I wonder what my rebbe ancestors would think of me,” writes a young Unitarian Universalist minister in The Burning Bush, the newsletter of the Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness. “Would they be glad for me, proud of me, or shocked at me to hear me recite a bracha, a blessing on Friday night, and then see me in church on Sunday in my robes and stole which has on it a Jewish star and also crosses, symbols of Greek paganism and of nature, a depiction of a deity and a goddess no less?” According to a report in the Forward, a Jewish weekly, other Unitarians are asking the same question as they build sukkot (booths for use in the Feast of Tabernacles), conduct Passover seders, light Hanukkah candles, and participate in their own “High Holiday” services, including blowing the shofar and some observances of Yom Kippur.
It might be argued that this degree of syncretism is likely to appear only in a church that esteems open-mindedness and free thought as much as Unitarian Universalism and, likewise, that this porousness to Jewish observances is a function of the high proportion of Unitarians who were born Jews (estimated at 8 or 9 percent, about four times the national figure). The current moderator of the UU Association, Denise Davidoff, herself raised in Conservative Judaism, describes her church as “post-Christian” and thus an attractive option for intermarried couples searching for a “compromise between a Christian denomination and Judaism.”
There is strong reason to believe, however, that although the degree of syncretism among Unitarian Universalists is extreme, the phenomenon itself is increasingly common. Churches sponsoring Passover seders are not so unusual today (even apart from the special case of the so-called “messianic” congregations), and one need only browse in the “Religion” or “Spirituality” sections of popular bookstores to recognize how eclectic and syncretistic the religious self-definition of Americans has become.
The arguments for this new situation are familiar. Rituals, after all, are hardy perennials that migrate from one community to another with remarkable ease. Sacrificing a yearling lamb, cleaning out old foodstuffs in the spring, or eating unleavened bread—characteristic of the observance of the biblical Passover—may actually predate the story of the exodus from Egypt to which they became attached. One will not find Christmas trees in the New Testament, but something very like them among Germanic pagans, and the celebration of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday dates only to the fourth century and was doubtless influenced by the Roman feast of the nativity of Sol Invictus, the Sun Triumphant. Lighting candles about the time of the winter solstice is not unique to those celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas.
In short, religious rituals and institutions have a life of their own and often survive the demise of one culture to live on in another, attaching themselves to new communities and new stories. The claim that any community has exclusive title to its ritual performances and appurtenances, its terminology and its music, flies in the face of the religious experiences of mankind. All historians need do to rebut the claim that a given practice is foreign to the tradition is to point out the foreign origins of so many practices already in place. Confronted with these historicist arguments, traditionalism can be made to seem like nothing more than an emotional weakness, a fear of the unfamiliar, or a set of aesthetic preferences without a philosophical rationale, in short, merely a matter of personal taste.
The syncretistic position, in contrast, can be made to seem bold and uninhibited, a welcoming of the new and the excluded into a larger and more inclusive community in which everyone can find affirmation and no one need renounce his past. This last point is especially attractive to Jews who have become involved in mixed marriages, since doing so has traditionally been seen as a sin and an act of betrayal and is increasingly characterized by Jewish survivalists as the suicide of their people. The feelings of guilt and shame involved in a Jew’s intermarriage can be mitigated or even eliminated by offering a chance to increase one’s “Jewish awareness” (as in Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness) and even to adopt Jewish observances together with the gentile spouse in a more inclusive worshiping community. Given the differing backgrounds of spouses, by far the easiest resolution is the additive one—to include elements of both traditions, giving little or no thought to how they fit together to form any sort of integrated structure. (Even raising the question may be dismissed as imperialistic or patriarchal.)
The social motivations of syncretism should not be underestimated. The exponential increase in the rates of all kinds of intermarriage in America and the general decline in ethnicity have added a powerful impetus to this additive resolution to religious conflict. Indeed, those who suggest that the elements of various religious traditions cannot fit together with integrity are sometimes characterized as the theological equivalent of supporters of the antimiscegenation laws of yore. Just as there are no pure races, we are told, so are there no pure religions.
Powerful intellectual currents, many of them of secular provenance, also contribute to the diffusion and vitality of religious syncretism. Postmodernists tend to doubt the existence both of a self perduring through time and of an external reality that constrains definition and interpretation. With these ideo logical weapons in their armamentarium, postmodernists are well-positioned to deconstruct all claims of irrevocable identity and exclusive allegiance. Ms. Davidoff, the Unitarian moderator of Jewish origin, understands why some rabbis are upset at her church’s use of Jewish ritual, according to the Forward, but she insists nonetheless that such exclusivity is “not how the postmodern world works. The world is becoming a mixed bag—a ‘salad bowl.’ More people hyphenate their beliefs.”
Putting the matter this way disguises a critical fact: the belief in the legitimacy of hyphenation is not itself hyphenated, but pure, not some pragmatic compromise (like the Unitarian attempt at a compromise between Judaism and Christianity), but a substantive position in its own right. And the foundation of that position is the claim that, in matters of religious belief and practice, personal preference is supreme, not only empirically but also normatively. Ms. Davidoff’s rabbinical critics do not doubt the existence of hyphenation any more than she does. What they doubt is its legitimacy.
The basis for that doubt within the world of Jewish law is not hard to find. Halakhah forbids Jews to engage in mixed worship, just as it forbids them to enter into mixed marriages (i.e., marriages with people of gentile origin who have not converted). We can answer with great certainty the young Unitarian minister’s query with which we began. Her “rebbe ancestors” would be repelled and gravely disappointed to see her in church on Sunday wearing crosses and symbols of Greek paganism and goddesses.
But there is a deeper and more theological objection to syncretism that can be developed out of classical rabbinic sources. Consider this statement in the Talmud: “Greater is he who performs a given act because he is commanded than he who performs the same act without being commanded.” One might have thought the opposite, that it is better to act in response to inner rather than outer forces, that to be moral, a deed must be, as Kant claimed, freely chosen and not heteronomous. To be sure, in classic rabbinic theology, intention, motivation, and feeling are also important, but the statement quoted above subordinates all of these to obedience, specifically obedience to God’s mitzvot (commandments) as these are codified in halakhah.
At the deepest level, an act performed in order to subordinate one’s own will to the will of God is vastly different from the identical act performed in pursuit of other goals—self-expression, aesthetic pleasure, familial nostalgia, ethnic identification, whatever. The motivation, of course, is not transparent, and if we go only by appearances, syncretistic worship that includes Jewish elements looks like a hyphenation of traditional Judaism with other things. In fact, it is only the semblances of the Jewish observance that have been imported. Their deeper authorization—the unique claims of the Covenant of Sinai upon the people Israel—have been tacitly but thoroughly denied.
One should not disparage, nor does rabbinic theology disparage, the worth of a good deed performed with less than the ideal intention. As the behaviorists have taught us, actions can change attitudes. The matter is different, however, when actions are seen as self-contained and questions of attitude, theology, and normativity are marginalized or negated altogether. Not every Jew can immediately put into practice the deeper import of the injunction in the Mishnah that one “should first take upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and [only] afterward take upon himself the yoke of the commandments.” But when the action specified by the commandment is performed indefinitely without reference to the Kingdom of Heaven, the term “commandment” itself becomes misleading, and we are left with a mere semblance of a Jewish observance without sustenance from the deepest sources of Judaism.
The result is something like what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “religious behaviorism,” only much more extreme. Whereas religious behaviorism “stresses the external compliance with the law and disregards the importance of inner devotion,” syncretistic appropriation of Jewish rituals extracts the actions from the law altogether, rendering them subordinate to individual choice and leaving the question of inner devotion altogether subject to personal whim. It mistakes the appearance of a religious act for the act itself.
This problem with the religious “salad bowl” is not without its counterparts in religions other than Judaism. The analogy may not be precise, but I recently heard a minister from a liberal Protestant denomination tell how moved he was when, after years of visiting a Roman Catholic monastery, the abbot unexpectedly invited him to join the monks in taking communion. One must wonder whether the minister did not misinterpret his experience. Without having accepted the Roman Catholic theology of the Eucharist—without having subordinated himself to the community authorizing the action—was he a communicant in a Roman Catholic Mass or was he only impersonating someone taking communion in a Roman Catholic Mass? The difference is not merely one of communal identification, although it has enormous implications for communal identity. It is a question of the larger structure of norms, including norms of faith and authority, that give a ritual its meaning in any tradition.
The most important question is not where various practices come from. No set of ritual performances is pure and primordial. The key point is where the practices end up: in what structure of authority have they become embedded, and in the service of what affirmation do they now stand? And will that authority still be obeyed and will that affirmation still be made when the price of doing so is inconvenience, monetary loss, personal anguish, persecution, or martyrdom? Hyphenated obedience is no obedience at all.
Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School and the author, most recently, of The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (Yale University Press) and Esther: A Commentary (Westminster/John Knox).
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?