2016-06-30
Media and cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff turns his critical eye to contemporary Judaism with his new book, "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism" (Crown, 2003). Modern Jews, he says, have spent too much energy (and money) preserving itself as a people and not enough on preserving and promoting Jewish ideas. In addition to his book (read an excerpt), Rushkoff has also developed a website, Open Source Judaism, to share his ideas about reconsidering Judaism's texts and traditions. In an interview with Beliefnet, Rushkoff explained his ideas about welcoming in 'lapsed' Jews, why Jews turn to Buddhism, and why he thinks contemporary Judaism is 'self-obsessed.'

What do you hope to achieve with your book?

The most important thing is I want people who have been labeled 'lapsed' Jews to feel entitled to their own religion. There are thousands of people like me, who left organized Judaism because it no longer seemed porous or open enough to engage with their points of view. I want them to understand that, as far as I'm concerned, they're practicing a more vital and genuine form of Judaism than many people who are going to synagogue every weekend. Just because those guys own the synagogues and the federations doesn't mean they own Judaism. A lot of us so-called lapsed Jews feel kind of guilty, like we've abandoned something, but I would argue that those of us who have pursued alternate courses have done so in order to preserve the Jewish spirit, not erase it.

Second, I want to help make institutional Judaism a bit more participatory.

What do you mean by institutional Judaism?

Synagogues, schools, philanthropies, federations. I want them to realize that the path towards the abundant and healthy Jewish community that they aspire to is not by increasing the height of the walls around this thing. It's by tearing them down, and letting people engage in a really honest conversation about what Judaism is and what they want it to be.

Why do you think your book has been perceived as controversial?

I think it's because a lot of people are still looking to Judaism for answers rather than to provoke more questions. They like to think of the world as this weird complex place, but religion as a place where they can receive palliative care, for the inevitable crises of real life.

Judaism seems to have been developed for precisely the opposite purpose. The purpose of Judaism was to help people break their attachment to the dead images of somnambulant religions and instead create mechanisms and conversations through which we could reckon together with the great ethical and existential quandaries of being human beings.

But many people return to Judaism at a milestone in their lives--like the death of a parent. Those people are looking for answers.

They are. The trick for Jewish clergy is how they can emerge from their jobs as ministers to their jobs as teachers. When we're in compromised states, such as after a death or a birth or any intense life milestone, we tend to want naturally to revert to a childlike state and to have a parent figure help bring us through it. The thing we have to ask ourselves, though, is if there's a way for our rabbis and religious leaders to help people through that while keeping them aware that this is really just role playing. It's not that the rabbi really knows what happens after death, or knows that God loves the person, but to acknowledge that there are certain rituals that help us through these times.

There are people running into shuls for all sorts of reasons these days. It's up to Judaism and Jewish institutions to rise to the occasion, like any good therapist or any good friend, to say, 'I get why you've come here. The answers to what you're looking for are more elusive than you might suspect. Though Judaism might not provide you with those answers, it can provide you with the process through which you can become comfortable and even begin to enjoy the seeking that you're currently in.' People ask questions and are really desperate for comfort. What I think we have to learn to do is to give people different kinds of things to chew on that can help mollify their immediate anxiety, but to do that through helping the person engage rather than sleep.

So when you write about going back and reinterpreting the text and discovering its true origins, can someone who believes the Torah is the word of God still participate?

I think the challenge to engaging with Judaism in that way is that if you really engage with Torah honestly, you start to realize that Judaism encourages, and perhaps requires, us to understand that our positions about God or Torah or Judaism are all provisional. We can't understand what's really going on. So when people think they really know what God is or really know what Torah is, those people end up getting into trouble if they want to engage with these texts. The texts create more questions than they answer. Judaism has so much wrestling in it.

You write that a lot of Jews turn to faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism because they are "less self-obsessed." How is Judaism today self-obsessed?

It seems that most synagogues, most philanthropies, most of the federations, seem to be placing most of their resources and spending most of their time pursuing questions like Jewish assimilation, or Jewish intermarriage, or the survival of Israel, or the question of Zionism. There's a lot of Jews worrying about Jews and Judaism. I always am suspect when an institution is spending the majority of its energy on itself, rather than whatever the institution was created to do or to promote. And when an institution does that, it starts to collapse, which is what all of these many reports on Judaism seem to be indicating. So philanthropies get more desperate and create more singles scenes for Jews to meet and what they end up doing is just strengthening but exacerbating the boundaries that Judaism puts around itself.

If Judaism decides that it's going to maintain its numbers by appealing to people that are racially Jewish and get them to not do other things, then Judaism will disappear just by attrition. What Judaism has to do instead is open itself up. I'm not suggesting necessarily to proselytize, although that might not be a terrible thing, but to share its ideas with other people.

When Judaism's biggest concern is itself, I get very concerned. Because I think Judaism is actually one of the best processes out there for people to learn how to be iconoclastic, to experiment with very radical understandings of what God is, and to find very good justifications for making the world a better place, rather than just shutting our eyes and waiting for Armageddon.

Why are people so reluctant to hear this view of Judaism?

Because that's not what they're going to temple for. We want a religion that's going to support us in our willful ignorance, rather than a religion that's going to challenge us to move off where we are. That's why people who do want to move off their position end up going to religions that are, at least in the way they're being practiced now, more challenging.

Judaism does have something unique to offer. It does not offer individual transcendence, or individual salvation. It does offer certain kinds of community and collaborative spirituality that the world could really benefit from. Buddhism is kind of an individual trip. Judaism, with its real demand for minyan, its requirement that this be done in community, means that we have to wrestle with each other. That's why I wrote the book--to say, 'I'm a Jew, I'm supposed to be participating in this thing. Now I'm going to.'

In a more inclusive Judaism, where everybody's point of view counts, does that include a Jew who believes in Jesus? Where do you draw the line between what's appropriately Jewish and what's not?

It's a tricky thing to say. It's not up to me to judge--it's up to the community to judge. If Judaism really follows the notion of or l'goyim (light unto the nations) and become a universal tradition, then sure, there's a place for people who believe in the existence of Jesus, or who believe that Jesus was some sort of chip off the old block.

Everybody's narrative counts, but some narratives are better than others. Hitler had a narrative, but it wasn't one that I would want Judaism to adopt. Not all narratives are equal.

So how can people begin to engage in this kind of conversation about Judaism?

I think we have to partner with our educators and with our rabbis. Part of it comes from not being afraid to ask these kind of questions. If you're going to one of those stale Torah study groups, but you're looking for a more engaged relationship to this stuff, if you start to ask the rabbis the questions you really want the answers to, they'll rise to the occasion. The rabbis take their cues from us, as much as we take our cues from them. For regular Jews, it's a matter of giving our Jewish leadership permission to develop the kind of Judaism that we want. I think people have to think for themselves about whether we're praying to a God we no longer believe in. And if we are, we need to start thinking about the God we do believe in, and how can we bring that God to the synagogue.

How would you respond to someone who said that these ideas are interesting, but with increased anti-Semitism, this isn't the appropriate time to bring them up?

There are a lot of questions I'd ask. When is there not anti-Semitism? I think the more critical the global situation becomes, the more necessary it is for Judaism to offer us its real alternative to this kind of absolutism, rather than to basically assimilate and become like every other absolutist religion out there.

This could very well be Judaism's last stand. If Judaism goes, so it goes. Jewishness and Jewish ideas will survive in one form or another. Judaism has a whole bunch of great ideas all in one place. There's a certain integrity to that. It took a few thousand years to develop it. I don't think we should abandon it by resorting to the absolutist and defensive posture they would suggest.

Does this apply to Judaism across denominations?

I found in every movement people who completely agreed with what I was saying. After my New York Times piece came out, I got emails from rabbis and members of each of the different movements saying, "That's what Renewal is!" or "That's what Chabad is!" or "That's what Reform Judaism is!" If there's people in each movement who think what I've described is exactly what their movement is, then why do we have so many movements?

I'm against the balkanization of Judaism. A lot of people think I'm calling for a new movement. I'm not--I'm calling for a new movement across the board.

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