Jews who reject halakha often feel somehow deficient. They choose the non-halakhic life (whether by study or by inaccessibility), but balk at the label, “Bad Jew.” The attitude of the traditionally observant to the non-observant is that if they were truly educated, truly aware of the depth and richness of following halakha, then they would be “Good Jews.” That the choice to opt out of halakha, the intellectual, philosophical, and often emotional choice to live life not by the rabbinic law code, marks them as “other” and even “less then;” in the realm of those to be pitied, along with the goyim. The question is: does being a non-halakhic Jew make a person a Bad Jew? Is a Good Jew primarily defined as a person who follows halakha (which begs the question: which halakha)? In which case, why bother? If I truly believe that I am not bound by halakha, that God did not give those laws, but rather they are man-made, and if I reached this point through extensive study and consideration (I know, I know, I’m young, how much study can I have done so far?), then am I a Bad Jew? Unquestionably Judaism is a struggle. I don’t know a single Jew, even a traditionally observant Jew raised in a traditionally observant household, who doesn’t struggle with his or her religion. I think that struggle is the result of having an inclusive literature and an action based doctrine. It should not matter what you believe, so long as you do (we can discuss the nuances of that claim another time). So what happens when what you believe restricts what you do? When observing halakha without the attendant belief is no longer an option?
Neil Gillman teaches that once our myths are broken, we practice anyway. We choose Judaism, Jewish myth, Jewish ritual. For a myriad of reasons, we place our feet firmly in the stream of Jewish tradition, even if we know that stream to be a human construction. If we fail at this task, then what remains? What is Judaism, if not a system of laws that govern behavior, a call to ritual and prayer?
The Center for Cultural Judaism frames Judaism as “the history, culture, civilization, ethical values and shared experiences of the Jewish people. [Cultural Jews connect] to their heritage [through] languages, literature, art, dance, music, food and celebrations of the Jewish people. It is not religious beliefs that connect them to each other, but the entire civilization of their extended Jewish family.” Okay, that’s one perspective. Culture is certainly compelling at a Weberian level, but is it enough to cohere a people together? Does it provide enough positive content to answer the question, “What is a Jew?”. Nextbook and JVoices have also been attempting to address the question of positive Jewish content beyond halakha through a series of interviews with non-traditional Jews. Both series are worth perusing (although the Nextbook pieces go into greater depth and are in a more formal interview style), particularly because they offer unusual perspectives from:
A writer, who’s encountered her share of tragedy;
A band manager and bar owner, who inherited a questioning cultural identity from his atheist parents;
The product of a Muslim-Jewish union, who’s raising his son Jewish;
A woman who connects to Judaism through activism;
A gay Jew, who reflects on growing up in a mixed religion household;
A woman who continuously reaffirms her choice to be Jewish;
And an aspiring writer of Yiddish punk songs.
And, lastly (for now), Eric M. Selinger describes the struggle of the non-Halakhic Jew:
Let's strip it down to something practical. I know many, many non-Halakhic Jews, both religiously affiliated and utterly on-their-own, and almost of them feel any real nostalgia for "halakhic certainty." None would trade their misbelief, disbelief, or make-believe-belief for any sort of blessed assurance. Does this mean that they do not feel nostalgia? Not necessarily--but what they miss, or feel they miss, might be better understood in purely social and psychological terms than in religious ones. And even here, they're savvy enough to know that the price of what they feel nostalgia for--some version of "community," I suppose--is far higher (in freedom, in modernity, etc.) than they'd ever be willing to pay. And some don't feel that they're missing anything, really, at all. That may not be a Nietzschean confidence, but it's not loss & rupture, either.He's close, but I can't say I don't feel like I'm missing something. Sometimes, in choosing one road, you have to pay the price of loss, even if it is of something you cannot quite quantify or in which you cannot quite believe.