I have read that until the emancipation of the European Jews in the early- to mid-19th century, Jewish religious culture WAS Jewish culture.
There was always a lively folk-culture. But Jews lived in isolation from the larger (high) culture. Without that influence, the intent of most artistic output was to God, serve the synagogue, serve the rabbi and the religious community. But such output largely ignored secular life as superficial and unworthy of serious attention. In the isolation of traditional communities, excellence in Torah scholarship, not success in the mundane affairs of business or public administration, was the pinnacle of intellectual achievement.
Today, as institutions like Jewish community centers have sought to secularize and Americanize Jewish identity, they have succeeded in rendering it essentially meaningless, promoting a secularized Judaism tied largely to an ever more remote Holocaust and support for an Israel that has become a state morally indistinguishable from so many others.
As a result, the synagogue remains the principal touchstone of identity in Jewish life, the main source of information on what Jewish identity means. Many Jews treat their local synagogues as bar mitzvah factories, remaining affiliated only as long as they must in order to have their children's Jewish identities officially consecrated. This time-worn process is about ethnic identity, not faith.
Many other syngogue-goers remain affiliated, even after their children's religious obligations are fulfilled, even in the absence of belief in the supernatural. They do this because the synagogue is the one place in their lives where their personal histories are affirmed; where the identity, 'Jew,' has content and meaning.
One Jew's opinion, anyway.
I don’t presume to talk for any minority ( though, as a secular humanist, I wouldn’t bet on myself getting elected anywhere), but I can only hope that the Jewish and black communities one day see no need to maintain a distinction any more than this ex-catholic needs to hold on to his.
Thanks, Rod, for your comment. I found your use of the word ‘distinction’ interesting.
Havdalah is the ceremony that marks the end to the Jewish sabbath, or Shabbat. But it marks as well the return to profane time, time that is said to lack the holiness of the 26 hours of Shabbat.
One of the key prayers chanted at this ritual blesses God, the master of the universe, who makes distinctions. Distinctions between day and night, between men and women, between holy time and profane time, and between Israel (meaning the people who constitute the nation of Israel—not the modern nation-state) and other nations.
I don’t believe in the God who is said to make such distinctions or, indeed, in any other god. But I find it useful, even necessary to make all kinds of distinctions. It’s one of the ways I understand and negotiate the world. The question is, what significance do I attach to those distinctions? How do they factor, if at all, into my daily life?
But I take your point and agree with it. Religions divide. It may not be the intent, but it’s certainly the effect.
That acknowledgement doesn’t change my desire to stand in the synagogue with the Hebrew words on my tongue, the ones that praise a God I don’t believe in. I still want to be in the pews with the others, standing and turning, our eyes following the Torah scrolls in the rabbi’s arms as he carries them past us down the aisle.
There is a beauty in these rituals that feels very personal to me, very close to me. What matters, finally, is not what religions do by design or by accident but what I do in my daily life.
I think a lot of Jewish guys join synagogues to meet the gorgeous Sephardic Jewish ladies that go there every Saturday…