A Genuine Culture?

As I always do on my visits back to Honolulu to see my mother and other family (who still live at or near the old homestead), this last February I attended Shabbat morning services at my mother’s congregation, Sof Ma’arav. It’s a wonderful, eclectic mix of people. Among them is a very interesting and pleasant fellow, Alex Golub, an anthropologist who turns out to be a graduate of the same anthropology department and the student of the same brilliant, fear-inspiring advisor I worked under as an undergraduate at Reed College.

Sof Ma’arav is a havura, so there is no rabbi, and they take turns giving the “drash” — the short interpretation of the Torah reading. On my visit Alex gave an inspiring drash, which I especially appreciated because he quoted from one of the greats of anthropology, Edward Sapir, in a 1924 paper that I had never heard of before. It was entitled “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” In this paper Sapir argues that there are such things as “spurious” cultures: fragmented, shallow cultures in which the individual doesn’t feel a personal stake in the whole, and where people pay lip service to their ideals and beliefs, but don’t really believe the things they claim to believe.

And there are “genuine” cultures, in which the individuals feel they are not like cogs in a machine, but have a personally fulfilling, meaningful part to play, the elements of the culture fit together to form a coherent and satisfying whole, and, whatever the core beliefs may be, people actually believe them. Of the things Sapir wrote about a genuine culture Alex quoted this line:

“. . . it reaches its greatest heights in comparatively small, autonomous groups. In fact, it is doubtful if a genuine culture ever properly belongs to more than such a restricted group, a group between the members of which there can be said to be something like direct, intensive spiritual contact. This direct contact is enriched by the common cultural heritage on which the minds of all are fed . . .”

As he said this, I realized that he was describing something of a “holy grail” (to mix in some mythology from another religion) of what the Jewish world has been looking for: a key to a self-sustaining, vibrant Jewish community.

“Direct, intensive spiritual contact.” Remember, this is 1924 and Sapir isn’t using the word “spiritual” in exactly the same way we use it today. He’s not talking about closing their eyes and meditating together. In his lexicon “direct spiritual contact” sounds more like real, meaningful contact between people in ways that touch their true values and deepest sense of themselves. It is contact between people by which they touch something of their own “spirit” or true selves. This is participation in a community which facilitates people expressing their values and their individual talents in meaningful communal action. They are valued contributors and they feel themselves in alignment with their actions.

“Enriched by the common cultural heritage on which the minds are fed.” Sapir uses the metaphor of a tree planted in good, rich soil, as opposed to thin, sandy soil. A strong, healthy culture is going to draw from deep, rich resources – but equally as important, it will re-work and re-imagine those deep resources so that they become its own. For a Jewish community, the culture is alive when each person is a builder and not simply a consumer. That means people jumping in as participants. It means some kind of DIY (do it yourself) Judaism, whatever that may mean for each person and community. It doesn’t mean everyone is a rabbi, or that we don’t need learned leaders, but it means that people should strive to join, to take some active role, in the centuries-long conversation which is Torah and the drama of Jewish life.

I sometimes hear people ask “Am I not a good Jew?!” – They are proud to be Jewish and they are living good, ethical lives. They are even contributing in many ways to the Jewish community: going to services (occasionally), volunteering, giving tzedakah, sending their kids to Hebrew school.

But, the “Jewish culture” to which they are attached is very often no longer genuine in the way Sapir was talking about. It holds the power of tradition, perhaps nostalgia, and certainly some guilt. Perhaps there is a fear of losing something that one senses has enormous value, even if you don’t really experience that greatness except on rare occasions, and vaguely. But it is not alive and growing.

Today, it’s not enough to ask whether I’m a “good Jew” if the Jewish cultures we create don’t radiate that sense of vitality. We need to ask “are we creating a viable, alive, Jewish culture in our community?” Asking this question gets us to think about the things that Edward Sapir (a Jew, by the way) was thinking about: is there intensive, direct contact within the group? Are we creating contexts where people can express their real selves, where they can express their talents and interests? Are we creating contexts where we create real bonds within the community? Do people really believe what we are saying in synagogue, or is it lip service? Are people able to draw from the rich wellsprings of the tradition and make it their own?

Maybe it means more anthropologists, or doctors or artists or farmers or grandmas giving the “drash” after the Torah reading. Maybe it means planting a garden in rich, deep soil – metaphorically or literally. The challenges are great, but the choices are stark: genuine cultures are alive and self-sustaining; spurious cultures fade away.

8 replies
  1. Robert Jaffe says:

    The Sapir quotation reminds me of the Malcolm Gladwell essay in the 3/31 New Yorker about the history and fate, in 1993, of a close-knit, spiritual community, the Branch Davidians. ( They were killed ). This led to thoughts about other religion-oriented American groups like the Shakers, who lasted a while, then faded away. As did Am Olam, the group which brought my grandparents from Ukraine to a farm in New Jersey in the 1880s. Are there crucial elements in Eco-Judaism which will save it from the fate of these failed movements?

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    • nmargalit says:

      Just as in the case of a person: before anything can happen, a person needs to be alive. But being alive doesn’t always mean someone is good or lucky. Being a “genuine” culture is analogous to being a living culture. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

      Reply
  2. Susan Shevitz says:

    Thanks for this very helpful set of ideas. Strikes me that a “great divide” in Jewish life is between those for whom Jewish culture is spurious and those for whom it is robust, engaging, empowering and deep.

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    • nmargalit says:

      Could be. I hadn’t thought if it that way. I think there may be more of a range, with a lot of in-between cases as well.

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  3. Clifford Dacso says:

    I think that the interpretation of the Sapir quotation, although stimulating your excellent conclusion, is not a correct representation of his thought. Sapir believed that language, culture, and psychology were inextricably intertwined although he waxed and waned on this in his writings. The subsequent Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that our ability to conceive of something is determined by language. This is the famous (and Incorrect) statement that Inuits have (pick a number) words for snow. From the point of view of small communities, there is some thought that language is a result rather than a determinant of culture.
    To extend your synagogue example, it seems to me that we all interpret religious texts differently as we come to them with a different life experience and vocabulary. For some, the synagogue is a Proustian “petite madeleine,” evoking memories and stories from the past. For others, the words are an opportunity to stretch to new areas rather than merely accepting the old.
    In my view, the Sapir hypothesis has little explanatory power for the latter example and a great deal for the former.

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  4. Rex says:

    Thanks for that Natan. In his essay (which I can link to if you’re interested) Sapir provides two examples of people with inauthentic lives: first, the ‘telephone girl’ working a switchboard all day, who is an example of someone with a meaningless job and whose only comfort in life are cheap and meaningless commodities.The second are supposedly ‘cultured’ people: snobs who go to opera and symphonies for form’s sake only, snobs with no real appreciation of the works they listen too, and for whom culture is a rigid, codified strait jacket of ‘great works’.

    In contrast to both of these he contrasts people who live authentic lives: Native Americans he has met who are subsistence farmers and hunters, who lack the technical sophistication of industrial civilization, but who live lives that are completely meaningful because everything in them has a place that is imbued with meaning. In industrial society, Sapir says, this sort of rich meaningful life is impossible because we no longer make our own clothes, houses, and food. So instead we have the second model of authentic life: the intellectual who lives meaningfully through creating art and literature in small, vibrant community with others.

    What does this mean for us? Its hard to say — Sapir rejected his Jewish heritage and lived a secular life, despite growing up reading Torah. But when we think about contemporary Jewish concepts of Sapirian authenticity, it might be useful to keep the figures of the telephone girl, the snob, the Indian, and the intellectual in mind.

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  5. Reb Zisha says:

    I’m with you (and Sapir) 100% on this, Rav Natan. A couple of comments on “implementation”, though:

    1) How to get more Jews to take an interest in participating actively and acquiring the knowledge/skills to do so, when “that’s The Rabbi’s job”? How many congregational rabbis or their boards are willing to relinquish the Power of the Pulpit to “just anyone” who wants to lead a service, or give a d’var, except at the “Annual [fill in the blank] Service”? What if the lay person “makes a mistake”, or does something those two very vocal board members on every board will find “too [Reform/Orthodox/Hippie]”?

    2) Really buying into our culture and becoming a builder means learning how to use the tools like language and practices, and becoming part of the timing in which it occurs. This makes you “different/weird”. No, sorry my kid, you can’t have that hot dog, you can’t be part of whatever all your other classmates do on Saturday morning, we don’t have a Christmas tree at our house, because we’re different. Of course there is so much positive in being involved with our tradition. Problem is, you actually gotta know stuff and do it to sustain “the culture.”

    3) And being different is very threatening, because how can one be “different”, and yet a part of the great Universalist Humanity (capitalization intentional)? Why bother, when all is One, and Gd loves us all no matter what?

    4) Most disappointing, maybe, is that too many seem tp cling to the motivation of oppression and destruction, past and present. It is much easier to have “the enemy” define you, and rally in unity, than to declare allegiance to and accept a tradition/culture that one learns and internalizes.

    It’s Erev Shavu’ot. Yes, we need more people to accept “the Torah”, in all its manifestations, that we have been given.

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  6. jay c says:

    Thanks for this article, Rabbi Natan. Some years ago, I moved across the country to join an intentional community with *some* values in common. I knew it was not a perfect fit, but what community is a perfect fit for anyone? In the end, it turned out that the de facto community leader who, in retrospect, seems almost sociopathic and an inveterate experimenter with people. He was using the community to toy with people, sometimes helping people, but more often causing great damage. Of course, it all fell apart after 15 or so years. We each drifted away–or ran in some cases–one family or one person at a time.

    A few things I learned from this experience: 1) community *must* be organic. It has to develop over time, among people who have developed with it like a family. 2) Community must have a core of common traditions that can always be counted on. People need an anchor, a home. If someone leaves and returns 50 years later, they ought to be able to recognize it as home. Change is inevitable, but for a community to be sustainable over the long haul, changes to the core identity must be gradual, nearly imperceptible over the course of an individual’s lifetime.

    Reply

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