Much investment has been made in Jewish culture as part of the effort of Jewish continuity. Without religious commitment, Jewish culture substitute for an identity connecting with the past. But can this heritage be passed on to the next generation, in large numbers, as a sustaining source of Jewish identity?
R. Jonathan Sacks (Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, pp. 64-65) does not think so because it is missing the key ingredient of identity — duty:
Much investment has been made in Jewish culture as part of the effort of Jewish continuity… I value Jewish culture, but not because it will guarantee that Jews will have Jewish grandchildren. It will not. At stake here is what philosophers call a category mistake. Culture is the expression of a group’s creativity, but it does not bind future generations, because it does not bind at all. As long as we are watching a play, or reading a book, or listening to music, we enter the imaginative world of the artist and are moved, inspired, transported. But once the play is over, the book is finished, the music has reached its closing chord, the work makes no further demands of us. Culture inspires, but it does not command. In [Prof. Ruth] Wisse’s words, it involves ‘no pledge of allegiance’.
I love Greek philosophy, the French impressionists, Italian design and the serene beauty of a Japanese garden, but that does not make me Greek, French, Italian or Japanese. You do not have to be Jewish to enjoy Jewish humour, klezmer music or chicken soup with noodles. Culture involves no act of commitment. That is why people have always been able to immerse themselves in the cultures of many lands, languages and creeds. Culture excludes nothing. One school of painting does not compete with another. Novels do not negate the short story, or symphonies the pop song. The existence of French does not refute the existence of Italian.
Identity is different. It involves duty, commitment, loyalty, fidelity. It comes wrapped up with a sense of obligation. Identity is the point at which ‘I am’ shades into ‘I must’ — because these are my people and this is my heritage. Identity involves responsibility. There were Jews, among them the writer Ahad Haam and the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, who believed that religion could be translated into the language of culture, but it cannot. Something is lost in translation. To paraphrase Ruth Wisse: no continuity without command.