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Jewish Journal

The Self-Imposed Death of Institutional Judaism

by Douglas Rushkoff

October 2, 2003 | 8:00 pm

I'm a Jew. Or, at least I was last time I checked.

But New York's official institutions of Judaism would say that I'm not, and, most likely, neither are you. No, it's not because my mom's not Jewish (the usual racist excuse), but because, like so many other intelligent, engaged people on this bagel-fueled island -- I don't happen to belong to a synagogue. As a result, they label me "lapsed" or, in the optimistic language of the market researchers charged with saving Judaism, "a latent Jew."

Actually, these days they're calling me an atheist, an Israel-hater and an anti-Semite. Not because I'm saying anything bad about God, Israel or Judaism, but merely because I'm asking that we be allowed to discuss these ideas, together.

We all know that there are some sticking points to being Jewish in America today-particularly with what's going on in Israel. Luckily, Judaism has a wealth of built-in mechanisms for confronting the lure of fundamentalism, nationalism and tribalism. But in my effort to show Jews some of what is so very progressive and relevant about their dwindling religion, I have instead provoked their most paranoid, regressive wrath.

What I'm learning is that today's Jewish institutions have more to fear from Judaism than they have to gain. That's why they're going out of their way to keep Judaism from actually happening.

I've written about media and culture for the past 10 years. Interactivity has always been my passion -- especially the way the internet turned a passive mediaspace into a freewheeling conversation. Instead of depending on the newscaster or sponsor for our stories, we were free to tell our own. I wrote eight well-received books about what was happening to our culture, and how to navigate its new do-it-yourself terrains.

Then, just a few years ago, it occurred to me that Judaism had attempted to do the same thing to religion. The mythical Israelites of the Torah left their idols behind in order to forge a new way of life -- one in which they weren't dependent upon the gods to do everything for them. Judaism abstracted God so that people could become thinking, active adults. What made Judaism so radical -- so sacrilegious in its day -- was the proclamation that people can actually make the world a better place. God may have given us great hints on how to be holy people, but the rest is up to us.

The reason Jews have such a hard time explaining Judaism, "the religion," is that we aren't about beliefs. All we really have is a process -- an ongoing conversation. You get initiated, a bar or bat mitzvah, by proving you can read the Torah and speak somewhat intelligently about it. No statements of faith required -- just literacy and an opinion about what you've read earn you a place at the table. Then you get to argue with the old guys.

That's right: Judaism boils down to a 3,500-year-old debate about what happened on Mount Sinai and what we're supposed to do about it. Judaism is not set in stone; it is to be reinterpreted by each generation. All that's required is a continual smashing of your false idols (iconoclasm), a refusal to pretend you know who or what God is (abstract monotheism) and being nice to people (social justice). In a sense, Judaism isn't a religion at all, but a way human beings can get over religion and into caring about one another.

Sounds good, anyway.

But like so many latent Jews in America today (we account for more than 50 percent of the total), I had a hard time finding places where this sort of Judaism is still practiced. They exist, but more likely in an apartment living room or school basement than a sanctuary. The vast majority of messages coming out of mainstream Judaism concern post-Holocaust issues such as the dangers of intermarriage, the threat of assimilation and the need to protect Israel.

Worst of all, as I'm learning, these subjects are not up for discussion.

Jewish philanthropies spend millions of dollars and hours counting Jews and conducting marketing research on how to get young people to stop marrying non-Jews and start supporting Israel. If they were to spend even half this effort actually doing Judaism, they might find that they'd attract a whole lot more people to their cause. In an era in which spirituality is about breaking the illusion of self, who wants to be part of a religion or a people that is turned so inward? Judaism's greatest concern, these days, is itself.

Most of my friends abandoned Judaism as soon as they were allowed to for precisely these reasons. Having found some useful truths in there, however, I was loath to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I figured I owed it to myself, and to Judaism, to revive the conversation. "Can we talk?" I've been asking in my lectures, articles and even a book. Apparently not.

Don't get me wrong: A great majority of the people to whom I've been speaking in synagogues and bookstores around the nation agree with what I have to say. Even the rabbis.

"If that's Judaism," I've been told many times, "then count me in!" A half-dozen Torah discussion groups have formed among people who met at my bookstore appearances. But the people running Judaism's more established institutions -- the philanthropies, federations and periodicals that speak for the Jewish people in America today -- are so threatened by the notion of an open conversation about Judaism that they can't help but go on the attack.

I've been amazed as I've watched otherwise rational, well-spoken people revert to childlike circularity when confronted by the inconsistencies in their own religious outlooks. I know, I know: That's why they call it religion. Judaism was supposed to be a smarter solution, a thinking person's answer to religiosity. A conversation. That's why, more than their inane remarks or beliefs, what disturbs me about the reaction of Judaism's gatekeepers is their refusal to make a place for me -- and the majority of American Jewry -- at the Jewish table.

I do feel for these people, and can understand the wish to believe that we are direct descendents of the mythical characters described in the Torah.

They're not budging. Just two weeks ago, the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York --headquarters of the biggest, most central Jewish organization in America -- yanked an interview that one of their writers conducted with me from their Web site, along with all mention in their calendar of a benefit I'm doing in their auditorium for a Jewish social justice charity. All because, according to the editor, "a heightened sensitivity to some of the topics we discussed emerged here at UJA-Federation once it was actually posted."

Gotta love the Internet: The entire interview was immediately reposted to a webzine called Jewsweek, along with an account of the whole fiasco. A week later, the excised text reappeared on the UJA site, albeit with a new title and a framing paragraph about how "Douglas Rushkoff likes to sound off." A UJA representative now says that the only problem with the original interview was the title.

I'm not the only one who is facing such knee-jerk reactions from the institutions dominating public Jewish discourse. Rabbi David Wolpe, a respected and published rabbinic scholar at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, made the headlines for daring to suggest to his congregation that the Exodus may not really have happened the way it was described in the Bible. Or at all. Though this question has been pondered out loud by rabbis ever since there were rabbis, today it is too dangerous a topic, and Wolpe is decried as a "silver-tongued devil."

Why?

Because Jews are afraid, and the institutions that should be helping them conquer their ignorance are instead stoking it to further solidify their grasp on Judaism's future. The darker picture they paint of Judaism's plight -- the further synagogue membership dwindles, the greater Israel's peril -- the more money they raise. Every suicide attack on Israel and each negative report on intermarriage statistics lead to a surge in donations.

So it's in the fundraisers' interest to foster panic instead of discussion, and to turn their agendas into inviolably sacred truths. Yet they are not entirely to blame. It is we who must challenge these holy assumptions if we're going to break free from top-down religion and start to think for ourselves again -- the way Judaism demands.

The first forbidden topic is race. The Jews' crucial error has been accepting our enemies' contention that we are a race. We are not. The first character in the Torah to mention an "Israeli people" was Pharaoh, and he was looking for an excuse to kill off those he feared wouldn't support him in a war. The concept of "Jewish blood" was invented during the Spanish Inquisition, so that they would still have an excuse to slaughter former Jews who had converted to Catholicism. Best yet, it was Hitler, gently reworking a bit of Jung, who claimed that Jews' "genetic memory" would keep them from ever fully accepting the natural German order.

Two millennia of being treated as a despised race might convince any people that it's true. Ironically, Jews were being persecuted, at least in part, for their very refusal to accept such false boundaries. Local gods, ethnic purity and national religions meant nothing to this amalgamation of formerly disparate tribes. Moses' wife was black, for God's sake. How much clearer can the story get about race not being the issue here?

By hanging on to racehood, Jews get to hang on to an immature understanding of chosenness. ("I like knowing that God loves us the best," a woman told me after a recent talk.) Along with being God's chosen people, however, comes the racism and elitism that undermine our ethics, but empower our central authorities. If Judaism is not a race, then who exactly are we not supposed to intermarry with? They won't tell you that this whole matrilineal descent business isn't part of Judaism, at all, but a remnant of the Roman census conducted in the second century. Assimilation has always been the Jews' best strategy. Our mandate in Torah is not to protect ourselves from others, but to "share our light" with them.

Part of the reason we don't know any of this is that we've relegated our Judaism to our authorities. The Reform movement was a great idea when it arose in the 1800s in Germany. Judaism was built to be reformed. Problem is, some of the reforms were designed for little purpose other than to make Jewish worship look less weird to any Christians who might happen to drop by. So a spirited, participatory free-for-all was turned into Jewish church: rabbis put on robes, stood on a stage in front of the room and engaged in boring, monotone responsive readings with the congregation. All the atrophied dullness of Christianity, only without the salvation.

Worse, this induced what Freud would call "regression and transference." The audience of spectators regressed to a childlike state and transferred parental authority onto their rabbis, who became more like priests administering the religion to their congregants.

No matter. Reform Jews figured someone wearing a black hat, probably somewhere in Israel, was doing the "real thing." And so checkbook Judaism was born, through which Americans could practice their religion by proxy. Little did they know their money was going to some of the most stridently Zionist sects around and forcing the Israeli government to cow even further to their bizarre demands.

Which brings us to the real reason we can't talk about Judaism today: Israel. Note -- I'm not suggesting that Israel shouldn't exist, but many readers will already think I've just said that. They cannot even see these words that say otherwise. Our problem is not with the Israelis, but our insistence -- as Americans -- in justifying a nation's existence with our religion. By forcing the Torah to serve as an accurate historical chronicle of the Jewish claim to disputed territories, Jews turn themselves into fundamentalists who have no choice but to interpret their texts literally. "Abraham got this piece from God in Genesis, and Jacob got this piece from the Pharaoh..." The transdimensional nature of Jewish myth -- as profound as that of any Eastern religion -- is reduced to a real estate deed.

This literalism is a problem. Fundamentalists believe that Jews must be in control of the entirety of biblical Israel in order for the messiah to return to Earth. This is why orthodox extremists from Brooklyn race -- guns in hand -- to settle the West Bank. It is also why the American Christian fundamentalists are responsible for funding a majority of Jewish immigration from Russia to Israel. They want to bring on the End of Days and get to Armageddon already.

But because many Jews refuse to look a gift horse in the mouth, everyone from Bush to Falwell becomes our allies. Fear, desperation and a history of persecution make for strange bedfellows.

To free ourselves from this self-defeating conundrum, American Jews must understand our unwitting complicity in this pact with, well, the devil. We must entertain the possibility that Israel, the nation, may not be the ultimate realization of Jewish ideals as much as a necessary compromise. Israelis get this; New Yorkers seem to have a little more trouble because we insist on seeing Jerusalem as somehow more sacred than Manhattan.

There are better arguments to be made for a Jewish homeland than the assertion that the "one and true God" gave it to us. (That's not what abstract monotheism was invented for, anyway. She's not just our God -- she's everyone's.) After centuries of exile or worse by nation states with their own official religions, one Jewish strategy was to create our own nation, with its own official religion. Although long characterized by an independence from territory and local gods, Judaism might not be completely wrecked by the temporary suspension of these values for the greater priority.

Israel may indeed be important to the Jewish people and, as a potential laboratory in ethical nation-building, to the whole world, but its current and inappropriate centrality to the Jewish faith makes it a topic that cannot be approached or discussed openly. Like the synagogue and the Jewish bloodline, Israel has become an idol.

As a result, many American Jews feel that to question the religious or political authority of Israel -- to suggest, as I have, that God might not have invented the nation state -- is akin to blaspheming Judaism or forgetting the Holocaust. So, as the Jewish authorities have made abundantly clear to me, we are to remain silent.

Life for Jews in New York in 2003 is as good as it has ever been -- anywhere. Only by reviving the inquiry and activism that are truly central to Judaism can we serve as antagonists rather than passive supporters of everything from blind fundamentalism to the Bush regime's designs on the Middle East and the world. Just because the Jews will inevitably be blamed for provoking these crusades doesn't mean we have to make the accusation true.

Resistance is our tradition, and it's worth fighting for. At this point, it's more important to me that I do Judaism than that I get to call myself Jewish.

Douglas Rushkoff is the author of "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism" (Crown, 2003).

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