Book Review: An Iconoclast’s Next Move

Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism
By Douglas Rushkoff
Crown, 2003

Douglas Rushkoff is an admitted lapsed Jew. And he wonders whether lapsed Jews like himself – who stand outside of the organized Jewish community and are willing to question all sacred assumptions about Judaism and truth and to grapple with interpretations – are the true “keepers of the flame,” firmly in Jewish tradition.

His new book, “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism” is full of bold questions and tough criticisms. He sees a Judaism obsessed with self-preservation, with few meaningful dialogues going on. “The institutions we created to protect our best insights ended up suffocating them.”

But while he’s down on institutional life, he’s very positive about Judaism and its potential at a time of great challenges and paradigm shifts in the world. “Judaism’s emphasis on iconoclasm,abstract monotheism and social justice makes it a potentially valuable resource to a world on the brink of adopting their opposites,” he writes.

Rushkoff thinks of Judaism as a process, an idea to be shared, not a fixed set of beliefs. He offers a deconstruction of Judaism, rethinking Jewish history and taking its texts seriously. “Judaism doesn’t teach faith,” he writes, “it teaches active participation.”

“For me,” he told The Jewish Week in an interview earlier this week, “the litmus test is ‘Are we making the world a better place?'”

The 42-year-old Lower East Side resident, who is the author of eight best-selling books on media and popular culture, spoke at the JCC of Manhattan last week, along with author Naomi Wolf in a discussion moderated by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. A few days later, in a telephone conversation, he more fully articulated his vision, and also spoke of his experiences since publication.

Rushkoff’s critique is well worth listening to, even for those who will adamantly disagree. And the fact that he is not a longtime observer but a relative newcomer has some advantages. But, as he recounts, many in the community have had difficulty hearing his views and some have even suggested boycotts.

His own background is Reform. He explains that he grew up in a suburban synagogue and learned little, leaving after his bar mitzvah. He regrets that he didn’t learn Hebrew, although he did learn quite a bit in doing the research for this book, which led him to ongoing Torah study and regular attendance at the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue.

Rushkoff had been writing about new media, particularly interactive technology and its promise, for more than a decade and was especially interested in issues of literacy and building a participatory community. While attending his nephew’s brit, he had his first thoughts about how Judaism embodies these principles and that he might find a community that shared his values. He came to realize that the core values of Judaism were not only applicable to the issues he was dealing with as a media theorist, but to principles that would also “help a world struggling with the impact of globalism, the lure of fundamentalism and the clash of conflicting value systems.”

The author likes to talk about “open source Judaism,” which he likens to computer programming in which source code is made available to all users, so others can improve upon it. He writes, “We come to realize that the writings and ideas of Judaism are not set in stone, but invitations to inquire, challenge, and evolve. Together, as a community, we define Judaism as the ongoing resolution of our individual sensibilities.”

In the book, he’s reluctant to offer any practical suggestions, since his aim isn’t to alter the institutions but to look beyond them. But after he offered an “If I were in charge” comment when speaking at the JCC of Manhattan, he offered several others in conversation. ìIíd stop the counting,î he says, referring to the population studies. He says that in the Torah census taking is not allowed and adds, “It’s like counting your money. Nothing makes you feel poorer.”

He also emphasizes the bet midrash, or place of study, in the synagogue. “I would take all these ecstatic shuls,” he says, mentioning the Friday Night Live services in Los Angeles and B’nai Jeshurun in New York – and rather than have services “spill out into a dating mob, I’d have them spill out into social justice opportunities. I would work really hard to help Jews find ways to support Israel that doesn’t involve religion, that doesn’t involve saying that God gave us this land. There are other reasons to say we deserve it.”

He’d also alter the outreach process so that those who are coming into Judaism were invited to express themselves and he would make the bar mitzvah “more of an entrance, not a completion, exam.”

And he has new ideas for rabbinical training. He’d like to see rabbis spend their first 10 years after rabbinical school, when “they’ve most recently been regular people,” as pulpit rabbis; then he’d like to see them move on to become teachers in the synagogue’s bet midrash for 10 years, and then become rabbinical scholars who might teach other rabbis or advanced students.

When asked about the meaning of holiness to him, he speaks of the Havdalah service, separating the Sabbath from the rest of the week. He used to think of it as a division between the sacred and the profane, and than as between the sacred and the secular, and now he thinks of the distinction as being between the sacred and the more sacred.
“It’s all holy. Our entire reality is holy,” he says. “One of the big things of modern times is getting past duality, the need for polar arguments. We need to understand holy without having to contrast it with unholy, to understand Judaism without contrasting it with un-Judaism. I don’t look at non-Jews as the other. I look at everybody as Jews or potential Jews.”

Rushkoff is just back in New York City after three months of touring the country in connection with “Nothing Sacred.” He has spent time in bookstores, community centers and other venues challenging audiences with his bold ideas – and he found both openness and close-mindedness to his approach, and many challenges right back.

The experience has had great impact on him, creating a metaphorical fork in his Jewish journey. He’s now moving in a different direction, one that’s no longer solely Jewish. His new path is one of interfaith dialogue, as a Jew.

“The writing of this book convinced me that Judaism was the best suited religion to engage with the problems of this century.” But after the writing was done, in the book’s publication period, he “experienced a side of the Jewish world he had heard about but didn’t know.” He met many Jews who attacked him and his ideas, after not having read the book but having read reviews or heard about it third-hand. And, he found many people clinging to a static relationship to Judaism and he encountered, in part, a self-imposed ignorance and ethnocentrism, even among people engaged in Torah study; he came to see that many Jews behaved like sheep and rarely thought for themselves.

“I no longer believe that Judaism has any better bearing on the situation than any of our sister religions. It has unique qualities and distinctions, but I no longer see it as my exclusive path.”

Not that he won’t bring the “gifts of Judaism” he has come to value with him: “My Torah, as much literature as I can take with me, midrash, Talmud, I’m not taking the Zohar – I’m not going there yet – my Maimonides and Spinoza.” And, he’s taking Shabbat, as well as the havurah, or circle of people, with whom he studies the Torah portions and liturgy on a bimonthly basis. He doubts whether he’ll find many Muslims and Catholics who want to join in that particular endeavor.

He sees himself as a Jew looking out. As he writes on his Web site, www.rushkoff.com, “I no longer want to think about what I can do for Judaism, but what Judaism can do for the world.”

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