When sound engineers remix music, they break it down into its component parts and then recombine the pieces into something that may still be the original song, but with subtle differences. Maybe they'll add a heavier bass line for dancing or make that screaming guitar solo pop. Roberta Kwall is taking that idea and applying it to Judaism in her new book, Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World (Rowman & Littlefield, Feb. 14).
Add an emphasis on lighting the candles on Friday nights, or decide to keep kosher, or follow any other Jewish ritual—just one of them, Kwall says, and you’ll have "remix Judaism." It's still Judaism, it's still the same old song, but with personalized features. And, more importantly, it is tied to Jewish ritual, which Kwall says can help the faith live on into the future.
"There's a lot of interest in creativity in the Jewish community, but how much of it is being connected to ritual,” Kwall asks while speaking to PW. “There's so much activity, but very little, in liberal circles, is being focused on the ritual and how to make the ritual meaningful."
In other words, any "remix" of Judaism has to be recognizable even when there are added emphases or flourishes. Kwall, a law professor at the DePaul University College of Law, studied the doctrine of moral rights, under which an author has the right to preserve the integrity of their work and not have it compromised against their will. So, the question she kept asking was how much you can change the pages of a book, a piece of music, and still consider it the work of the author.
"I woke up one day and said, 'Oh my gosh, you can ask the same question about Jewish tradition,'" Kwall says. "How much can it change and still be Jewish tradition?"
For example, Kwall’s daughter once told her: "I just think Judaism is about being a good person.” This is part of what many liberal secular Jews call Tikkun Olam, or "repairing the world." Some Jewish traditions say that every good deed done brings the world back into its pristine state.
“Well, I said, ‘Sure. Tikkun Olam is a part of Jewish tradition, of course. But [you can’t] just take that and divorce it from ritual,” Kwall says. “That's really what my book is trying to show—you need the ritual.”
Ritual is associated with ultra-Orthodox Jews because they don’t attempt to give it any modern meaning , but Kwall believes secular or liberal Jews need to tie even just one tradition to some kind of ritual in order to pass authentic Jewish tradition on to the next generation. She emphasizes that the rituals do not need to be performed in the way that theologically observant Jews are practicing it or at the same level, but sticking to the ritual is important because without it, there is no basis from which Judaism can continue.
“’My book is trying to show how you can tap into personal meaning in order to get yourself to perform the ritual, and the importance of consistency,” she adds.
For instance, Kwall suggests lighting Shabbat candles every Friday night because the candle holders might have belonged to a deceased relative; or deciding to refrain from eating pork out of concern for the conditions under which farm pigs live. Both of these actions conform to Jewish custom or law, even if they did not come by these rituals or actions for Jewish reasons.
Kwall said she felt her book was necessary because as she speaks at synagogues and listens to concerns over whether their kids will continue Jewish traditions, she hears very little about how and why Jewish traditions among young people are losing their luster in the first place. Instead, the dialogue in Jewish communities has become polarized politically between right and left. Conservative or liberal politics, though, do not transmit to younger people in ways that sustain Jewishness. To Kwall, that is "unacceptable."
"To me, there's just so much beauty in Jewish tradition, that it can't be the property of just any one sector of the Jewish community,” she says. “And it shouldn't be. But I think a lot of people don't really have enough guidance for how to make it their own."
Kwall hopes her book can trigger conversations in Jewish communities over how to energize young people to carry out Jewish rituals. No matter how the rituals are remixed, it will still be recognizable as Judaism.
"Think about how much stronger American Jews would be if every Jewish family were at least coming together on Friday night,” she says. “If every American Jewish family were just sitting down together even for one hour on Friday night with no technology, lighting a candle, saying a quick bracha [blessing] over the wine and talking to one another even for an hour. Think how much thicker our cultural religious tradition would be here.”