News & Politics

Is Judaism Becoming Irrelevant?

In 'Nothing Sacred,' author Douglas Rushkoff argues that Judaism's core value of open-ended inquiry has been obscured by an obsession with self-preservation and idolatry.
In the introduction to "Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism," author Doug Rushkoff explains when the early '90s Internet revolution turned into the greed-driven, dot-com rush of the late '90s, he found himself in an intellectual bind. "How could I still promote the empowering side of interactive media without pumping up a Ponzi scheme that was destined for casualties?" he writes. His answer was to turn to Judaism, not only his cultural and spiritual roots, but also what he describes as the original religion of media literacy.

Rushkoff, a self-described lapsed Jew, spent two years getting literate in Judaism by traveling around the country attending synagogues, reading the Torah and talking with Jews across the cultural and political spectrum. The result is a book in which he places Judaism within a modern context for his generation. He also argues that the religion is on the brink of becoming irrelevant because its most core value of open-ended inquiry has been obscured by an obsession with self-preservation and idolatry.

Last week, the United Jewish Appeal center in New York pulled an interview with Rushkoff off the organization's Web site, arguing that his questions about Israel were too controversial. Recently, I sat down with Rushkoff in the East Village of Manhattan to discuss how the incident has proved his point about the religion's mainstream, the marketing of so-called "Jewish chic" to 20- and 30-somethings, and what Judaism at its core means to him today.

RLH: What did you question about Israel that upset the UJA?

I'm very gentle. I preface any discussion about Israel by saying that I don't want anyone to think that I don't think Israel should be there. I do believe that Israel should there and I love Israel, but now I want to talk about whether or not we can even talk about Israel. I'm not saying we shouldn't support Israel using Torah, but what does it do to our relationship with Torah? What does it do to our relationship to God when we say God invented the Nation State? Should we use the story of Exodus to support our claim to this Nation State or does it hurt our relationship to the story of Exodus if we're using Torah to prove that we own a piece of land? Did God come up with the Nation State or was it the Treaty of Versailles?

This experience with the UJA ties into your whole criticism about mainstream Judaism.

Judaism as I see it is the invention of conversation and a way of conversing about typical things. What are we here for? How do we deal with one another? I think it's become too concretized. I think Jews have idols now and I think Israel has become an idol. That's a problem for Judaism and it's a problem for Israel. If we want a living nation, we have to find ways to support and nourish the living nation. The worst thing for the preservation of the religion and the preservation of that nation is this idolatrous relationship to Torah and to Israel.

What's your Jewish background?

I grew up in Queens, Larchmont and Scarsdale. My family was classical Reform. I'm circumcised. I got Bar Mitvahed. We did Passover. We did Hanukkah. Unfortunately, the way Reform Judaism works is that you're done with Jewish education after your Bar Mitzvah, and then you don't really come back to it until you're married and have a kid. Because I'm a thinker and writer, I've thought about spirituality and religion throughout and my work has been informed by a true Jewish outlook which is iconoclastic, towards literacy and intellectual inquiry.

Why do you think that a lot of lapsed Jews have turned away from Judaism?

It's become very closed off, racist and ethnocentric. Fundamentalists are now running this religion. Most people like me haven't tried to do anything officially Jewish because we've thrown out the baby with the bathwater. We say the fundamentalists are in charge. The last place you're going to have an intelligent conversation about God or religion or Torah or Israel is in a Jewish organization because they're too afraid to talk about it.

So then what is Judaism to you now?

Iconoclasm, monotheism and social justice. It's the same thing it was. The only difference between before I wrote the book and now, is that I think of synagogue as more of an impediment to the practice of Judaism.

Judaism was not meant to be a religion. It was meant to be an ongoing process by which we wean ourselves from religion. Judaism is a way of getting God out of the way so that we take care of each other. Judaism is of the contention that human beings can be adults. That we don't have to be children in front of our God, but that we can be responsible. The reason that Judaism was so radical and illegal in the beginning was because the notion that human beings make a difference was against their religion. Gods were responsible for everything. You had to worship your God and then you got rain or you got sun or you got crops. The Israelites said if there is God then Gods are important but human beings are actually part of the equation. That's not what Judaism is about right now.

What is practicing Judaism, if you're not going to temple?

Last night I sat with 20 Jews around a table and we argued the weekly Parsha, the section of Torah that came up that week. We sat in the ground floor of the New York University Center for Jewish Life. Judaism is happening at this table as we argue about it. I think it has to happen in homes. Real Judaism will be an underground phenomenon because Jewish institutions have more to fear from Judaism now then they have to gain, which is sad.

You also argue that mainstream Jewish organization's rejection of interfaith marriage is a bad thing for Judaism.

The fact that fighting assimilation and fighting intermarriage is at the top of the agenda of the money givers of the institution of Judaism is a problem. I believe that intermarriage should be looked at more intelligently. Judaism is not a race. Judaism is a people who subscribe to an idea. When people talk about losing the purity of the Jewish gene, it's Hitler talk. The inquisitioners are the ones who talked about a Jewish race. Instead of warning people in various forms of media that non-Jews are dirty and won't raise your children right and you shouldn't go on dates with them, we should look instead at how we could be more influential in getting intermarried couples to incorporate Judaism into their lives.

When we are an unwelcoming, ethnocentric, closed-minded place, why would any intermarried couple want to be a part of it? I'm begging to be a part of it. I'm begging to set a place at the table for those of us who want have a conversation about whether God is a creature that gave us Israel as a piece of land or whether there are better ways to support our connection to Israel. That's not even up for discussion.

What do you think of something like Heeb magazine, which is trying to revive Judaism for young people?

I've got problems with that mode of Jewish self-expression. It's funded and appreciated by the same people who are censoring me. It's seen as the last-ditch attempt to bring in 20-somethings by any means necessary. It's not creating conversations. It's making Judaism cool and hip like MTV, but it's like Al Jolson in blackface. We're appropriating hip hop culture -- the matzah on the turntable -- in order to look cool. By trying to make Judaism look hip and trendy is communicating that we don't believe that Judaism is intrinsically cool.

Which is where the idea of what you're calling "Open Source Judaism" comes from, right?

Anyone who wants to do Judaism should have access to Judaism. Judaism is not just something that you do, it's something you enact. You've got to learn the code in order to alter it. The angry Orthodox reviewers have this picture of me as Jack Horner in a corner with a Matzah ball on my spoon. This book calls for an amount of learning that most Jews wouldn't want to do. They think that is uneducated because I can do yoga and call it Judaism.

Speaking of that, why do you think so many so-called lapsed Jews turn to Buddhism and other spiritualities, like yoga?

Most young intelligent Jews are turning to Buddhism and Hinduism because Judaism is no longer offering them a path of inquiry. Judaism is now offering idols. The idol of temple. The idol of Israel. I'm not saying Israel should be destroyed. I'm not saying that Jews should be killed. What I'm saying is that Jews are turning away from Judaism because in the expression of centralized Judaism all they see is Zionism and temple. They want a spiritual path which involves the engagement of the intelligent individual.

Explain your transition from looking at media culture to Judaism.

Judaism is a religion about media literacy. The way you get in is that you have a Bar Mitzvah, which is a demonstration that you can read and think intelligently about it. Judaism has been dedicated to transparency, which is another big issue in the media space. It has to be as easy to express yourself as it is to receive the expressions of someone else. I got interested in media because of interactivity. The 20-year hegemony of a top-down media is now being over turned and it's now becoming a conversation space where we are smashing our sacred cows and people are becoming intelligent and literate.

That is the same thing that happened in the Exodus story, where a hand-me-down pre-existing religion is transformed into Judaism, where we all argue around a table about what God is and what we are going to believe? The transition from television to Usenet is the transition from the idolatrous religions to rabbinic arguing Judaism. I felt like what I had been doing in media, the Internet and children's education, is applying Judaism. Then I looked back at Judaism and thought Judaism needs it more than any of these fields.

So what has this book taught you about your Jewish path?

I am going to abandon organized Judaism in America because I'm finding it much more likely to meet people to engage with about Judaism away from that. I'm probably going to move toward the Interfaith movement in my own spiritual life. The only difference between me when I wrote the book and me now is I no longer believe that the safeguards built into Judaism to prevent idol worship and ethnocentrism are powerful enough to prevent it. I see Judaism driving itself off a cliff.

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is a writer in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer and numerous other publications.

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