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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, Nothing Sacred.

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 existence."

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.'"

Douglas Rushkoff Bewails In New York Press His Crucifixion At Hands Of Institutional Jews

6/22/03

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.

4/26/05

The Worst Book About Judaism Ever Written

Dave Deutsch writes:

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 fire, count?

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 of 18.

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 the torah.

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 Moshiach comes.

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 meaning.

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."