Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Chelwa Bat Farcha

What Is Jewish Culture?

“The light shall triumph,” proclaims the Chanukah candle. It conveys the story of the small Jewish nation that stood up to the colossal Greek culture and emerged victorious. Does it also have the power to reveal to me what Jewish culture is?


Various Rabbis

Kislev 5768
Chanukah. Darkness spreads its wings ever so slowly over creation. Heavy clouds fill the skies. I step out of my house and light the Chanukah candle. The flame flickers a bit, as if uncertain, and then rises up, erect, as if proclaiming to the entire world: "The light shall triumph." It conveys the story of the small Jewish nation that stood up to the colossal Greek culture and emerged victorious. I gaze at the candle and wonder: Does it also have the power to reveal to me what Jewish culture is?

What Judaism Has to Say
Rabbi Aryeh Hendler

Before we address the question of what Jewish culture is, let us ask ourselves what culture is at all. The dictionary defines culture as "the sum total of achievements by man or society . . . in general knowledge, science, art, social organization, religion, and ethics." We may define Jewish culture, then, as what Judaism has to say in each of these fields, and possibly others not mentioned here. This can be found in the Torah and the corpus of Torah literature that has developed over the generations. In order to examine these matters, let us break down our definition of "culture" and look at it in a Jewish context.

Judaism has something to say not only regarding the spiritual achievements of individual man but also regarding the spiritual achievements of society. Judaism addresses the rights and responsibilities of both the individual and the community, for it was one of the first cultures to articulate the mutual responsibility implied by the term "community."

Judaism has something to say regarding human knowledge and science, for, as the Rambam explains, knowledge and scientific achievement have always been the fruits of the spirit of the Jewish people, and he brings the verse, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (Deuteronomy 4:6) to underpin this claim. The value of study in the Jewish experience throughout history - the study of the Hebrew alphabet in the Jewish "cheder" (religious elementary school) - is what paved the road for science's most creative minds.

Judaism has something to say about art. One who reads Rabbi A.I. Kook's introduction to Song of Songs discovers the importance of art within Judaism's world-view. Rabbi Kook speaks of art that unveils what ought to be unveiled and veils what ought to be veiled. In the days when the world was still engulfed in the darkness of idolatrous rites, it was Judaism that announced prohibition against making images, an expression of plastic art, and in so doing made humanity aware of the struggle between abstract and concrete forms of human creativity.

Judaism, of course, also has something to say about religion and morality. Judaism was the first faith to proclaim the belief in the One God, a faith that also contains philosophical depth, for it sees creation as a unified whole. When mankind was still relying upon the good will of the moral code of Hammurabi, Judaism formulated its own supreme code of morality. It was Judaism that formulated ethical laws as part of a religious world-view, and in so doing created a complete religious system.

After all this, is there still room to ask what Jewish culture is?

Education, Growth, and Development
Rabbi David Samson

The question of how to define Israeli culture has concerned the Zionist movement since its earliest days. Already in 5673 (1913), Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook answered this question when he wrote, "The Israeli culture is the Torah of the living God, and this is the true culture (Lintivot Yisrael, "HaTarbut Ha Yisraelit"). He defines culture as "education, growth, and development." This contradicts the position that sees culture as folklore or a form of recreation. Here we have a profound definition of culture as the force that fosters the nation's growth and gives expression to its talents.

According to this, in order to understand what Israeli culture is, we must first be aware of Israel's national genius. Israel's foremost task is to unveil the divine oneness amidst all the seemingly opposing forces in creation. The Jewish people have the unique ability to discern that God is one and His Name is one. This explains our religious obligation to declare twice daily, "Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is one," and to meditate upon this idea (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Ahava 1:1-2).

How is all this related to what we call "culture" today? Rabbi A.I. Kook explains that once a faith-based culture has been established, it is possible to develop cultural institutions such as literature, drama, and media arts that will express and convey the aesthetic images of our unique culture (Ein Ayah, Berachot chpt. 6, sec. 45).

However, it is forbidden to make the mistake of thinking that the Yiddish Theater can satisfy the needs of Israeli culture, for "intrinsic Israeli creativity, both in thought and as a living and active force, can only be achieved by the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel" (Orot, Eretz Yisrael 3). Of course, in order to produce a culture of oneness, we must be "one nation in the Land." Only here are we capable of reaching the height of our unique talent - prophecy and divine inspiration - for "the air of the Land of Israel makes a person wise."

May it be God's will that we soon merit imparting our unique culture upon the entire world, "And saviors shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the Mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s, and the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be one, and his name one."

A Culture of Clinging to God
Rabbi Chevron Shilo
The Jewish worldview is founded upon the belief that two processes are perpetually at work in the world. One moves downward, from God's heavenly throne to the smallest of microorganisms on earth; the other moves upward, from the smallest of microorganisms to God's heavenly throne. As Jews, our task in the world is to facilitate each of these processes as much as possible (see "Derekh HaShem" by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto). Any action we take to strengthen these two processes is a Jewish action. Any action taken for other reasons, or for no reason at all, may be considered human action, but it does not fall into the category of Jewish action.

This brings us to culture. Any cultural action aimed at facilitating the divine flow to our world, or at sanctifying and elevating our world, is Jewish culture. And whatever does not do this is not! There is human culture that Jews have created. We can call this the culture of Jews, but it is not Jewish culture. Painting, sculpture, poetry, etc., by Jews for the purposes we mentioned above is Jewish culture. The same actions, if carried out for purposes of livelihood or to make the world a more pleasant place, are aspects of human culture, and they are even desirable (so long as they are not immoral), but they cannot be considered Jewish culture.

On a practical level, Judaism possesses another important innovation as far as culture is concerned. Theater, music, poetry, painting, and sculpture are cultural acts common to all nations. Even the writings of the prophets, which elevate the world, are not unique to Jewish culture. Judaism's great innovation is the culture of study. Each member of the Jewish people, from the youngest child to the king himself, is commanded to study Torah.

Whether Torah, the Prophets, the Talmud, or Rambam, fifteen minutes a day or fifteen hours a day, the important thing is to stop the flow of life for a period of time each day in order to devote time to culture - to the study of Torah. Some listen to recorded lessons, some listen to a short lesson between the afternoon and evening prayers, some learn on the internet, but all participate in the largest cultural act in history, the creation of a learning nation, or, as the rest of the world calls us, "the People of the Book."
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