orthodox Jews to acknowledge that liberal Jews will always have different, often even opposing, ways of practicing Judaism. But Kwall argues that such differences are not only acceptable but vital to the continued health of the Jewish people. In her model, the left pushes boundaries in attempting to include needed change, the right pushes back to continue perceived authenticity, and those in the middle attempt to navigate between those poles as best they can. She writes, “Multiple perspectives strengthen, rather than diminish, the whole. When all sectors accept the inevitability of differences and appreciate the good faith function of each place on the spectrum, the Jewish people are at their strongest and are most able to maintain a sense of unity despite a lack of uniformity.”[9]

I, however, find myself less optimistic. In response to a call from Asher Shiloni for secular Israeli kibbutzim to selectively reacquire Jewish traditions in a way that is similar to what is advocated throughout Remix, R. Aharon Feldman of Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinical College (one of the most moderate ‘yeshivish’ institutions in North America) wrote that “[the] suggestion that we pick, choose, and adapt religious symbols so as to preserve the atheistic ideals of the kibbutz is futile since it calls for preserving form without content. If, as [Shiloni] states, the kibbutzim are throwing out the baby with the bathwater, his suggestion is even worse than futile. It would still mean throwing out the baby, and would go on to replace it with an artist’s rendition of a baby.”[10] I have little doubt that R. Feldman would quickly extend such sentiments to those who opt for remix as well.

But it’s not just the yeshiva world that might find remix hard to fully integrate into its Orthodox worldview. Even R. Avi Weiss, rabbi emeritus of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of both Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, who was adamant about replacing the term kiruv with that of encounter since outreach done right should acknowledge the fact that “those reaching out have much to learn from those being reached,” spoke of “the ‘Shabbat pro’ [being] lifted through the spiritual joy of the learner” and his “beginner’s excitement.”[11] Notice that even R. Weiss, known for his “Open” approach to Orthodoxy, still uses the language of “beginner” and “pro.” He continues to write that although the success of outreach should not necessarily be measured by making people fully observant of Halakhah, “even the observance of only parts of the Shabbat or dietary laws constitutes success as such is undeniably a step forward. A door slightly ajar offers greater potential than a closed one.[12]

Room for reciprocity or not, even this “Open” brand of outreach is seen as a means toward the end of inspiring full halakhic observance. Of course, there will be those who do not make it all the way, but the goal is to begin an upwards trajectory ending in Orthodoxy. This is quite different from Kwall’s approach, which does not see full halakhic observance as a realistic goal for the vast majority of American Jews and instead seeks to foster contemplation of “a pattern of practice that will enhance consciousness of Jewish tradition in order to maximize the ability to preserve and transmit”[13] even if it is in violation of Halakhah as interpreted by the observant community. It may be easy for Orthodox Jews to pay lip service to the Jewish people being a symphony in which “all parts are needed in order to function well,”[14] but actually participating in said symphony while thinking that most of the other players are hopelessly out of tune is much more difficult.[15]

My second question after closing Remix Judaism is that of “why?” What is the draw to Jewish tradition that warrants remixing it at all? Kwall notes that in order for the attraction to Jewish tradition to be put in conversation with contemporary experiences, “people need to be in a place in their lives where they have the inclination to explore and the mental, spiritual, and physical energy and time to devote to a spiritually oriented enterprise,”[16] but she does not specify where that inclination should come from initially or how to cultivate it in the first place. Though the book is teeming with autobiographical stories, Kwall does not fully articulate why traditional authenticity actually matters to her or why it should matter for others. At various points she tells stories where her family communicated a sense that Judaism was important to them; at one juncture she vividly recalls her father’s guilt about eating a non-kosher hotdog as a child. Still, I cannot imagine these episodes are easy for readers to connect with if they had no such experiences themselves.

In the past, thinkers who have articulated new approaches to living Jewish lives have offered confident answers to why tradition should still be in serious conversation with one’s identity. Reconstructionist founder and ideologue Mordecai Kaplan, for example, argued that the Jewish past should have a vote (albeit not a veto) in one’s religious life because all contemporary Jews fundamentally represent an extension of the same civilization as their ancestors. Kaplan explicitly acknowledged that “as soon as a people loses its distinctive customs and folkways, its civilization begins to disintegrate”[17] and therefore argued that some form of Jewish tradition must always exist in the lives of Jews. In a more traditionally-minded vein, Rabbi Ethan Tucker of the Hadar Institute related to me that he explains the necessity of halakhic consciousness as fundamentally stemming from the fact that all Jews are ultimately bound to the covenant at Mt. Sinai. Therefore, “many if not most Jews experience cognitive dissonance when they are out of sync with the Torah, and Halakhah is the discourse by which we get in sync with it. Anyone who has ever felt they were a “bad Jew”—a set that is larger than what one might think—implicitly actually wants to be in conformity with something larger and covenantal.”[18]

Even the above-mentioned Arthur Green, who thinks of himself as a religious humanist in the most universal sense and therefore does not see Judaism as having an objective claim on anyone’s life, mentions that he chose to write one of his most popular books in a way that was “clearly and unabashedly Jewish in its language.”[19] This is because it is Jewish tradition which he knows best, most clearly speaks to his life experiences, and through which he could most clearly articulate in a helpful manner to the next generation of spiritual seekers. Although the ultimate choice of whether or not to maintain that specific religious language was left to his readers, Green still cogently explained why Jewish tradition could be important to his goals.

Kwall, however, seems to take for granted the idea that Jewish tradition should have something to say to all Jews, which is the same as what many Orthodox approaches do. She does not ask why someone should view themselves as being within a Jewish context or decide to put Jewish tradition in conversation with their life, but only how they should go about adopting and adapting Jewish practices. Because of this underlying assumption, she fails to articulate why her view should be shared by her readers in the first place. Therefore, although people who read Remix Judaism already valuing what Jewish tradition has to say to them will find many useful ideas to bring into their lives, I worry that those who read Remix without already holding such a conviction will not be convinced to start doing so unless particular examples in the book happen to speak to them on an individual level.

At the end of the day, though, Remix Judaism is a wonderful book that well articulates how Jews outside of the halakhic fold can adapt Jewish rituals and traditions to their lives in a way that inspires personal meaning, empowers greater connection, and allows for transmission across generations. This is, no doubt, a worthwhile endeavor. Though its ultimate vision of all streams of Judaism operating peacefully side by side may be too rosy for mainstream Orthodoxy, the book is no doubt a worthwhile contribution to anyone’s library.

The author wishes to thank Yosef Lindell for his thoughtful editorial assistance.


[1] Jack Wertheimer, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today (Princeton University Press, 2018), 255.

[2] Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 2.

[3] Ibid., 4-5.

[4] Ibid., 12-13.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] The desire and perceived need to remix Shabbat observance in particular is already one taken seriously by Jews who are not strictly observant. See, for example, organizations like OneTable and the Reboot Sabbath Manifesto.

[7] Arthur Green, Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale University Press, 2020), 127.

[8] Aharon Lichtenstein, Varieties of Jewish Experience (Ktav Publishing House, 2011), 137.

[9] Kwall, 18.

[10] Aharon Feldman, The Eye of the Storm: A Calm View of Raging Issues (Yad Yosef Publications, 2009), 35.

[11] Avraham “Avi” Weiss, Journey to Open Orthodoxy (Ktav/Urim, 2019), 141.

[12] Ibid.  Emphasis my own.

[13] Kwall, 74

[14] Ibid., 18.

[15] One potential exception can be found within the words of R. Aharon Lichtenstein:

Surely, we have many sharp differences with the Conservative and Reform movements, and these should not be sloughed over or blurred. However, we also share many values with them – and this, too, should not be obscured. Their disappearance might strengthen us in some respects but would unquestionably weaken us in others. And of course, if we transcend our own interests and think of the people currently served by these movements – many of them, both presently and potentially, well beyond our reach or ken – how would they, or klal Yisrael as a whole, be affected by such a change? Can anyone responsibly state that it is better for a marginal Jew in Dallas or in Dubuque to lose his religious identity altogether rather than drive to his temple?

(Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living Volume 2 (Ktav, 2004), 334. Emphasis my own.)

This statement, however, is much more of a bideavad assessment of reality than a lekhathila endorsement of non-halakhic practices.

[16] Ibid., 191

[17] Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (The Reconstructionist Press, 1957), 438.

[18] Personal correspondence of the author.

[19] Arthur Green, Radical Judaism: Rethinking God & Tradition (Yale University Press, 2010), 7.

Steven Gotlib
Steven Gotlib is a fourth-year semikha student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), rabbinic intern at Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany, New York, and webmaster/social media manager for The Lehrhaus. He previously served as Rabbinic Intern at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought of Yeshiva University and as Beit Midrash Coordinator at Congregation Shearith Israel: The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Steven holds a BA in communication and Jewish studies from Rutgers University, a certificate in mental health counseling from RIETS in partnership with the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, and a certificate in spiritual entrepreneurship from the Glean Network in partnership with Columbia Business School. He and his wife, Ruth Malkah Rohde, live in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.