A Rousing Defense of Pick-and-Choose Judaism


I’ve built my Jewish practice from the bottom up. What I mean is, I’ve never felt “commanded” to keep kosher, observe Shabbat or go to synagogue — not by a parent nor a rabbi, and not by God. Even if God had directly ordered me to pay my kids’ day school tuition, I would have pushed back. Hard.

But I do keep, observe and go — and paid that tuition — not because I feel commanded, but because I feel compelled. As I entered adulthood, I found the rituals and traditions of Judaism compelling. I incorporated more and more of them into my life — and, with my wife’s support, my family’s life — until the boundaries between Jew and any other identity I had disappeared. I do these things because it’s what Jews do and because they bring meaning, connection and a sense of history to my life. Why other Jews do these things — well, that’s up to them.

Roberta Kwall writes about these “bottom-up choices” for making a meaningful Jewish life — that is, outside of a “strictly observant lifestyle” — in her new book, “Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World” (Rowman & Littlefield). It’s a book for families for whom Jewish tradition “connotes positive associations and the desire for transmission,” and yet for whom the language of “commandedness does not apply.”

Kwall, a professor at Chicago’s DePaul University College of Law, gives permission for the bottom-uppers to consider their Jewish lives authentic without worrying they don’t measure up to someone else’s religious ideals. It asserts ritual as a “tool for transmission of Jewish tradition in non-Orthodox communities.”

When I spoke to Kwall a few weeks back (we met last year at The Conversation, the annual Jewish Week retreat for Jewish thinkers and leaders), I told her how the book basically described my own Jewish choices (emphasis on “choices”). 

“There’s a fluid spectrum for most people during their lives in terms of faith, but they don’t necessarily make the connection of ‘I believe in God, and therefore I believe I am commanded to do a mitzvah,’” agreed Kwall, who describes herself as “very observant.” She continued, “That notion of commandedness, which even the Conservative movement has struggled with, that’s not going to motivate them.” 

Rather, “Personal meaning will motivate them. Identity and having a connection to Judaism and to the Jewish people will motivate them.”

She urges families and Jewish institutions to provide opportunities for learning and doing Jewish rituals and holiday observance — not necessarily as the whole package, but as essential elements of a more meaningful Jewish life.

So perhaps Remixers light Shabbat candles, enjoy a traditional Friday night dinner — and then pull up a movie on Netflix. “If you’re going to be successful in transmitting Jewish tradition in a liberally religious context, you have to be OK with not letting those obstacles drag you down, but say, OK, your movie is remix, that’s okay, because your kids will remember that Shabbat dinner, and that will be a part of what they really value and they treasure,” said Kwall.

But I noted how a lot of traditionalists dismiss such a constructed liberal Jewish identity as “pick-and-choose” or “cut-and-paste” Judaism, a hybrid undone by inauthenticity.

“I know certain kinds of Jewish thinkers don’t like this, and that without commandedness [think] ritual is meaningless,” she said. “A liberal viewpoint says ‘no: if they have meaning in and of themselves, I don’t need the whole faith.’” For the uncommanded, it’s important to light Shabbat candles with their families because “lighting candles feels great.”

“Remix Judaism” is also in part a rebuttal to secular Jews who separate Jewish identity from practice — dismissing the selective performance of rituals as hypocritical or as a tactic to promote continuity for its own sake.

Kwall insists Judaism can’t be perpetuated if divorced from its traditions and holy days. “If you cannot tap into the rituals,” she said, “even if you’re not performing them all in the way that they are traditionally performed, you’re not going to have anything to transmit.”

There are limits, however, to how much you can remix Judaism until the original ingredients are unidentifiable. Kwall’s legal expertise is in intellectual property, where she learned the concept of “moral rights” — which essentially asks how much a work can be changed and modified and still be the work of its creator.

“It occurred to me one day that you could ask the same thing about Jewish tradition,” she said.  Remix Judaism, she writes, is based on the idea that “new approaches to Jewish tradition must be steeped in historical authenticity and performed consistently.”

“Remix Judaism” speaks to a moment of sharp Jewish polarity, when a vast majority of Jews tell pollsters that being Jewish is more important than doing Jewish — or, as Kwall puts it, 15 percent of Jews are “doing everything, and the rest of everybody else is pretty much doing nothing.”

“That’s not acceptable, that’s simply not acceptable. We live in too much of a polarized world to begin with,” she said. “And I do believe so much that there’s so much beauty in Jewish tradition even for people who are not motivated by commandedness. I believe that there is something that can infuse their life with meaning and give them something important to pass down to the next generation.”

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.