Friday night, 4/11/03, I heard Douglas
Rushkoff speak at Temple Sinai. Before the speech, I went up to him
and named a friend we had in common. I praised him for publishing nine
books. I admit jealousy. I'm struggling with my second. I noted the many
positive reviews I've seen for his latest book, his first about Judaism,
Then I asked him if he was a theist. The question appeared to stump him.
Douglas: "I don't like labels. Theist. What does it mean?"
Luke: "Theist means a believer in a personal God. Atheist means
absence of belief in a personal God. Agnostic means uncertain about God's
Douglas doesn't like to be pinned down. It takes a couple of minutes
before he admits he doesn't believe in a personal God.
Rushkoff didn't seem to have much interest in talking about anything
aside from himself and his book.
I've noticed that many liberals and secularists don't like labels. They
don't like distinctions, aristocracies and hierarchies. Liberals, for
instance, frequently hate to be labeled as liberals, instead preferring
terms like "progressive." Conservatives, however, don't mind
being called conservatives.
Atheists like Rushkoff hate to be called atheists because like the term
"liberal," atheist is a term of opprobrium in the wider culture.
Conservatives and Orthodox Jews are more comfortable with who they are
and therefore are more comfortable with labels. Conservatives are more
likely to be married with kids and active in a religion. Liberals are
more likely to live in floating uncommitted unconventional relationships.
Liberals tend to believe that the highest value is self-expression. Conservatives
most value self-control. Conservatives lead lives revolving around commitments.
Labels are important. They are economizing devices to distinguish real
and painful differences between people. Reform and Orthodox Jews, for
instance, have almost nothing in common. The solution to their differences
isn't more dialogue and togetherness. When these groups get together,
they realize how much they hate each other.
Liberals believe that people are basically good. They don't like definitions
because they reveal painful truths, such as that humanity is not just
one happy family and that we'd all lie down like lambs if only we removed
racism, sexism, ageism, capitalism, etc...
One painful truth is that somebody who does not believe in a personal
God has little basis for commenting on Judaism or promoting Judaism. The
foundation of Judaism is belief in a personal God. Without a God, there
is no Judaism. It's a fraud.
Judaism believes in defitions and differences. It distinguishes between
men and women, adults and children, humans and the divine, the Sabbath
and secular time, kosher and non-kosher foods. Judaism is obsessed with
maintaining distinctions. I'm in the middle of painful and time-consuming
clean-up for Passover, getting rid of chametz (five forbidden grains).
When I meet someone who doesn't like definitions and labels, I know I've
met someone who doesn't like reality.
You can go too far with labels and definitions and use them as tools
to stop dialogue and communication. For instance, I find it disconcerting
how little concern or interest many Orthodox Jews have all people who
are not Orthodox Jews. I find it disconcerting how many Orthodox Jews
are more interested in someone's level of ritual observance than in a
person's ethics. In many Orthodox shuls, a wife's level of participation
and honor in the shul is dictated by how much she covers her hair (mandated
by Jewish Law for married women).
Douglas Rushkoff writes Luke 4/20/03: It's not that I want to [only]
talk about myself and my book. It's that I *don't* want to talk about
my personal religious beliefs. I don't think they're important - and I
think my position as an 'author' or 'speaker' or whatever can get in the
way, and give too much weight to my beliefs.
All I'm trying to do is open up a conversation about Judaism - and I'm
trying not to impose my own model of God on the discussion.
Yeah, I believe in God, but not as a creature up there. To some, this
makes me atheist - to others, it makes me superstitious and traditional.
Am I theistic? I don't really know. But I wanted to hear how you were
defining it before I answered a yes or no question. To me, it is the same
as asking someone "Are you for abortion?" Well - no. I'm not for it. But
I wont' stop someone else from doing it. What does that make me?
Lisa Anuradha Singh writes in the Jerusalem Report (JRep.com): A national
public radio commentator and New York Times Syndicate columnist, Douglas
Rushkoff has become a megaphone for the Zeitgeist with an easy message:
"Religion can be a great thing," he says, "as long as we don’t believe
in it." In the past few years, this yoga-practicing, atheist Jew from
New York’s East Village has wowed his audience with Midrash Lite at top
Jewish venues -- the Upper West Side’s Jewish Community Center, Makor,
CLAL, Silicon Alley Jewish Center, among them -- where he has assumed
as his pet project those he refers to as "so-called lapsed Jews," individuals
so turned off by their synagogues’ stress on self-preservation that they
either run to "less self-obsessed faiths like Buddhism or Hinduism" or
end up nowhere at all. Rushkoff refuses to mourn such Jews as religious
failures, insisting that they alone understand that Judaism is an "iconoclastic"
religion of open-ended inquiry that must continually smash sacred cows,
all in the effort to reach new spiritual possibilities.
It’s that dubious, dogmatic message that underscores his new book, "Nothing
Sacred: The Truth About Judaism," in which Rushkoff offers a "working
proposal for Judaism’s next great renaissance." The subtitle alone is
the most extraordinary chutzpah, for Rushkoff himself confesses -- only
near the book’s end -- that he has scant religious education (largely
Reform after-school classes of yore). And yet, this Village atheist has
a growing audience. Looking for assurance that they’re okay, his listeners
and readers have found their pacifier in a man who makes belief in unbelief
sound truly Jewish. Among his fans is Naomi Wolf, the feminist author,
who, in a release accompanying the book, called his latest work "one of
the most important books … uncompromising and honest and brilliant and
true … a burst of badly needed intellectual and spiritual oxygen and light."
If, for Rushkoff, Judaism means not having religion, what then is left?
It has been said that the Articles of Faith of Reform Judaism is the Democratic
Party’s platform. Ruskhoff is to the left of Reform: His religion is circumscribed
by civil rights, gay rights, animal rights and women’s rights, and his
heaven is the election of a socialist president to the White House. All
well and good perhaps, but for a religion, how banal! Of course, Judaism
speaks highly of justice and peace, but so does secular humanism, and
that being the case, just as you don’t need to be Jewish to love rye bread,
you don’t have to be Jewish to be liberal.
Rushkoff does say there is no God -- "there is no single Creator" --
and if no God, then no religion, and if no religion, then no Judaism
Douglas Rushkoff vs The Reviewers
Author Douglas Rushkoff writes
5/16/03 : Most discouraging, so far, have been a few of the outlandishly
negative reviews. I wouldn't mind at all if people who angrily reviewed
the book actually read the book - but the two I've read seem to be commenting
on a different book, entirely. They think I hate God, am some sort of
closet atheist, or am desperate to work out a personal hatred of Jews.
I looked closely at the words and - in some cases, past work - of these
reviewers, though, and came to realize that these are their own personal
obsessions. People who think an "open source" Jewish tradition will kill
God are the same people who, deep down, constantly question whether God
really exists (me thinks the lady doth protest to much...). Those who
see the end of Israel in any honest discussion about Judaism have Zionism
at the heart of their own conflict. The notion of an open, honest discussion
about Judaism serves a Roschach test, bringing up whatever it is we're
attached to, or conflicted about (same thing).
A great rabbi - the head of education at University of Judaism [Rabbi
Artson?], wrote an extremely encouraging letter to me in which he said
that "Hey, when you get that sort of response from the organized Jewish
world, consider yourself a success! There is a ton of paranoia out there
about the 'end of Judaism.'"
Author Douglas Rushkoff writes: "The first major review of my book
in a Jewish publication, the Bronfman Philanthropy-funded Jerusalem Report,
called me a "yoga-practicing atheist Jew from New York’s East Village,"
right in the lead paragraph! I’m an atheist because, like most thinking
adults, I don’t believe in an all-powerful creature with the white beard
who rejoices in animal sacrifice."
Luke says: I don't know one theist who believes that God is "an
all-powerful creature with the white beard." What a moronic statement.
The more I read Rushkoff's self-pitying bleats, the more I hate him (even
though he's probably a nice and decent person with many interesting things
to say and we'd enjoy dinner and drinks together).
Rushkoff, who hates being labeled an atheist, is an atheist because he
is without theistic belief. That doesn't make him a bad person, it simply
disqualifies him from prescribing for Judaism.
As both a student and teacher of history, I've learned to avoid the
negative superlative. Only one war, famine, or disaster can truly be
"the worst," meaning that almost all uses of the term are incorrect.
Understand that reticence when you consider my next statement: Douglas
Rushkoff's "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism," may very well
be the worst book about Judaism ever written. It is an oroboros of badness,
an Escher print of badness, a book of such badness it forces writers
to grasp desperately and vainly for metaphors to capture its awful essence.
By almost any standard, it truly excels in its stinkyousity.
Content: It is not merely that almost everything Rushkoff says about
Judaism or Jewish culture is incorrect; it's that it is the exact opposite
of what he says it is. Moreover, it is not only that he barely gives
any evidence to back up his extravagantly incorrect claims, but that
when he does offer a citation or specific person or period, it is invariably
one which proves the exact opposite of the point he's trying to make.
Consider his central thesis, which seems to be that the essence of
Judaism is, as he puts it "Iconoclasm, Abstract Monotheism, and Social
Action." By iconoclasm, Mr. Rushkoff means that Judaism is about "questioning."
That is, of course, true, but only in the same way that Judaism is about
facial hair. Facial hair is definitely Jewish-we have beards, and those
who don't have beards, are supposed to have sideburns. Certainly, questioning
plays an important role in Judaism, but, like Jewish facial hair, it
is done within a certain framework. A Fu Manchu has no more place in
Jewish tradition than does a rejection of the mitzvos. Even in the famous
episode that Rushkoff cites, when Abraham questions God about the destruction
of Sodom, he doesn't question God's right to destroy Sodom. Rushkoff
might say (by which I mean he does say) that God, in Judaism, isn't
meant to be worshipped, but Abraham, and every Jewish authority since,
would certainly question that interpretation, and Rushkoff himself offers
no evidence to the contrary.
Rushkoff says that "abstract monotheism" is essential to Judaism. He
makes this claim in the face of millennia of anthropomorphism in Judaism.
How does he deal with a huge body of evidence suggesting that monotheism
in Judaism is far from abstract? He doesn't (I'll deal with methodology
later). He does, however, offer as an example of abstract monotheism,
the era of prophets, insisting not only that "abstract monotheism" reached
new heights, but that it was a time where God no longer played an active
role in the narrative of the Israelites. In fact, the prophets see anthropomorphic
references to God reaching new heights-God is a lover, God is a father,
God is a husband-God is many things human, but not at all abstract.
Indeed, Rushkoff does a disservice to his own arguments regarding social
justice. The Prophets command God's people to act Godly-it is not that,
like the Greeks, we have a god who acts like men, but that we men are
to act like God. As He is righteous, so should we be, as He hates injustice,
so should we. An anthropomorphic, absolute, concrete vision of God is
central to the prophets conception of social justice (I don't have any
evidence for that, but then Rushkoff's hardly in a position to fault
me for that). This is also a period in which God is called upon periodically
to manifest Himself through His deeds, and contrary to Rushkoff's claims,
He does so-or doesn't the episode in which Eliyahu challenges the priests
of Baal, and God consumes his offering and the altar itself, with His
Finally, this is a period where depictions of God's body move most
clearly-and least abstractly-from the metaphoric to the real. But confronted
with Ezekiel's vision of God on the Throne, Rushkoff simply follows
his method, and ignores it. Far from being the time when abstract monotheism
took root, the age of the prophets was a time when Judaism developed
its most potent anthropomorphic elements. Who are the great representatives
of what Rushkoff considers to be the "true" Jewish tradition? Philo,
Spinoza, and Maimonides. Philo was a Hellenized Alexandrian Jew, Maimonides
a Neo-Aristotelean, and Spinoza's family had lived as Christians for
many years, and he himself moved in with a former Jesuit at the age
In all these cases, the philosophies that Rushkoff claims were signs
of the "true" Jewish tradition owed much more to foreign elements than
anything within Judaism. Most of his discussion of these three relates
to Maimonides, and almost everything he says is wrong.
Maimonides was hardly an anti-elitist-he was a member of the intellectual
and religious elite himself. He also didn't write the Mishneh Torah
to allow people to pick and choose which mitzvos to follow; just the
opposite, he wrote it to make sure that people could follow them correctly.
The man whom Rushkoff says wanted to allow people to make their own
choices so they wouldn't have to ask their rabbis questions, used to
spend every shabbos answering the questions of his own community. While
the Mishneh Torah certainly simplified the law, that was actually contrary
to Rushkoff's own belief that Judaism was about questioning-Maimonides
removed the process of questioning that's found in the Talmud, and gave
just the answers.
Far from being an example of the trends Rushkoff thinks are so crucial,
the Mishne Torah was a step in the other direction. As for the Guide
for the Perplexed, it was not made to convince Torah-observant Jews
that God was abstract, etc. Just the opposite: it was made to convince
rationalistic Jews to observe the Torah. What's important to Maimonides
is ultimately the practice-indeed, he doesn't expect that many Jews
will understand his philosophy, but he believes they have to follow
Most absurdly, Rushkoff suggests that, had Maimonides not been "rudely
interrupted" by those critics who banned and burned his books, he would
have demonstrated that Judaism was not "a system of beliefs, but a process."
Once again, completely the opposite-it was Maimonides who actually formulated
the Thirteen Principles of Faith that established what the fundamental
system of beliefs of Judaism was. And its hard to see how his work was
"rudely interrupted" by the burning of Guide for the Perplexed and chapter
one of the mishne torah, when the burning took place in France, where
the rabbis had absolutely no authority over him, and most importantly,
took place nearly three decades after his death. On the other hand,
one of Maimonides Thirteen Principles is the resurrection of the dead,
so maybe he was planning on continuing his theological revolution after
Methodology: Rushkoff essentially follows the methodology of absolutely
ignoring the vast body of evidence that contradicts his thesis. He claims
that "abstract monotheism" is central to Judaism? Fine, then over two
thousand years of anthropomorphic references to God, ranging from mystical
visions of the prophets to Yiddish prayers said by women in Eastern
Europe finds no place in his "truth about Judaism." Does he believe
that the interpretation of the Akeida as a test of Avraham only developed
in response to anti-Jewish massacres of the Crusades? Fine, then reference
to the Akeida in the Talmud-five hundred years before the Crusades-finds
no place in his "truth about Judaism."
When he does actually cite a source, it proves the exact opposite of
his point. He wants to say that the reverence for the land of Israel
is a modern, Zionistic creation with no place in traditional Judaism?
Its not enough to ignore the fact that for well over a millennium, at
least, Jews have prayed three times a day for a return to Israel. No,
he brings in a quote from Genesis, where God tells Avraham, "Get thee
from thy land." "See," crows Rushkoff, "God says get from your land,
because the land isn't important-it's Jewish iconoclasm!" Had he bothered
reading the rest of the sentence, he would have seen God telling Avraham
"Get thee from thy land, to the land that I will show you." Any guesses
as to which land that was?
Similarly, when he tries to disparage the notion that Jews have historically
seen themselves as a nation-again, in the face of over two thousand
years of clear tradition, he declares authoritatively that the first
time in the Torah that the Jews are called a nation is by Pharaoh. Again,
he should have continued to read that passage in Genesis, where after
God tells Avraham that in the land he shows him, he will make him a
"nation." Oops. Of course, even if he had read it, it wouldn't have
mattered, since Rushkoff "deconstructs" passages. To "deconstruct" is
a literary term that is a good example of doublespeak. In plain English,
"deconstruct" means "break down," but when literary critics use it,
it often means "make up." Thus, when Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael
into the desert to die, it's just to teach a moral lesson to the Jews:
Hagar was an Egyptian, the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, so therefore,
the enslavement can be seen as a metaphoric punishment for Abraham's
inhospitality to Hagar. By "deconstructing" this passage thusly, Rushkoff
is able to ignore the part of the story where God tells Avraham to send
her to the wilderness, which would certainly complicate Rushkoff's story.
Deconstruction does explain, however, how Rushkoff could have made so
many fundamental errors-his fact checker probably came in and said "Mr.
Rushkoff-everything you're saying about Jewish history is incorrect."
"Ah," says Rushkoff, "When you say 'incorrect,' I deconstruct that to
have the same relationship to 'correct' as 'invaluable' has to 'valuable.'
Not only am I correct, I'm very correct."
Tone: All of this-his glaring errors, his ignoring anything (which
is most things) that contradicts his theories, could be forgiven, if
he was at least humble about it. But this man, who knows so little,
pretends to know so much. When he puts forth an interpretation, it isn't
"an" interpretation, it is "the" interpretation. Anybody who disagrees
is pitiable or deceitful. He reserves particular scorn for the Orthodox,
especially baalei teshuva, since they have the temerity to actually
take all these bible stories literally, as opposed to the assorted allegories
that Rushkoff insists they are. Indeed, the book is littered with encounters
with rabbis of various stripes, where they are confronted with the truth
according to Rushkoff, and found wanting. Speaking as one self-righteous
egomaniac to another, I beg Rushkoff to develop, if not a sense of humility,
at least a sense of humor about himself.
Conclusions: And just what is the great truth at the end of all this?
Rushkoff discovers that Judaism is fluid, evolutionary, and must be
interpreted anew in every generation. In other words, he has discovered
Reconstructionism, and only 80 or so years after Mordechai Kaplan did.
But let's be absolutely clear on this-when he says it needs to be reinterpreted,
he means by him. Those Jews who already have found meaning-e.g., that
the Torah is divine and literal-need to accept his interpretations,
regardless of their lack of any apparent basis. As for his critiques
about American Judaism, they are often true, but hardly original or
profound. Ultimately, there is nothing new, or brilliant, or even menschlich
about Rushkoff's work, a work which offers no truth to truthseekers,
and seeks only to discomfit those who have found, if not truth, at least
I could go on (believe me-since reading this book over Pesach, I've
become obsessed-this whole thing was written from memory), but I think
I've had enough catharsis for now. The only thing that Rushkoff's book
has done has proven that we live in an era in which Judaism has fallen
on hard times-if only because it's a time in which some people could
confuse his book for "the truth about Judaism."