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July 2, 2003:
A call for a return to Judaism's dialectic roots
There's "Nothing Sacred" about the state of Judaism for Douglas Rushkoff '83

By Jeffrey Klineman

It might seem odd, at first, for an author who has concentrated on the culture of new media and the digital world to all of a sudden write about why his grandmother doesn't want to go to synagogue. But that's just what Douglas Rushkoff '83 uses as the starting point for his controversial, new book, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism (Crown). A journalist, cultural critic, and professor of communications at New York University, Rushkoff critiques modern Judaic practice as stolid and paranoid, out of touch with its historical roots, and interested only in preserving a dwindling population through the fight against American Jewry's two traditional bugbears, assimilation and intermarriage.

Rushkoff identifies the religion's strengths as its iconoclasm, sense of social justice, and its longstanding freedom of inquiry. But those strengths are most often found in those who have abandoned the synagogue, Rushkoff argues, saying that more observant Jews are practicing rituals that have lost much of their meaning. An English major at Princeton, Rushkoff has written eight other books, including a serialized, on-line novel whose final form was determined in part by footnotes submitted by online readers. Rushkoff argues for a similar approach to Judaism, calling for a return to its dialectic, "Open Source" roots. Rushkoff discussed his new book with PAW contributor Jeffrey Klineman.

Why did you write Nothing Sacred?

Big question. Most simply, I've been applying Jewish values to many different fields. It occurred to me that Judaism, itself, may be in dire need of just such an inquiry. I'm doing Judaism to Judaism. I wanted so-called "lapsed" Jews to understand that they may actually be practicing a valid form of their religion. For many of us, it is our Jewishness — our deeply felt iconoclasm — that keeps us from worshipping in what passes for a synagogue in America today. I wanted to demonstrate, historically and theologically, that Judaism might best be understood less as a religion than as the process through which our civilization "gets over" religion.

What was your Jewish upbringing like, and how did it affect the decision to write the book?

My Jewish education was terrible. It was about protecting Israel and stemming the tide of intermarriage. It was about helping to build the walls that protect this thing called Judaism. But no one explained anything about Judaism, about Torah, or even about social justice. I realized there were thousands of people like me walking around who feared we were somehow shaming the victims of the Holocaust by not going to synagogue, but couldn't see Judaism as a valid spiritual path.

What is the problem with the way modern Judaism is practiced?

Jewish institutions have become obsessed with numbers. Counting Jews, as if they were an endangered species, rather than teaching or practicing Judaism — which is a path of inquiry. Synagogues used to be called "shuls," or schools. "Rabbi" means teacher. The Jewish "house of study" was a place to debate and argue. Judaism was a religion to be negotiated, not "believed." Now, Judaism is practiced just like any other religion with fundamental, static beliefs. It was actually invented to serve as an alternative to the pre-existing religions.

In your book you talk about "Open Source" Judaism. Could you define that and explain how it would work?

Well, Judaism used to work this way. That's what made it so modern. But I'm talking about the religion of the 1st and 2nd century Greece, which was so much more enlightened and modern than our current form of Judaism. Non-Jews used to line up around the block to get into the Beit Midrash, house of study, because religion was debated into existence in real life.

Open Source software, like Linux, is software that is developed by a community of users. Its codes are kept open and accessible, so that anyone can make changes to improve it. Then we all can benefit from these improvements. It stands in stark contrast to the software of, say, Microsoft, which is delivered and must be used as it is.

Judaism was intended as an open-source religion, to which all practitioners could have access. The texts themselves are amended and improved. Even the opinions of people who are 'rejected' are kept in the record. Judaism is a religion negotiated, not a religion "believed." It is a process. This could occur around a table, as it did in the old days — where anyone who had a bar mitzvah and proved they could read the text was allowed to participate in the discussion. We remake the religion, constantly. Religion is a process of evolution. This was the essential Jewish difference. They left behind the dead, sacred religion of Egypt, and built a religion dedicated to life — not just staying alive, but keeping the religion alive rather than stuck in one moment.

Aren't Talmud and Torah study already a kind of open-source practice in that it is based on inquiry and interpretation? How do your ideas advance that tradition?

At this point, almost no Torah study occurs in the Western world. Many Jews are instructed that the events in the Torah actually happened. In an effort to protect Israel, many Jews now use the Torah as a real estate document, proving that God gave one group of people the land of Israel.

Torah inquiry is dead, because to work with the Torah as allegory would be to question the historical validity of a document we are using to prove a land claim. I would settle for getting our Torah intelligence back to where it was a few hundred or thousand years ago. What I'm calling for is radical in modern America, because rabbis who say similar things are either fired from their pulpits, or they make the New York Times.

How are "lapsed Jews" the faith's truest practitioners?

Because they refuse to worship in a blind fashion. They refuse to support institutions that promote false, racist ideas. Because they demand that their spirituality be an inquiry, or that it be most concerned with making the world a better place. Because of all this, they don't want to affiliate with institutions that are hostile to these values. They prefer to remain unaffiliated, or even to go to Buddhism or other faiths where Jewish values are practiced more.

What do you mean when you write, "religions are terrific if no one really believes in them?"

I think that most religions use myths as their foundations. The members of these faiths understood these stories as myths thousands of years ago, but now people think these stories really happened. When they think the stories actually happened, they begin to think of their religions as "THE TRUTH" rather than just a way of getting to the truth.

Then, everyone else's truth must be false, because ours is correct. This is a terrible problem in a world where people must get along with one another. So I think it's important that people realize they can't truly understand what "God" is. Everyone has models for what God might be, but no model is truly correct. This is really a form of humility, but it's very important. If God is so very big and great, it's just possible that a single human brain can't conceive of the whole thing. That's why it's important that even the most religious people in the world understand that they may not have figured out the essence of the universe.

You seem to be concerned about Jewish organizations' obsession with numbers — donations, intermarriage, population. How are these organizations missing the boat?

They are more concerned with protecting what they think of as the word or race of "Judaism" than they are with any of the ideas or insights at its core. They are protecting big buildings that have Jewish starts on them — but Judaism isn't even being taught or practiced in a real way inside of them. They are building bigger walls around a religion in the name of protecting it — yet all they're doing is keeping people out. No one wants to join a religion that is obsessed with itself. People get involved in spiritual pursuits in order to break the illusion of the self. How does writing about Judaism fit with your earlier work, which seems to focus more on media studies and the digital world?

I see Judaism as a medium through which people can interact. I don't see it as an end in itself, but a process through which people can communicate more effectively and even divinely. Likewise, I have always fought the Internet business notion that "content is king." It was never about content, it was about contact. People could relate to one another through the Internet in more profound ways. Then, it became about buying stuff through an electronic strip mall called the World Wide Web. In some ways, I saw the same opacity developing in Judaism. People forgot about the Jewish process — and started seeing it as a thing.

You seem to give religious practice a pretty rough ride. Does Judaism have anything going for it right now?

Absolutely. As I spend at least half the book saying, Judaism has tremendous things to offer a world bent on fundamentalism and self-destruction. Judaism is modernism. Judaism is the very contention that human beings can make the world a better place, rather than depending on the whims of God, or simply waiting for the apocalypse. When we have a government in America actually looking forward to Armageddon, it's important to have a few people who might be able to offer alternative processes to simply waiting for the end. Judaism — if it were practiced — could offer the world some alternative strategies to blind faith. It would be a terrible shame if Judaism were surrendered to those who mean to turn it into a static and dead religion.

Are you concerned with being branded a heretic? There's a lot of discussion in Nothing Sacred on the attacks on Maimonides and Spinoza. Do you believe you could draw fire from the Jewish community for the work you've done?

I've already drawn some fire from the types of Jews who think we need to defend the West Bank. But the overwhelming percentage of the emails I've received in response to the book have been saying things like "If that's Judaism, count me in!" or "Where can I go to practice the kind of Judaism you're talking about?" I'm getting email from intermarried couples, even Christians and Moslems, applauding this interpretation of Judaism, and begging for interfaith dialogue.

The original rabbis were branded heretics, because they suggested that there might be a way to practice Judaism without killing animals at a holy temple. The original Israelites were branded heretics for daring not to sacrifice their first-born sons to the God Molloch. Isn't it fascinating that we've reached such a sorry state that to merely suggest that Judaism be a conversation, or that the Torah is allegory, might brand one a heretic?

One reviewer, from the Washington Post, said that the reforms you propose in your book have already been in practice for years. Can you respond to that?

We can't just revise Judaism once, and then say, "We're through! It's finished and perfect!" Each generation must engage with Judaism anew. The Reform Movement made some significant and terrific changes to Judaism. Over time, we've come to see how some of them — putting rabbis in robes and copying Church ritual — have added a stilted religiosity to synagogue worship. So, some reform temples are revising again. This is all terrific.

The problem is, orthodox extremists like the reviewer you site believe that continued inquiry threatens continuity. What they don't understand is that Jewish continuity is this spirit and practice of inquiry.

Alas, Judaism isn't yet perfect. Many Jews are still afraid to consider the pressing questions of our day, in the light of day: Israel, chosenness, and race. And our biggest philanthropies spend their money to fight intermarriage, assimilation, and to promote Zionism among American teenagers. This isn't Judaism at its best. Indeed, if Judaism has really adopted my suggestions then rabbis would be able to speak freely about Judaism — about how the Torah is not a chronicle of Jewish history meant to prove our land claim to Israel, but a set of myths. The academy and seminaries have taught this for years — but rabbis have feared to tell their congregations.

The proof that this has not yet been resolved? David Wolpe, a prominent rabbi from a giant Los Angeles synagogue, Sinai Temple, made the front page of the Culture section of the New York Times for suggesting to his congregation that the Biblical character Moses might not have been portrayed in a historically accurate fashion. The orthodox Jewish press called for his being sacked, and labeled him "a silver-tongued devil." If it requires courage to suggest to a congregation that Torah might not be literal history, then Judaism has yet a long way to go.

Are there places to practice the kind of Judaism you suggest? For example, there was a movement towards Halakah in the 1970s. Have your ideas caught on anywhere, and does anyone share them?

All Jewish communities have members who are pushing in the direction I'm talking about. They just need better language and evidence to support their efforts, and I mean to provide them with it. The reconstruction movement has taken great strides towards education and evolution, and the renewal movement has taken other ones towards more heartfelt forms of worship. The reform movement is stressing that people understand a bit more of what's going on, and the conservatives have accepted that not everything in Torah may have been written by God. Orthodox Jews have begun more dialogue, too.

So everywhere and anywhere, I can find some people who are pushing things in this direction. They're pretty discouraged, though and need a lot more help to justify what they're doing theologically or historically.

Do you still go to Temple?

Well, I go to synagogues every week to talk about these ideas. But I don't feel drawn to the synagogue because I don't like doing rote responsive readings. I prefer to go to classes, or to debate aspects of religion with people who are more learned than I am.

What are you working on next?

A graphic novel called "Club Zero-G," about some kids who realize they can revise reality by dreaming about it.

Jeffrey Klineman is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.