Book Review: Remix Judaism

By Shragy Lowenstein

Originally published in the October 2020 issue of Apikorsus! magazine

Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World

By Roberta Rosenthal Kwall

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (February 14, 2020)

Remix Judaism lives up to its title. It is a book-length exploration of how one can “remix” elements of Judaism – keep the parts you like, modify others to work for you, and discard those that don’t appeal to you – in order to create a personally meaningful version of Judaism. The author advocates this “remix” for anyone who values their Jewish identity and wants a connection to Jewish tradition that isn’t constrained by the narrow confines of Orthodox halacha.

While I think Remix Judaism will be useful to OTDers who want to retain a connection to Jewish culture on their own terms, the book’s intended audience is clearly secular Jews. It often explains things that anyone who grew up religious – let alone Orthodox – would already know in detail. In places it encourages the reader to embrace this or that religious practice, which OTDers might find a bit kiruvy, but which is understandable in a book whose aim is to show largely unaffiliated Jews how Jewish practices might have value for them. The points the author, Roberta Kwall, makes about finding meaning in Jewish tradition on our own terms might find particular resonance with those for whom these practices are already familiar.

In one anecdote, Kwall quotes a friend who said that he “celebrates, rather than observes” Jewish traditions: he chooses those parts of the tradition that are meaningful to him, on his own terms, rather than “observing” something imposed upon him and obsessing over checking all of the halachic boxes. He adapts and changes Jewish tradition to make it personally meaningful and relevant. People often feel the need for some sort of framework for their lives. Remix Judaism suggests that, for Jews who value their Jewish identity, that framework should be Jewish tradition. Stripped of the obsessive, mandatory nature it has in Orthodoxy, Jewish tradition can be personalized to the individual. Instead of starting from scratch, one can use those aspects of the tradition that they find personally appealing as a foundation on which to build a meaningful framework; one that connects them to our people’s past. As Kwall writes, “Jewish identity is a kind of amalgamation of Jewish components—with each of us drawing from a different mix of history, ritual, texts, language, culture, food, nostalgia and more, to form our own version of being Jewish.”

For those of us who grew up in the frum world, Remix Judaism brings to our attention that we are not limited by frum ideas of what is “Jewish.” It shows us that, contrary to the frum disparagement of other forms of Judaism, it’s not only frum Jews who value their heritage.

We are free to choose elements from any form of Judaism. At one point, Kwall describes the Bar Mitzvah of a friend’s son. The Bar Mitzvah included a Reform tradition in which, she says, “A Torah is physically handed from the grandparents to the parents to the child.” I think the symbolism in that is profound. No doubt there are many frum people who would make fun of it, mocking those who pass on the Torah they don’t believe in. But it’s not about the Torah as a divine, prescriptive set of rules. It’s symbolic of passing along our Jewish heritage — a heritage from which one can draw that which they find meaningful and in which one is not compelled to observe that which they find disagreeable. If one wants, one can have meaningful connections to Jewish tradition without needing to be frum.

The frum world often expresses contempt for anyone who does what Remix Judaism suggests. The attitude is, “If you’re not doing it right – i.e., the frum way – why do it at all?” Those who change ritual are laughed at as fools who think they’re doing something worthwhile when really they’re just ignorant. When we leave that behind, though – when we recognize that Orthodoxy is not the arbiter of how we should, or if we should, use the various parts of our heritage – then we can do as Kwall suggests, and take those things from Judaism that are meaningful to us, whatever those are and however we want to use them – or not, as we choose.

Jewish identity is a kind of amalgamation of Jewish components—with each of us drawing from a different mix of history, ritual, texts, language, culture, food, nostalgia and more, to form our own version of being Jewish.

I can hear frum people say, “See, it’s all selfish, it’s all about their ‘personal meaning,’ all about themselves! While for us, it’s about Hashem.” This is nonsense. Frum people are also doing it for themselves: because they feel obligated, because of an expectation of reward or punishment, because of community expectations, because it feels right, and/or because of the meaning it brings them. This book focuses on that last reason, and is, I think, meant for people who reject some or all of the other reasons.

As I read Remix Judaism, I found myself agreeing with the overall premise of the book – take those things from Judaism that you find meaningful and do them, and do them in ways that work for you – but questioning some of the specifics. But perhaps that gets to the core of the book’s message: different things are meaningful to different people. I think that the message will resonate with many OTD people. Many of us find ourselves trying to find the right balance between discarding those elements of Judaism that caused us to leave frumkeit and retaining those elements of our heritage that we find valuable.

I do have one caveat: The author has something of a religious bent, and at times she paints an excessively rosy picture of Jewish tradition. She occasionally cherry-picks to paint Judaism as progressive for its time or as aligning with modern values. For instance, when discussing biblical views on slavery she conflates eved ivri and eved canaani. If one can overlook this, though, I think Remix Judaism can be a good resource for those who are looking for what it is advocating: a way to derive meaning from Judaism on their own terms. 

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