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Israel and the Parasha – Bo: The Importance of Jewish Culture

Moshe’s initial daring message of redemption went unheeded by the Jewish population. The Torah describes the national state of kotzer uru’ach and avoda kashah; the Slaves were so back broken by heavy labor and Egyptian persecution that they couldn’t even dream of their liberation. Beyond their own inability to imagine redemption, two hundred plus years of bondage had also eroded their religious commitment, as they descended into the Egyptian paganist culture. In fact, a well-known midrash documents the Angels at the Red Sea expressing disbelief at the notion of sparing the Jews. They were astonished the Jews should pass comfortably while the Egyptians drowned; each nation worshipped pagan idols and there should no favorable discrimination toward the Jews whose religious commitments had had lapsed.

Yet, despite this religious attrition certain cultural tags remained. A well-known statement of our Chazal documents the Jews maintaining their unique dress code, Jewish names and Hebrew language. While these cultural practices are not commanded rituals they certainly serve as national identifiers. Though the Jews suffered religious collapse they maintained a unique cultural identity and this served as a baseline for their overall national recovery.

Full Judaism should suffuse the entirety of the human condition- not merely ritual and Torah experiences. Every human society exhibits unique social norms and behaviors in developing a unique “culture”. Our “cultural” identity forms one of the foundations of our “human” identity. We identify ourselves as belonging to a group of people expressing common behavior, values and past. Ideally, a rich Jewish culture reinforces Jewish identity and ultimately expands the breadth of our religious experience. The dual challenge of religion is to deepen the experience, create passion and intensity while also extending it across the entirely of human experience. Wedding religion to culture creates a “breadth” and sweep to religion which would otherwise remain cloistered within isolated cells of human ritual experience.

Throughout our tumultuous history, Jewish culture continuously evolved despite the inevitable dissonance with the surrounding cultures. Jews maintained unique dress, language and names, in the very literal sense, and this prevented the egression of Jewish identity. For Ashkenazic societies in particular, an autonomous language such as Yiddish provided an area of Jewish expression which was sheltered from the general hostile surroundings. In a broader sense, beyond dress, language and names, Jewish societies continue to develop unique Jewish culture primarily in the realm of food and arts. Undoubtedly, this cultural richness enabled Jewish survival under otherwise unfriendly conditions while also creating a religiously buoyant experience.

In the modern era several developments have dramatically recast the role of Jewish culture. Firstly the enfranchisement or opening of modern societies to Jews has offered general culture to Jews just as it has offered Jewish culture to the general society. For some, cultural exchange has actually diluted the impact of Jewish cultural experience. For others, watching our cultural expressions trickle into the broader society has reinforced our sense of Jewish peoplehood and of our potential contribution to the general state of human experience.

A second shift in the role of Jewish culture has emerged in the wake of the 18th century changes in Jewish religious identity. As large Jewish populations have abandoned conventional or traditional religious observance, the value of Jewish culture is even more significant. In the absence of the anchoring effect of all-pervasive mitzvah observance, cultural anchoring has become instrumental in preserving Jewish identity in those for whom ritual has become far less compelling. As religious-minded people, we are, and should be, saddened by this supplanting of religious consciousness by cultural identity. The erosion of halachik fidelity, diminishing of ritual commitment and sometimes even the rejection of basic tenets of Jewish faith should distress deeply religious Jews. Yet for many, Jewish culture remains a ‘moor’ and their only moor- preserving in many Jews a general interest in Jewish peoplehood and sometimes even a commitment to Jewish destiny. Though this equation sorely lacks so much of complete Jewish identity, this cultural anchoring showcases the power of culture in general, and of Jewish culture in particular.

Finally, in the modern State of Israel, the function of Jewish culture has been redistilled. We view this process of returning to Israel not just as a “redemption” but as a “return” – to past lands, past opportunities and past identities. Even within the world of Torah study the return to the “land of history” has sparked a renewed interest in the book of history- Tanach. Israeli torah-communities have spearheaded a revitalized interest in, and a refreshed methodology of, the study of tanach – after it had been largely neglected for hundreds of years. In a broader sense, the return to Israel has reminded us that, in our collective past, we lived in organic societies, not just as individuals scattered across foreign lands or even as communities dispersed across this planet. We once lived as a natural people lodged comfortably in their natural land. As with every indigenous population, our national culture was a primary element of our identity. Returning to our land we have begun to advance many agendas- national resettlement, the unprecedented growth of torah but also the reconstitution of general Jewish culture. Jewish language has been reconstructed by combining multiple linguistic layers: Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Medieval, Rabbinic Hebrew, Yiddish, and of course modern Hebrew. Some see this as an adulteration of classic Biblical Hebrew and they dismiss the validity or the historical resonance of modern Hebrew. Still others sense that, culture and language are human conventions which, necessarily evolves throughout history. By compiling collective linguistic layers, modern Hebrew serves as a microcosm of our rich and layered history. Another example of a renewed cultural expression is agricultural developments. Though Jews always farmed their lands, the unique skills of tending to land in Israel hadn’t been practiced for centuries. Returning to our land sparked a renewed interest in the unique agricultural practices of Israel. Similar revitalizations in the fields of archaeology, geography art and music- to name just a few- have all occurred since we returned. Though some religious-minded people view these developments as irrelevant to religion and Jewish identity, many see this expansion of Jewish culture as enabling religious Jews to fasten religion more deeply and more broadly to the totality of life and of social identity.

The 5th plague of ‘dever’ devastated the Egyptian cattle while also mocking the Egyptian reverence shown to their cattle. Interestingly, this was the first plague which didn’t afflict society “at large” but was localized to the Egyptians. The Torah stresses that not a single Jewish cattle was affected, suggesting some larger significance to this differentiation. Witnessing the general epidemic while realizing that their own cattle had been spared, the Jews acknowledged their skills as shepherds. After all, the Egyptian cattle were annihilated while Jewish cattle emerged completely unscathed. This success reminded them of their previous identities- hundreds of years earlier and before being dehumanized as slaves, the Jews had been expert shepherds; in fact Yossef introduced his brothers to Pharo as such, highlighting this uniquely Jewish profession. Slavery had neutered Jewish identity as the population descended into survival mode for over two hundred years. The Jewish triumph during dever restored this lost identity and provided a platform upon which the people could imagine redemption and begin the approach to Har Sinai and monotheism.

Culture plays a profound role in any societal evolution and Jewish experience is no different. Of course, the core of our personal and communal identity is our religion and its rituals. However, cultural mores can broaden and deepen Jewish experience just as it can anchor those for whom religion as weakened. In the modern State the restoration of Jewish culture has revived our past while providing the platform of proud of Jewish identity which can help catalyze redemption and ultimately spiritual awakening.