Community · Culture clashes · Religious life

The Pressure to be “Liberal”

As a multi-racial individual, I often encounter the expectation that I should be or must be “liberal.” This, at times, has made me want to run the other way, and just to prove people wrong, be “conservative.”

Luckily, though, I have worked very hard not to let social pressures like that decide my very personal opinions on several issues. As a result, I like to think that I have managed to remain “liberal,” “conservative,” and “middle,” depending on the issue (as I think it should be).

Now, I am a religiously observant Jew, but also strongly identify as being multi-racial and multi-cultural. I am not in to denying my Japanese self, nor depriving myself of Japanese food, or other yummy “ethnic” foods. I am very in to being Japanese, Jewish, and a citizen of the terristial beings.

In the American Jewish community, there has been some movement to try to diversify people’s idea of who is a Jew. As in, you could look many ways–not just white, but also Arab, Asian, African, black, mixed of course, etc. There are organizations devoted to doing this through outreach, education, meetings, and retreats. Great.

Many of the organizations that work the hardest at this claim to be religiously pluralistic as well. After all, they are claiming that the American Jewish community should be strengthening themselves through inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. So, what point is there in them being exclusivist. Right?

Well, in fact, often they schedule events on Shabbat that no traditionally religious Jew could attend. They in fact, trample on the basics of traditional halakha in their events, I believe, out of ignorance. But, when all the activities are inherently optional, but only the so-called “religious activities” on the program are labeled as “OPTIONAL,” you got to start thinking, what is it that they are trying to do? Are they are trying to pass on their nebulous “cultural Judaism” to their ethnically and culturally “diverse” children, with no knowledge or sense of connection to Judaism? What “culture” are the children going to carry with them then? I thought Israeli society showed us plain and simple that there is no “Jewish culture” where there is no connection or observance of some religious Jewish practice?

I am not saying that they should all be religiously observant. What I am saying though is that I think that they assume that because we are “ethnically diverse” we will be “liberal” in other ways, such as in religious observances as well. To try to claim and pass down “cultural” Judaism in a ethnically as well as culturally “diverse” Jewish context has its own very serious problems, although I won’t get into it in depth here.

To say the least, it is disappointing to see such religious disregard coming from organizations specifically aimed at bringing “diverse” Jews together, and to telling the world that we exist, in numbers much larger than some might assume.

There was one organization that is for “Jews of Colors” and did manage to bring religious pluralism in practice as well. Unfortunately, I am unsure of what has happened to it….


3 thoughts on “The Pressure to be “Liberal”

  1. I’m not sure I agree that Jewish Culture without the religious elements is necessarily wrong to pass on to one’s children. One just needs to be careful that this identity has enough content, ideas and obligations (perhaps moral if not ritual) to really give it some conscious weight.

    Just as you want religious Jews to be included in these weekends, don’t you need to allow ideologically cultural Jews their place?

    I also think that Israeli identity and cultural production may at times prove quite the opposite- that Jewish cultural mores, identity and history can lead to a fruitful Jewish expression that is not be religious.

    If you listen to “Israeli” pop music it is very “Jewish,” reflecting a lot more Jewish history, texts and moral questioning than most American Jewish music.

    Are all Israeli’s conscious of their Jewish cultural heritage? No. But much of Israeli culture (and its artists for sure) is very Jewish and needs to be recognized as such even if it takes on a different mode that religious or diaspora Jewish expression.

  2. Alieza>

    Good to see you here! Thanks for the comment.

    Re: “cultural” Judaism. I didn’t get into this too much in this post, because my thought on this needs more room to be articulated. But, for starters, I think that many Jews in America, by default call themselves “cultural Jews” if they are unfamiliar with Jewish things–whether history or religion. Much like many Jews call themselves “Reform” if they only got to Temple occasionaly. I think that there is a way to be truly “Reform” or “cultural” (while secular) with great knowledge and/or content–I carry this notion because I know people like that. They are just not the majority of people who use that label. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the label though and I do think that there is nothing wrong in passing down “cultural” or any other form of Jewishness if it in fact has content to it.

    Also, my belief is that it is extremely difficult to be Jewish without any knowledge of Jewish history or religion in a country where there is virtually no anti-Semitism (i.e., the US). I have seen so thoroughly assimilated Jews in the US, not like any other place that I have been to or have heard of. I think that where the state-sanctified religion is Judaism and the majority of people are Jewish and the public schools teach the Tanakh as a part of the compulsory education (like Israel) and places where there is so much anti-Semitism that it is hard to forget you are Jewish (like France), it is heard not to be culturally Jewish, regardless of your observance. I don’t think that that’s true anymore in the US. It used to be.

    Another point that I want to write a post on later is that it is so very difficult for someone to be Jewish and not be “Ashkenazi” looking. If you are serious about wanting your kids to either be Jewish or at least have a real chance to be one (some parents want to give their kids a choice), then you need that grounded in real knowledge and confidence. A strong assertion that you are Jewish because someone told you so, for a non-Ashkenazi kid, becomes a very difficult path. I think many of the parents–incidently mostly Ashkenazi themselves–do not realize this. Me, as a non-Ashkenazi looking Jew, it’s an obvious point. My “Jewishness” has to be based in something, somewhere very concrete. That’s the problem that I see with mostly Ashkenazi parents passing on their nebulous Jewish identity to their kids.

    As for religious pluralism, of course I am fine with that. In fact, on many levels, I think that it is a necessity. But then, you shouldn’t lable an event to be “religiously pluralistic” because it is simply not true. That was a context that I didn’t provide in the post.


    Hey! Thanks for writing in. Glad you like that. I thought about that one a lot because I didn’t want to use the cliche, “citizen of the world,” really… ;)

    My summer stuff…. Hmmm… okay. It’s a struggle for both of us; trying to find the balance with taking care of Leo and everything else…

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