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August 01, 2003 - Image 76

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-08-01

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Ruffling Feathers

Author confronts "the self-imposed death of institutional Judaism."


Feaurewell. corn

I 'm a Jew. Or, at least I was last
time I checked.
But many 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 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 the
Diaspora today — particularly with
what's going on in Israel. Luckily,
Judaism has a wealth of built-in mecha-
nisms for confronting the lure of funda-
mentalism, nationalism and tribalism.
But in my effort to show Jews some
of what is so very progressive and rele-
vant about their dwindling religion, I
have instead provoked their most para-
noid, 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
media space into a freewheeling con-
Instead of depending on the newscast-
er or sponsor for our stories, we were
free to tell our own. I wrote eight well-
received books about what was happen-
ing to our culture, and how to navigate
its new "do-it-yourself" terrains.
Then, just a few years ago, it



8/ 1


Douglas Rushkoff is the author of
eight best-selling books on new media
and popular culture, including
"Cyberia,'"Media Virus," "Playing the
Future," "Coercion: Why We Listen to
What 'They' Say," and the novels
"Ecstasy Club" and "Exit Strategy."

intermarriage, the threat of assimilation
occurred to me that Judaism had
and the need to protect Israel.
attempted to do the same thing to
Worst of all, as I'm learning, these
subjects are not up for discussion.
The mythical Israelites of the Torah
Jewish philanthropies spend millions
left their idols behind in order to forge a
of dollars and hours counting Jews
new way of life — one in which they
and conducting marketing research on
weren't dependent upon the gods to do
how to get young people to stop mar-
everything for them. Judaism abstracted
God so that people could become think- rying goys and start supporting Israel.
If they were to spend even half this
ing, active adults.
actually doing Judaism, they
What made Judaism so radical — so
might find that they'd attract a whole
sacrilegious in its day — was the
lot more people to their cause.
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 reli-
gion," 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 state-
ments of faith required — just lit-
eracy 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
Douglas Rushkoff author of "Nothing Sacred:
about it. Judaism is not set in stone;
The Truth About Judaism" (Crown; 260 pp.;
it is to be reinterpreted by each gen-
$24.95): In an effort to show Jews some of
what is so very progressive and relevant about
All that's required is a continual
their religion, writer Douglas Rushkoff
smashing of your false idols (icon-
instead provoked their wrath.
oclasm), a refusal to pretend you
know who or what God is
In an era in which spirituality is
(abstract monotheism) and being nice
about breaking the illusion of self, who
to people (social justice).
wants to be part of a religion or a peo-
In a sense, Judaism isn't a religion at
ple that is turned so inward? Judaism's
all, but a way human beings can get
greatest concern, these days, is itself.
over religion and into caring about
Most of my friends abandoned
one another.
Judaism as soon as they were allowed
Sounds good, anyway.
to for precisely these reasons. Having
But like so many latent Jews today
found some useful truths in there,
(we account for more than 50 percent
however, I was loath to throw out the
of the total in America), I had a hard
baby with the bathwater.
time finding places where this sort of
I figured I owed it to myself, and to
Judaism is still practiced. They exist, but
more likely in an apartment living room Judaism, to revive the conversation.
"Can we talk?" I've been asking in my
or school basement than a sanctuary.
lectures, articles and even a book.
The vast majority of messages coming
Apparently not.
out of mainstream Judaism concern post-
Don't get me wrong: A great majori-
Holocaust issues such as the dangers of

ty 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 period-
icals that speak for the Jewish people
today — are so threatened by the
notion of an open conversation about
Judaism that they can't help but go on
the attack.
'Along comes Douglas Rushkoff,"
announced one of my intellectual role
models, Anne Roiphe, after I wrote a
New York Times op-ed about organized
Judaism's self-defeating obsession with
race and numbers.
Treating Jews as an endangered
species in dire need of a breeding pro-
gram, I argued, was hardly a good
strategy for attracting more young,
successful and universal-minded peo-
ple into the fold, if that's even the
object of the game.
She called me "silly" and cited the
existence of Tay Sachs disease as evi-
dence of a Jewish "race" that requires
protection. Why couldn't she have
spoken to one geneticist before mak-
ing such an unfounded remark, in
print, no less? (Throw a few thousand
people in a ghetto for a few dozen
centuries and they'll develop some dis-
eases. Most scientists have abandoned
the concept of race altogether.)
She went on to cite the Jewish concern
with "the degree of Jewishness of one's
parents" as proof that Judaism is a race.
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 gate-
keepers is their refusal to make a place
for me — and the majority of "latent"
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.
But, 42 years circumcised, I refuse to
be treated as an outsider for seeing the
great benefits of contending otherwise
— as Judaism, itself, suggests we do.

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