by Douglas Rushkoff, Crown Publishers, 2003, 260 pp.
Reviewed by Baruch Sienna
"Mr. Rushkoff, can we talk indeed?" I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable and committed Jew, and yet, more often than I would like, I walk out of many synagogue services feeling disappointed, frustrated (and sometimes even worse). And it's not because I'm intimidated by rabbis (I'm married to one), or unfamiliar with the service (my Hebrew is fluent), or don't 'get' how liturgy works (I have a degree in Jewish studies). So imagine how someone who is trying to reconnect to Judaism, but without this background, might react. I understand deeply why many with a committed and yet a critical approach to Judaism have yet to find a spiritual home. I am fond of quoting Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg: "I don't care what denomination you belong to, as long as you're embarrassed by it."
So, it was re-affirming to read an analysis of how Judaism has, in Mr. Rushkoff's words, "lost the plot." He says something similar to Yitz, "Religion is a good thing- as long as you don't believe in it." In other words, Judaism has a lot to offer the modern world, but we have to be careful not to take things too literally. I think one of the more valuable lessons of Nothing Sacred is its stress on how we confuse metaphors with the real thing. As a Jewish educator I have tried very hard to teach kids in ways that won't have to be untaught. And as faculty at Kolel, where we have an approach that I think Mr. Rushkoff would admire, we are (unfortunately, too often) constantly puncturing people's myths about the origins of customs or the meanings of stories (such as our "The True Story of Chanukah").
Mr. Rushkoff is no scholar and the book suffers from errors (Tziporrah watering her horses just to name one, but there are many others) and oversimplification. It is not fair or accurate to distill 3000 years of Judaism into Iconoclasm, Radical Monotheism, and Social Action. The midrash of Abraham's iconoclasm (as he points out), is in fact NOT in Torah, so to claim it as one of the main pillars of Judaism seems a stretch. His assertion that "assimilation was not a sin, it was survival" is simply unfounded in Jewish history. He has a tendency for overblown rhetoric, such as his conclusion that Judaism's evolving theology is only to wean humanity from believing in God altogether. Is that what Maimonides really meant? And for someone who preaches a Judaism of tolerance, he seems mighty intolerant at times.
Sometimes, I'm afraid, he is just too provocative. I would agree that there are some Jews who have confused the 'label' with the 'contents', but it cannot be seriously argued that the 'lapsed' assimilated Jew is the true inheritor of our faith and the future of Judaism. Yes, lots of Jews are homophobic, racist and sexist, but one doesn't need to be pro-intermarriage either! And I believe Mr. Rushkoff would agree, that a Jew can be committed to Social Action AND have a place for ritual and mitzvot in their lives - a position that he does not sufficiently acknowledge.
He is right, however, about the proliferation of 'idols' even within the observant community. It is indeed a provocative concept that the Western Wall, the Mitzvot and even the Torah have been reduced to 'idols' on some levels. (And don't even get us started on the Lubavitcher Rebbe!!) While he has been studying with some of the top rabbis and teachers, he is no authority on Judaism, so the book is his 'midrash' on Jewish history. His analyses (borrowed from his field of media and technology) of Jewish sociology are bang on the mark. I enjoyed reading his insights from his work in media and contemporary life to Judaism and how it is perceived and 'marketed' to a new generation. As Kolel's director of Interactive Technology, I particularly relate to his use of computer metaphors, describing Judaism as 'open source' software. (When I read the book, and his recommendations, my first reaction was, he needs to have an open forum website to continue the conversation, which I was pleased to learn that he has done (called OpenSourceJudaism). To continue the metaphor, though, Open Source software is for geeks; not many average users have Linux installed. Like the new Macintosh operating system (OS X) which sits on (and hides) a kernel of Unix, we need a user-friendly "Jewish" interface and a manual for the equivalent of Jewish 'luddites'.
Mr. Rushkoff is not the first to suggest that Judaism is in (desperate) need of a renaissance. People like Arthur Waskow and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi have spent their lifetimes working for that goal. Kolel opened in 1991 because of visionaries who recognized, and still recognize, that one path to a new Judaism will be built by a community engaged in passionate study of classical texts while grappling with modern ideas. But unlike the terribly unfair review (published in The Jerusalem Report) I don't think anyone who criticizes Judaism is a self-hating Jew and therefore automatically deserves out-of-hand dismissal. Actually, I thought Mr. Rushkoff comes off as a fairly serious Jew. While highly critical of some movements and institutions, he presents Judaism as something with great value, that needs to take a good hard look at itself.
The book is not meant to be scholarly, and has a comfortable, easy to read style. And Mr. Rushkoff has the challenge of needing to explain much of Jewish history and concepts parenthetically as he correctly assumes that the average reader has little familiarity with the people, events and processes that he is describing. Consequently, he is repetitive at times, and simplistic at others. As he necessarily explains, he cannot be prescriptive- only together can we come up with that process. But he has begun a discussion that I, for one, would be happy to be part of. Thanks Mr. Rushkoff, for inviting us to talk.
Labels: Contemporary Issues