Jewish Journal

Take Back the Religion

by Amy Klein

Posted on Apr. 10, 2003 at 8:00 pm

Are you the type of Jew who attended Sunday school until your bar or bat mitzvah, then pretty much ignored religion save the yearly Passover seder and High Holiday gathering? Do you work as a lawyer for the homeless, or perhaps in your spare time you volunteer at a humanitarian organization like a soup kitchen or mentor program?

Then you, my friend, just might be the true Jew.

This just in, from new media and culture expert Douglas Rushkoff in his eminently readable ninth book, "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism" (Crown Publishers, 2003), in which he faults nearly every sector in modern Judaism. From the Orthodox (too stultified and closed) to the Reform ("Jew light") to the ba'al teshuva movement (desperate and blind) to outreach organizations (indescernible from the MTV culture it emulates), to the New Age Kabbalists (hardly Jewish), most Jews are primarily obsessed with self-preservation and intermarriage.

But they're not the real Jews, Rushkoff suggests, wondering if "we so-called lapsed Jews might be the true keepers of the flame" -- the "we" being the author and the many, many Jews who have strayed because they find the religion abhorrent or simply irrelevant.

But Judaism really isn't irrelevant, Rushkoff shows, through anecdotes of others' lives (one man's refusal to let his non-Jewish girlfriend have a Christmas tree in their apartment) as well as his own: Rushkoff kept finding that his own work in media and cultural criticism was firmly rooted in Jewish tradition.

"I started to realize that my take on media was really informed by Judaism," Rushkoff told The Journal by telephone from New York.  "Not by the Judaism that I learned in Hebrew school, but by the Judaism that had trickled down to me."

Which is why the NPR commentator and documentary filmmaker wanted to redefine Judaism, to "wrest it from" the keepers and return it to the people. "A radical reappraisal of Judaism's ability to contribute to modernity is long overdue, and our refusal to do so is sending the best minds and voices of a generation to more accessible and less self-obsessed faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism," Rushkoff states.

But what is this reappraisal? What is the real Judaism?

Rushkoff, like the Maimonidean "negative theology" he cites, is better at saying what it's not rather than what it is.

In this he's right on the mark. Although he spent little more than a year attending synagogue and studying texts, the prescient critic immediately grasps the problems with the religion -- hypocrisy, materialism, politicking, racism, infighting to name a few off-putting elements, ones that he says will keep the religion from moving successfully into the next millennium. Rushkoff dutifully traces our ascent to this place: released from the ghettos that kept Jews separate, and decimated by the Holocaust, Jews became more concerned with preserving the religion than examining what they were indeed preserving.

But how do we unfreeze it? How do we make Judaism relevant while still keeping it real, brother? Who's to say what's real anyway?

Rushkoff tries, as he roams through the texts -- from Jacob to Moses to Maimonides to Spinoza -- in search of Judaism.

He discovers three basic tenets, the same ones he found necessary to save the burgeoning online community from being hijacked by commercialism: literacy -- to read and understand text; transparency -- a two-way text annotated by readers that ultimately becomes its core code; and community -- where togetherness is required for participation. Jews are meant to practice and promote iconoclasm, monotheism and social justice.

This secular humanism is our past and future legacy, what we are meant to practice and teach others. But what happens if the rest of the world adopts these tenets? What would differentiate the Jews?

Jews must relinquish their obsession with chosenness, Rushkoff told The Journal. "I'm asking people to reconsider how their desire to remain chosen, how their desire to think of themselves as a race more than any other race, how their attachment to certain kinds of distinctiveness may actually be preventing them from sharing Judaism and from engaging with the world in a very Jewish way."

Instead, they most focus on ethics and human values. In other words (not his) mitzvot ben adam l'chaveiro (the positive commandments between mankind), are what Judaism has bequeathed upon the world, and must continue to do so.

But what about the rest of it? Even though the sage Hillel summed up Judaism on one foot as "don't do onto others whaat you do not want done onto yourself," it's not quite clear he meant to literally dis the rest. Yet Rushkoff does. He has little use for God ("Abstract monotheism is not the process by which a people find the one true God, but the path through which they get over their need for him") and even halacha as it exists today ("Social justice, Jewish style, cannot be accomplished by following a blanket decree").

Rushkoff's primary goal is to reexamine everything about Judaism, to bring back the spirit of inquisitiveness that once made Judaism so vibrant, so relevant.

"By refusing to continue the spirit  of inquiry that ha characterized Jewish thought for two millennia, we are robbing ourselves of the very tools that empower us to face the many challenges we encounter as Jews," Rushkoff writes. Being Jewish means having the "willingness to challenge one's beliefs."

There is on one sacred thing: each other.

When pressed for more in conversation, Rushkoff empathically declares: "I'm not proscribing a kind of Judaism. I'm so sorry I can't."

But why should he? Perhaps "Nothing Sacred" should be read more like an autobiography than a treatise on religion. Even though his message is already popular on the lecture circuit with the so-called lapsed Jews for whom he originally wrote the book, "Nothing Sacred" often comes off like a project whose goal was to create a personal philosophy around Rushkoff's own psychology, a justification for his very existence.

But whatever the motivation behind "Nothing Sacred," the book raises important questions for all Jews, and all human beings. Whether it is indeed "The Truth About Judaism," well, that's an answer you'll have to find out on your own.

Douglas Rushkoff will speak at Friday Night Live on April 11 at 7:30 p.m at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 474-1518. He will also speak at One Shabbat Morning Services at Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village, on Saturday, April 12 at 9 a.m. Services start at 10 p.m. followed by a community lunch. Child care is provided. For more information, call (818) 766-9426.  

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