Getting across Midtown Manhattan quickly during rush hour involves a kind of algorithm. That means my route to and from work each day changes depending on whether I catch that light at Eighth Avenue or Third Avenue. This past week my algorithm took me down 42nd Street on the way home. As I walked past a group of Orthodox Jews handing out leaflets, they singled me out and stopped me to ask if I was Jewish. I said “No,” but took their literature anyway. At first blush, it may seem odd to be mistaken as Jewish by some local experts (New York City has its fair share), but then again, maybe not. My brother tells me he gets asked the same question. Our great-great-grandparents left Germany in the 1820s and bore the ambiguous surname Tauberschmidt. By my great-grandparent’s generation they seemed to have been Lutheran, but before that? Hey, maybe this could explain a lot. Not to stereotype, but I do have the incessant angst that many Jewish characters exhibit in Woody Allen movies. Probably it’s my imagination. I thought it was cool to be mistaken for a “minority.” I felt, for a moment, like I belonged.
Reflecting on this incident (which made my day, by the way), I ask myself what it means to be part of a religion that has become a culture. The academic lingo for this is “cultural Jews” (in this case), but there are definitely “cultural Christians” as well. I suspect most religions have their cultural commandos. Part of the dynamic at work here is that although the world is very religious, it’s not really that religious. Most religious folks have an emotional connection to their tradition that may be, in fact, cultural rather than, for lack of a better word, spiritual. A person who is deeply religious often runs afoul of life in the everyday world. There is a sinful plethora of distractions. Those truly concerned about their religions often find themselves employed by them.
Cultural religions give the world a great deal of color. People flock to St Patrick’s Day parades when rivers are dyed green and everyone wants to be part Irish (and there is a genetic bit of this in my personal mix as well). Where would December be without Christmas and its attendant holidays? Even bunnies like colorful eggs in the springtime, so I’m told. Do any of these things make people religious Christians? I suspect few would argue that they do. I’m stretching Rousseau‘s concept of civil religion a bit tight here, but degrees of religiousness fall along a continuous spectrum rather than appearing in sharply distinguished colors. Cultural faiths are generally accidents of birth. It’s up to the individual how seriously to take it. And sometimes even the faithful misidentify one of their own.