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Published on May 30th, 2014 | by Natan Margalit


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.

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