Nothing Sacred | Reflections & Notes

Posted on November 13, 2019

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Douglas Rushkoff. Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. Crown Publishers, 2003. (265 pages)


REFLECTIONS


Douglas Rushkoff is one of my favorite thinkers, writers, philosophers, commentators, and prophets. I’ve been using his content for over two decades in my work to help us peel back the illusions by which we all live, and expose the deeper truths that are most critical to our human experience. Rushkoff’s insights on technology and humanity have earned him a Marshall McLuhan award and a Neil Postman award placing him in the same tradition as other cultural critics and theorists who have done much to advance our collective wisdom.

In Nothing Sacred, that same sagacity is applied to Judaism, and it does not disappoint. Rushkoff names the veneers that obfuscate the deeper truths of Judaism and illuminates the profound beauty of the more primal design of Judaism’s core ethics and aims. And, Rushkoff does this in a way that woos the reader to embrace the riches that are there for the taking, without condemning anyone for missing the mark.

For my context, the vast majority of Rushkoff’s insights map coherently to the Christian religion as well. In fact, I found it intriguing that the tendencies toward fundamentalism (the ossification of a story in a particular time and place), exclusionism (creating in-groups and out-groups), exclusivism (the claim of owning truth), and authoritarianism (the governance of the tribe by dominion and power) are all common between both faiths. This should come as no surprise as this is endemic to the human condition, but it is extremely helpful in contrasting and comparing. It allows the reader to see more clearly how these propensities manifest themselves in one’s specific religious context. As such, the centrality of iconoclasm, monotheism, and social justice that are relevant to Judaism, are equally suitable to the course correction of Christianity as well.

Most noteworthy–again, coherent with a Christian expression–is Rushkoff’s claim that a renaissance (re-birth) of Judaism is what the world needs right now to address our most significant and pressing concerns. I couldn’t agree more. There is a yearning for some organizing principle, some narrative framework, and some grounding ethic that can set the course for dealing successfully with our contemporary challenges. Technologists have the tools, but only faith systems can provide the answers for developing a humanistic and humanitarian religion by which those tools are applied.

So, in telling the truth about Judaism, which is, in my humble opinion, also telling the truth about Christianity, we’re really telling the truth about us all. And in that telling, may we be born again.


NOTES


PREFACE

The Internet had been reduced from a telecommunications revolution to a public relations campaign for the NASDAQ stock exchange. (xi)

| So I found myself in a troublesome bind: How could I still promote the empowering side of interactive media without pumping up a Ponzi scheme that was destined for casualties? I decided to fight for three main priorities. The first was media literacy: The Internet meant nothing if the people using it weren’t media literate enough to understand how to use it and how it was put together. Second, transparency: Technology and (xi) interfaces had to be open, two-way, and participatory–as easy to write as to read. Finally, community: People had to remain the driving force behind a medium that was born out of a need to facilitate interpersonal communication. (xii)

Judaism is a religion dedicated to media literacy. The initiation to adult practice is not an act of faith, but a demonstration of literacy called a bar (or bat) mitzvah. (xiii)

The Jewish restriction on “graven images” is a measure intended to promote transparency. (xiii)

Jewish rituals require community participation. (xiii)

…even the ritual surrounding Torah reading seems intended to promote a distanced, media-savvy attitude toward the text. …breaking up the text in this fashion is a simple but effective form of deconstruction. (xiv)

The core values of this religion may, in fact, prove quite applicable to the broader challenges of our time and help a world struggling with the impact of globalism, the lure of fundamentalism, and the clash of conflicting value systems. (xiv)

As we’ve learned from new media, narratives serve our best interests only when we deconstruct their coercive “magic” and take responsibility for co-creating them. Rather than retreating into the simplistic and childlike, if temporarily reassuring, belief that the answers have already been written along with the entire human story, we must resolve ourselves to participate actively in writing the story ourselves. It is a frightening moment for a child to realize his parents are not gods. Likewise, it is frightening for a people to realize their gods are not parents. We, God help us, are the adults here. (xvi)

ONE | THE TRANSPARENT FAITH

Judaism is open to discussion. It can be questioned and reinterpreted; indeed, it is supposed to be questioned, continually. This very discussion–this quest to discover the truth about Judaism and then reinterpret it for a new era–is nothing new. It is, rather, a continuation of the Jewish tradition for collaborative reinvention. (2)

Our civilization is facing the tremendous spiritual, economic, and cultural challenges posed by globalization, the triumph of science over nature, and the incalculable potential of new technologies. Judaism, instead of rising to meet these challenges, is obsessing with self-preservation. (3)

[via: Christianity, too!]

…commodifiable authenticity. Feel-good retreats and countless workshops offering speciously concocted Jewish mysticism do not revitalize the religion; they merely market and trivialize it. (4)

If Judaism is to extend its own evolution into a fourth millennium, we must learn to regard its most sacred teachings as open for discussion. (5)

RELIGION ON THE ROAD

…the Jewish love for media and entertainment is not part of a plan for (7) global conquest. Rather, it is an extension of the very skills they developed over centuries of serving as cultural mediators. (8)

| If there is an agenda underlying Jews’ dedication to expanding the role of media in people’s lives, it is to promote intellectual perspective and the value of pluralism. Like all good communication, media tends to call sacred values into question.Media, then, at its best, is a form of mass education. But education is threatening to anyone whose power is dependent on fear and ignorance. (8)

Rapid cosmopolitan incursions tend to erode a people’s sense of integrity, uniqueness, and superiority over others. … Sometimes consciously and sometimes not, the Jews’ many achievements were part of an overarching strategy to make themselves indispensable to others. Assimilation was not a sin; it was survival. (9)

THE JEWISH TRINITY: ICONOCLASM, MONOTHEISM, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

Iconoclasm leads to the conclusion that any God must, ultimately, be a universal and nameless God. The natural result of settling for an abstract and unknowable deity is to then focus, instead, on human beings and life itself as the supremely sacred vessels of existence. … Iconoclasm destroys all man-made symbols and leads to abstract monotheism, which in turn leads to an ethos of social justice. (14)

THE IDOL SMASHERS

Mitzrayim, means “Narrow Place.” The slavery from which these people were emerging was not merely the indentured servitude following the great famine, but an enslaved and narrow state of mind. (17)

| The Egyptian religion focused on death. (17)

Instead of worshiping a lamb, the Hebrews of the Exodus myth sacrificed one. It was illegal to kill lambs in ancient Egypt! To paint one’s door with lamb’s blood, especially at this moment in the year, could only be understood as the ultimate blasphemy against the conventional gods. It was an act of defiance and revolution. (18)

[via: In fact checking this, according to Herodotus, only cows were sacred (Herodotus, The Histories 2:41). Goats and sheep were dependent upon which district you lived in: “All that have a temple of Zeus of Thebes or are of the Theban district sacrifice goats, but will not touch sheep. [2] For no gods are worshipped by all Egyptians in common except Isis and Osiris, who they say is Dionysus; these are worshipped by all alike. Those who have a temple of Mendes or are of the Mendesian district sacrifice sheep, but will not touch goats.” (Herodotus, The Histories 2.42)]

The Sh’ma functioned not just as adulation, but also as iconoclasm. (20)

Whit this term, [“stiff-necked people”] in Torah, often refers to the Israelites’ paralyzing stubbornness, it also betrays a deeply seated iconoclasm. From Passover to Purim, Jewish holidays celebrate heroes who would rather die than kneel before man or icon. This aversion to idolatry is instilled in Jews incessantly. (21)

ONE FOR ALL, OR ALL FOR ONE?

Their strict iconoclasm makes abstract monotheism Jews’ only possible relationship to deity. Any representation of God, even a mental image or pronounceable name, is akin to an idol. This is why no one ever sees God, not even in the Torah. (21)

The linguistic structure of the covenant would have been recognized by anyone of the period as the terms of surrender entered into at the conclusion of a war. The Jews were at once declaring their God victorious over all others and surrendering to him themselves. By granting God the credit for their existence and sustenance, they sought to earn his protection. (22)

This is an interesting turn. In the past, God had always earned the Israelites’ devotion by performing great acts, taking them out of Egypt or vanquishing their enemies. Now they were supposed to show devotion to a God who not only allowed but purposefully enabled their enemies to conquer them. (24)

God had receded. (24)

In order to experience this God’s reality, his children would have to stop looking for outward signs and, instead, turn inward. … Atman, as described in the Upanishads, is the eternal sustaining essence within every individual human being. Godhood is not embodied by some kind of creature or independently existing “God” but is to be found in all things. (25)

| The prophets didn’t help Israel survive as a kingdom, but they did help the Israeli people preserve their evolving relationship to Yahweh. … The prophets of the exile, such as Jeremiah, embraced a new, location-independent idea of God. God is within the individual; he can exist in the heart of any believer. (25)

This internalized and all-consuming experience of a truly abstract God allowed the exiled Israelites to distinguish themselves from the people among whom they were now living. (25)

The early rabbis compiled their list of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, from the Bible. The new way to live in the presence of God was to carry his spirit into the life through the performance of these good deeds. There was no longer a separation between man and God, since man was the vehicle through which God exercised his will. God had no dimension, no body, no specific reality at all. … God was everything and everywhere. (26)

The book of Job was rewritten to address this intellectually challenging move into abstractness. (27)

As long as faith finds its foothold in something other than the authority of God or the testaments of those who claim to have encountered him, logic and spirituality are not at odds. God is just not something Jews are supposed to worry about. (29)

| In this light, abstract monotheism is not the process by which a people find the one true God, but the path through which they get over their need for him. (29)

SOCIAL JUSTICE: NOT DOING UNTO OTHERS

The initial and prime Jewish imperative was never to worship God for his own sake. God doesn’t need worship. Jews evolve their concept of him, and their relationship to him, merely as a means toward implementing more humane ways of living. (30)

…more primitive and concretized experiences of God almost always lead to human suffering. (30)

Hillel’s negative phraseology, like Maimonides’s negative theology, keeps any particular command from God out of the equation. It resists misuse by warmongers (31) and violent proselytizers by leaving in doubt just what it is God wants his people to do. It is the work of Jews to figure this out provisionally for every situation. And as long as there is someone being abused or exploited in the world, this work never stops. For someone is being treated in a way Jews wouldn’t want to be treated themselves. (32)

Noah worked to save his own family. Abraham bargained to save the righteous. Moses was willing to lay down his own (33) life for sinners. This progression implies successively higher forms of compassion, with increasing personal risks. Jews’ sense of social justice is supposed to extend past the family and even the worthy, to include all people. (34)

The three incidents, occurring in the same short paragraph, trace the development of Moses’ instinct for justice. In the first instance, he saves an Israelite–one of his own people, according to legend–from an Egyptian. In the second, he saves one Israelite from another. In the third, he intercedes on behalf of the stranger. His sense of social justice is expanding. His definition of justice is also becoming more inclusive and subtle. (34)

…for Jews, the definition of social justice has an ever-expanding radius. (35)

The mandate to care for strangers as Jews would care for themselves or, more specifically, to not allow anything to be done toward a stranger that they wouldn’t want done toward themselves is echoed not just once but over forty separate times in Torah as God reminds his people, “You must not oppress the stranger; you know how a stranger feels, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Jewish mandate for social justice, as learned through collective mythic experience and as evolved by the Torah’s most heroic characters, reaches its highest ideals when one takes action to prevent the exploitation of strangers. (35)

SHARING THE FRUIT: JEWISH ACTIVISM

The Jewish word for charity, tzedakah, actually means “justice.” (37)

[via: Totally nitpicking here. Why “Jewish word” rather than “Hebrew?” Also, if tzedakah (צדקה) means “justice,” what translates “righteousness,” and what does mishpat (משפט) mean?]

TWO | HOW WE LOST THE PLOT

Judaism is in dire need of a revolution of its own. Don’t we need to face up to where we’ve gone wrong and how our institutions no longer support the brilliant ideas they were created to protect? (46)

WRESTLING WITH GOD

By refusing to continue the spirit of inquiry that has characterized Jewish thought for two millennia, we are robbing ourselves of the very tools that empower us to face the many challenges we encounter as Jews. It is, admittedly, because we are one of the world’s most thoughtfully inquisitive civilizations that we run into so much trouble. However, retreating into voluntary passivity and numb acceptance of hand-me-down decrees is an act not of self-preservation, but of self-annihilation. In the name of Judaism, we suppress the Jewish. (48)

Jacob becomes Israel not by hearing the word of God, but by wrestling with him. Since Jacob awakes from his dream alone but physically injured, it has been suggested that his long night of wrestling with God was actually a battle with himself. (48)

| The faith of Israel, then–what we call Judaism–was born not out of the acceptance of a belief, but out of a willing-(48)ness to challenge one’s beliefs. (49)

Instead of reducing Judaism to an easily digested set of platitudes, our religious leaders might be better off looking at why so many people are finding institutional Judaism irrelevant to our daily experience as modern Americans. It may not be that they are overestimating our ability to relate to the complexities of Judaism, but that they have sadly underestimated our need for the real thing. (51)

| Maybe we’re up for the next round in the good fight that Jacob began. (51)

WHERE WE’RE AT

HOW WE GOT HERE

How did we find ourselves in such a mess? (67)

| Modernity and misfortune. The rise of science and more advanced forms of literary criticism in the 1800s challenged cosmopolitan Jews,…the rise of new, scientifically justified forms of racism and persecution led Jews to alter their practices to make them appear less aberrant. … Efforts to understand why God would have permitted such atrocities led Jews to bend their religious convictions even further. These three forces combined to untether Judaism from its historically progressive moorings. (67)

The rise of rationalism rapidly changed Jews’ understanding of their relationship to creation and the cosmos. Copernicus… Darin… Freud… How were Jews to reconcile their myth of creation and their divine place in God’s great scheme with these new and seemingly antireligious conclusions? To modern rationalists, the notion of miracles had become preposterous. (68)

| Meanwhile, the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individualism, though terrific for social justice, wreaked havoc on the authority of the core Jewish myths. (68)

…the factual evidence of the Torah’s human origins shook the faithful, and new schools of religious philosophy had to be developed to accommodate the contradictions wrought by modernity. (70)

Judaism toward a new kind of secular humanism was under way. (71)

Most Jews were already looking for a change. After the short-lived emancipations they enjoyed following the French Revolution, the Jews of Europe were once again reviled and relegated to ghettos. German Jews felt that if only they could make themselves look and act more like regular Germans, they might be accepted as equals. The Reform movement sought to “normalize” Jewish ritual while emphasizing its modern strands. In its most progressive reform, the movement rewrote the prayers that pleaded for the coming of the Messiah and the return to Israel to read more as odes to a spirit of brotherhood among all people. But they also rebuilt their synagogues as “temples,” complete with arks and a stage, in order to make them appear more like the churches in which sacraments were performed. They introduced choral singing, translated prayers into German, and conducted new confirmation services for young people in the style of other Germanic houses of worship. Rabbis donned robes, stood behind pulpits, delivered sermons, and performed weddings in imitation of their Christian counterparts. (71)

| In a desire to fit in better with their xenophobic contemporaries, Jews adjusted their style of worship to conform to a more theatrical set of rituals designed originally for the Catholic mass. Jews ended up succumbing to a passive rela-(71)tionship to deity, without the comfort of a human-faced God like Jesus. They got the worst of both faiths and were left with an internally inconsistent religion. (72)

| Traditionally, the rabbis’ main function was educational. …their job was to teach Torah study in a classroom around a big table. (72)

By changing the role of rabbi to that of a minister and putting him on what amounted to a stage in front of the room, reformers inadvertently led congregants to think about their own role in services very differently. … Instead of focusing on the community of congregants with whom they were worshiping, Jews faced a stage and listened to the words of their rabbi, engaged in responsive reading, or followed along in rabbi-led rituals. (72)

| Congregants couldn’t help but regress into a more childlike relationship to their rabbi and the religion he ministered. They transferred parental authority onto the rabbi and expected him to exemplify the piety to which they themselves could only strive. (72)

[via: Two thoughts. First, “form=function,” very much in line with McLuhan. Second, I’m grateful to Rushkoff for this insight, and it has led me to muse about the “infantilizing” of the Christian congregant.]

Relieved of personal, adult responsibility for their religious practices, Jews tended to perform rituals and observances in a more perfunctory fashion. The religion became less participatory and more talismanic. … Religious education stressed how to behave, but very rarely delved into why. (73)

| The Orthodox movement rose in reaction to these reformations. … Though formulated as an alternative to Reform Judaism, orthodoxy also led its followers to regress into a more passive relationship to scripture. (73)

The very biblical proportions of the Holocaust, combined with a more primitive understanding of the Torah itself, led to a conflation of Jewish myth with Jewish history. … But by choosing to view their history as biblical, Jews couldn’t help but view their Bible as history. The concentration camps were true artifacts of literal history, so the events int he Torah began to be regarded as literally history, too. (75)

| People no longer understood the cataclysms of the Old Testament–from the plagues to the parting of the Red Sea–as metaphors for the birth of a new people. They were reduced to historical fact. Worse, to question the literal and historical (75) validity of the Torah was equated, emotionally, with questioning the reality of the Holocaust and disrespecting the millions who were killed in Nazi gas chambers. (76)

By the 1950s, American Jewish education had devolved into the ethnocentric propaganda of Zionism and racial preservation. Jews’ natural role as advocates of universal social justice and intellectual exchange degenerated to that of global watchdog. (77)

The Jewish biblical word for inner spiritual strength–uzi–became the brand name for an Israeli-made machine gun. (77)

REVIVING JACOB

Fear of persecution, combined with a new, simplistic relationship to the Jewish texts has undermined Judaism’s more time-honored traditions of inquiry and iconoclasm. (80)

This is how Jews lost the plot of our own story–the one we were writing together. The institutions we created to protect our best insights ended up suffocating them. Our texts and practices still hold the keys to an extraordinarily progressive and satisfying spiritual path for those who wish to be both smart and good. But our insistence on maintaining their divine authority and selling them without discussion to our “lapsed” constituency robs them of their true force and meaning. (81)

| Finally, by appointing our most extremely Orthodox members as the caretakers of religious doctrine, we disempower ourselves from being able to do anything about our misgivings. The religion seems to get more racist, patriarchal, parochial, and homophobic rather than less. Young adults raised in this tradition find that their own painstakingly realized life choices–from sexuality to intermarriage–lead them to be shunned by their own religious community. Like recovering cult members, they find themselves longing for the false security of unilateral decree yet unable to reconcile their passively learned faith with their actively earned social development. There is no room for negotiation. (81)

| Today, most Jews no longer identify our religion with the iconoclasm, abstract monotheism, or universal social justice at its core. Judaism is experienced as more of an obligation, even an albatross. By repressing the transparency of our texts, diminishing the egalitarian and participatory quality of our evolving theology, and underestimating our community’s ability to respond more creatively to the challenge of assimilation, we have reduced Judaism from a deconstructing, demystifying, and do-it-yourself spiritual path to a closed book. We have succumbed to our own form of fundamentalism. (82)

| Where is Jacob? Who is still wrestling with God? (82)

| Now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs the gifts that the world’s first pan-cultural, globally conscious religion has to offer. The spiritual thirst is there. So is the hunger for the kinds of open, participatory, and intelligent discourse that made Jewish institutions famous in the past. (82)

| But before we can do Judaism to the world, we had better do Judaism to itself. (82)

THREE | A RENAISSANCE TRADITION

The good news is that Judaism has faced such crises before and survived. In each instance, a small minority of the Jewish population adopted a radically recontextualized understanding of the religion’s fundamental tenets. (83)

Radical reinvention was not merely Judaism’s birthright, but the ongoing and defining character of the Jewish experiment. It is a way of maintaining continuity with the past while allowing for a faith to evolve into the future. Judaism does not change merely to stay with the times. It has been built to change and to cause change. (84)

| Indeed, the paramount Jewish tradition is to question and break with tradition itself. But Judaism does so less through revolution than renaissance–literally, the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. Reorientations. (84)

TO LIFE

…each of the plagues actually symbolizes the desecration of an Egyptian deity by the Israelites’ God. Ultiamtely, the Israelites themselves sacrificed a lamb and put the blood on their doors. This offering would have been well undestood as a blaspheming of the Egyptians most sacred god, the ram-headed Khnum, creator of the universe. (85)

It should not surprise us that Judaism was born, in part, out of a labor resistance movement. Its creators understood that idol worship devalues humanity and compromises social justice. By adopting a more abstract deity, and a more interior way of resonating with him, the Jews hoped to develop a society based in autonomous and thoughtful living rather than mindless slavery and death. (86)

This leap forward in theology and ethics did not mark a terrifying discontinuity for humanity, however much we’d like to (86) believe the Jews invented something entirely new. No, it was simply a recontextualization of ancient rites in a new context. A renaissance. The sacrifice of the child was reinvented through the sacrifice of animals. The pagan quarter-moon festival was reborn as Sabbath. The worship of a lamb as reworked into Pesach, or Passover. The idols of pagan gods were replaced by the conspicuously icon-free Ark of the Covenant. (87)

| These revised practices and beliefs addressed the same human emotions and frailty but redirected them toward a new and more ethically evolved set of values. (87)

The Holy Temple, though bloodlustfully pagan when viewed through a modern lens, nonetheless redefined the very purpose of sacrifice from a preparation for death to a confirmation of the value of human life. (88)

Although tracing Judaism back to its roots in paganism might shake the foundations of fundamentalists who need to affirm God’s direct authorship of everything Jewish, acknowledging the process throgh which the first Jewish renaissance recontextualized the pagan into the profoundly humanistic is critical to our purpose. It serves as the first and foremost (89) precedent to the process we must undergo today. History shows us that Judaism was not born of itself, bootstrapped and independent of all that went before, but was rather a rebirth of old ideas in a new context. (90)

INTO METAPHOR

…the Talmud. Its intricate, intertextual wrapping of commentary around com-(94)mentary was meant to re-create the inner corridors and chambers of the Temple, in literary form. The book’s structure and function became a metaphor for the Holy Temple. (95)

The rabbis certainly understood that Jewish rituals do not serve God, whatever he may be. They serve humans in their effort to embody and enact a more God-like, or at least God-approved, way of living. The rabbinic renaissance transformed Judaism from a literal transposition of pagan practices into a metaphoric appreciation for the core values that God symbolizes. The stories and metaphors of Judaism are merely media–virtual containers for the sacred, which has no actual form. (97)

THE CRISIS OF MODERNITY

But av irtual religion is as hard to practice as a virtual people are to hold together. Eventually, even the metaphors people use to represent a “real thing” come to be regarded as real things themselves, especially when people need something more tangible than a metaphor to hold on to in the face of annihilation. (97)

Without a sturdy institution to bind them to one another or to preserve their most sacred beliefs, European Jews from the fourteeth to the twentieth centuries came to value continuity over experience. (97) The chief objective of Judaism became to preserve Judaism itself. (98)

The Inquisition and subsequent expulsion of the Jews from many of Europe’s cultural centers repeatedly fractured them into retrograde, mystically inclined enclaves who prayed in futility for the Messiah. (98)

The catastrophic proportions of the Nazi Holocaust, following yet another of the Jews’ seeming acceptances into (98) European society, led them once again to question the motives of their withdrawn deity as well as their own strategy of integration. … And it has changed their relationship to Torah to this day. Now that the metaphoric value of the Jewish myths and rituals had been collapsed into history and supersitition, their ability to serve as the triggers for intellectual inquiry was neutralized. (99)

| Progressive intellectualism, which had once been the Jews’ calling card, was now equated with the modernist, assimilated European values that had cost Jews their six million lives. (99)

Like the Israelities of the desert and the Jews of the exile, todady’s Jews are afractured people in need of renaissance. (101)

For however much Judaism may serve as the source of our core beliefs, it is also the source of many misgivings. (101)

For these reasons and more, many of us have taken long, effortful journeys away from what we htought of as Judaism. Some of us became quite successful and respected in our secular endeavors, only to realize with painstaking clarity that the (102) many insights and values we have come to fight for find their very foundations in the Jewish tradition we abandoned. Strangely, the very same culture from which we rebel also informs some of our most cherished beliefs. We come full circle. (103)

| Rather than denying this paradox, the way to move forward might be to embrace it. (103)

RENAISSANCE NOW

By permitting itself to undergo a renaissance of the same magnitude as the leap from paganism to monotheism, or Temple rituals to synagogue worship, Judaism can once again serve as an ethical, intellectual, and spiritual template for a civilization facing the challenges of globalization. It would be a struggle, but it would be worth it. In fact, a full-scale renaissance may be this religion’s only hope for genuinely meaningful survival. (104)

| What is renaissance, exactly? It’s a dimensional leap. Think of all those great REnaissance innovations we were taught in grammar school: perspective painting, calculus, circumnavicating the globe, the sonnet, and the printing press, to name just a few. What do all these features of the original Renaissance have in common? In one way or another, they all invove seeing three dimension wher there had previously been only two. (104)

Today, we are undergoing a similar shift–one that might even be considered a renaissance all its own. Recent advances in science, technology, and thought such as the holograph, the fractal, chaos math, the Gaia hypothesis, and the Internet all intimate another leap in dimensional perspective. These late-twentieth-century innovations all suggest a new relationship between the individual and the whole. Scientists, mathematicians, and sociologists alike are reckoning with the possibility that each part of a network, in some small way, reflects the nature of the entire system. (105)

This emerging understanding of dimensionality might best be called “recapitulations.” Each component recapitulates the entire system. It’s a new, multidimensional perspective–and, to many, a frightening one. (106)

Think of a renaissance as if it were like learning to play a video game. (106)

Renaissances involve similar leaps in perspective, wher ethose who formerly accepted the rules of a given situation feel suddenly capable of rewriting those rules for themselves. They realize how laws they accepted as “givens” were actually choices made by people who had access to the original codes. Renaissances are inherently iconoclastic because they allow people to deconstruct ideas, institutions, and systems of belief that were previously sacrosanct. (107)

| This is why the invention of a renaissance technology such as movable type resulted in the Protestant Reformation. (107)

Renaissances, then, are windows of opportunity–momentary shifts in perspective when the narratives we used to understand our reality are up for discussion. We know full well that our experience of mastery–of being in on the metagame–is only temporary. It is like a mystical experience or state of knowing. Before long, the pieces will fall back into place and a new narrative will be accepted, most likely as yet another sacred and inviolable truth. This is why there’s such a scramble (108) for authority. Whichever old ideas we want to be carried into the next age, we plant during these renaissance moments, from neoclassical and Gothic Revival to the new rules of th enew economy and the New Age movement. (109)

| So much for the “rebirth of old ideas” side of renaissance, but what about the “new context”? Are we making any progress as we step outside the rules of games? Do the new rules and narratives that we write any more efficiently, or humanely, organize our activities and experiences? Will a renaissance in the practice of Judaism necessarily lead to a renaissance in our ethics and theology? (109)

| I think so. Renaissances are leaps forward in our ability to experience dimension. (109)

Many of our inventions and symbol systems pass through these stages as well, affording us greater control and flexibility over their use. (109)

So what would constitute Judaism’s next leap? Phrased another way, what ist he fractal or Internet version of Judaism? What is its “recapitulation” phase, and how do we get there? (110)

| The way we always have: by opening the very source of our religion to scrutiny and reinvention. (110)

A Jewish renaissnace, too, will demand that we dig deep into the very code of our religion, then reexperiene it in the context of full modernity. It will require us to assume, at least temporarily, that nothing at all is too sacred to be questioned, reinterpreted, and modified. But in doing so, we will make ourselves ready to bring Judaism through its current crisis and into its next phase of expression. And, perhaps ironically, we’ll be engaging ourselves in Judaism’s most time-honored tradition. (111)

OPEN SOURCE JUDAISM?

An open source religion would work the same way as open source software development: it is not kept secret or mysterious at all. Everyone contributes to the codes we use to comprehend our place in the universe. We allow our religion to evolve base don the active participation of its people. (111)

Finally, this highly dimensional approach to Torah changes our relationship to the stories it tells. By increasing our perspective on the Torah’s narrative, we pull ourselves out of its seemingly linear chain of events. We no longer understand it as a record of our fixed history or a foretelling of our God-ordained future; instead, we see it as something that is happening in every moment. It is not a record of Jewish history as much as it is a description of the eternal human condition, from which we may then infer or enact our own futures. Because unlike a messianic fantasy of some distant salvation, (115) renaissances don’t occur in history or as destiny. They are experienced in the present. By relating to the Torah not as a linear chronicle but as a highly dimensional object, we unleash its real power as a guiding light. (116)

In short, God no longer needs to be experienced as (118) receded at all, but rather defined and embodied through a community. We acknowledge that each individual can offer an essential perspective on the whole of Judaism. We learn to recreate the sacred through our mutual participation in each moment of inquiry. In essence, we enact our God, together. (119)

[via: This sounds like Caputo’s phrase, “God does not exist, God insists.”]

In our successive Jewish renaissances, then, we moved from sacrifice to prayer to co-creation. It is the evolution from a fear of God, to the worship of God, and, finally, to the expression of God. (119)

[via: As we move from “concrete > metaphor > phenomenology,” could we map this on to “child > adolescent > adult”?] Perhaps why we say “grow up” when faced with expressions that are too “concretized” and “simplistic.”]

But to move into this direct experience of sanctity–a personal and vital expression of spirituality–we have to let ourselves grow up. We lose the illusory safety of regression and transference, but we gain the responsibilities and privileges of adults. We lose the magical protection of our talismans and rituals, but we regain their value as affirmations and focal points. We lose the ability to relegate all the hard study to men with long beards, but we gain access to some of the most intriguing myths and thoughtful laws ever written. We lose the authority of our testament as the sole piece of divine evidence, but we gain the experiences of peoples with whom we have always been in competition. We lose the special status of being a chosen race, but gain the ability to choose a path voluntarily and to share what we’ve found with the entire world. We lose the Zionist claim over a patch of sacred soil, but get to claim the entire planet as a kind of Jerusalem. We lose Yahweh–the one and only actor who is allowed to play God–but are empowered to enact the unity of the Sh’ma ourselves. (120)

LETTING GO, YET LOSING NOTHING

FOUR | BEYOND THE RACE AND PLACE

MAIMONIDES AND AN INFERRED GOD

More than anything else, Rambam insisted that God could never be understood. (131) …“negative theology,” … One can’t describe what God is; one can only list what he is not: God is not a man or king; God does not have a mind; God does not have thoughts or emotions; and so on. (131)

FROM ENLIGHTENMENT TO DARKNESS: SPINOZA AND ZEVI

If Maimonides can be said to have prefigured the Renaissance, then Spinoza prefigured the Enlightenment. (138)

Spinoza realized that neither a religion nor a government should be allowed to control a person’s thoughts. That’s why they must be kept separate–so that law never become religion, and religion never become the law. (138)

Spinoza was the first European to promote the idea of a secular democratic state and one of the first Jews to articulate the notion that divine law applies no more to Jews than it does to any other human beings. (139)

ALIYAH OR DESCENT?
THE TROUBLE WITH ZIONISM

The seemingly endless crisis in the Middle East and the extent to which Israel’s policies are justified using religious rationale complicate everyone’s relationship to Jewishness. (150)

OUTSIDE IN–BREAKING RACE

The Jews’ occasional regression to messianic fantasy is almost always in reaction to a very real external threat. (151)

But Jewish suffering was, in fact, senseless. … Jewish myths, history, and obligation to halakah do not teach that there was some great moment of perfection in the past. … History has been a long, slow, and irregular progression toward civilization. Halakah is based on the presumption that Jews can make the world a more just place through right action. (152)

Biblical warnings against the false gods of state abound. The first thing God says to Abraham in Genesis (12:1) is, “Get thee out of thy country.” The sad irony underlying the current Jewish obsession with territory is that the religion itself was founded on the disengagement from the land. As twentieth-century reformer and social activist Rabbi Abraham Heschel explains in his many books on the subject, “Judaism must be a religion which sanctifies time more than space.” (153)

…four decades. Why? To learn, before they get to Canaan, that the Promised Land has nothing to do with a specific place. In stark contrast with the pagan, land-based religions from which Judaism was created to distinguish itself, for the Israelites sanctity is in the moment. (154)

| The story of the Torah ends before the Israelites even capture Canaan. The “promise” itself is postponed, and success is left in question. The Israelites get a view of the Holy Land, but not ownership. … the most important story in Judaism, the Torah, leaves the Israelites in exile. (154)

Freud demonstrated how an early form of abstract monotheism had been instituted, for a short time, by a (155) renegade pharaoh two centuries before what would have been the arrival of biblical Moses. (156)

LOOK UP

The startling reversal in the Moses story–that the nobleman is proven to be the child of slaves–is evidence that this myth of origin was used by the Jews to claim Moses as one of their own. In fact, according to Freud and a good many historians, Moses was an Egyptian reviving what had become an underground monotheistic cult. Looking for a people to help him forge a new civilization based on monotheistic principles, he found his most likely candidates in the oppressed workers of Goshen. (156)

[via: I’d really like to see some citations here.]

| Archaeological evidence also suggests that the Israelites were not a distinct race, originally from Canaan and then subjected to bondage by the Egyptians, but a disparate group of desert tribes. (156)

Neither Freud’s purpose nor my own is to undermine the authenticity of the biblical narrative in order to destroy Judaism; rather, it is to demonstrate how its creation involved the amalgamation of the best beliefs of the tribes who were gathering in the desert. (157)

By elevating Judaism from a state of ethnic grace to ao consciously assumed relationship to God, Freud hoped to enhance the autonomy implicit in the decision to live by halakah. He believed that the choice to be Jewish was a choice to distinguish oneself from the masses. To become conscious. As Freud argued, Judaism is an idea, not a race. (157)

Judaism subordinates the sense perceptions to an abstract idea of God. It is founded in a renunciation of certain (157) baser instincts, all in the hope of becoming more humane and less animalistic. (158)

We find no strong evidence of racial continuity in Torah; it is always outsiders who make the accusation of Jewish ethnicity. In the Torah, it is not God but the oppressive Pharaoh who first calls the Israelites “a people” (am Yisrael), because he fears they might breed uncontrollably (like swarming insects) and then not support him in times of war. From the Amalekites to Haman, angry outsiders are responsible for casting the federation of Yahweh-worshiping peoples as belonging to a single and contemptible bloodline. (158)

FROM A RACE TO A PEOPLE,
AND BEYOND

It may be the Jews’ greatest adversaries who have defined them as a race, yet it is Jews who managed to adopt and maintain this view in the face of conclusive scientific evidence that there is no genetic basis for race, least of all a Jewish one. … Although the concept of “race” is no more tangible than an idea (perhaps it is even less concrete a notion), the illusion of being glued together by blood or a specific (162) sequence in our DNA, rather than mere thoughts or actions, somehow feels more real. (163)

By relinquishing our claim to an “original religion,” passed to us directly from the biblical character GOd, we can once again make Judaism available to all who might benefit from its profound focus on ideals over ethnicity. Acknowledging the many influences from which our insights spring does not weaken them, or us, in the least. It invites other peoples to consider their own relationship to Judaism in an entirely new context and, more important, frees us of the crippling tendency to lie to ourselves about the mythic origins of the much more real and ongoing choice to be Jewish. (163)

It is rather to the credit of Jewish ideas. By recontextualizing these ancient holidays, Jews replaced their dependence on the fickle and demanding gods of the land and weather with a new relationship to history, ethics, and social justice. Only by exploring the genuine, foreign roots of these holidays can we come to discover what about them is truly Jewish. (165)

…take Judaism at face value, as a set of events to believe in, rather than as a living system of ideas to be energized and actualized through the ongoing participation of its ever-expanding circle of advocates. (165)

In many instances throughout Jewish history, assimilation has been regarded not as a danger to be avoided, but as a strategy. It is the way Jews promote pluralism, strive toward universality, and keep the boundaries that define Jewishness more porous. In the Torah, intermarriage is not a crime, but a blessing. (166)

CREATION VS. EMERGENCE

The theory they use to describe the natural self-organization of a community is called “emergence.” (168)

We, too, are members of a society with emergent properties. Judaism developed out of the amalgamation of a wide variety of beliefs and customs, all organized around a central premise of iconoclasm, abstract monotheism, and social justice. Our iconoclasm and monotheism insure that we never surrender central authority to anyone or anything. Our mandate for social justice guarantees the equal right of each member to thrive. When things are going well, we feel at liberty to experience these truths and exercise our halakhah as individuals. When we are facing an external threat, we band together–as if we were the components of a single race or organism. (169)

Even if Israel is engaged in a battle for its very survival against an intractable, permanent enemy, we must at least ask ourselves if the defense of Israel is really the same thing as the defense of Judaism. Is it possible that Israel’s seemingly irresolvable battle for survival has become an excuse for the rest of the world’s Jewish population to maintain its defensive crouch and avoid bigger questions about what it means to be Jewish? (170)

| By clinging to a group mentality whether or not the need for such a strategy is present, we force ourselves to find new motivations for our beliefs and behaviors. Since we are behaving like an organized group, we begin to seek out leaders and to create centralized authorities that confirm our self-image. Instead of relaxing into friendlier surroundings, we retrofit new institutions to justify our obsolete survival skills. We embrace belonging and passivity and find leaders who preach to us unilaterally. Instead of rising up from the masses, we look for ways to descend into one. (170)

We may have to give up more than race and state in our effort to bring Judaism up to the present and into the future. We may have to give up the notion of “peoplehood” altogether. The premise that Jews are a unique “people” depends on a faulty understanding of our own history. It presupposes that we have a collective origin–that the one and only God dubbed our ancestors as a chosen race, above or at least apart from all others. (171)

[via: So, while I understand the general argument here, the view of “chosenness” that Rushkoff is arguing against is not necessarily the view of the Torah. “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-10) Hermeneutically, “chosenness” is not about the people that are chosen but rather the God that is doing the choosing. In other words, “chosenness” has more to do with the character of God than the character of the people.]

Judaism does not teach faith; it teaches active participation. (172)

If we can bring ourselves to appreciate, rather than hide from, the fact that our halakah emerged out of our amalgamation and interaction with a multitude of different people, we can share how to find ways of arriving at ethical truths through accepting and adapting the wisdom of others. (174)

If Judaism is not a birthright, but a choice, then all who are willing to engage in the process of conscious and ethical living must be allowed to join in the divine fun. (175)

FIVE | HINENI

Religion can be a great thing, as long as we don’t believe in it. I’m not just being glib. Judaism is a faith performed, not a faith held. Our credo is praxis–the actualization of ideals through their exercise in real life. The challenge is to perform our duties as Jews and maintain the life of our myths without falling into the trap of fundamentalism. (178)

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD

In order to fully dimensionalize our understanding of our relationship to God in a way that is compatible with the practice of an intellectually engaged Judaism, we might begin by rethinking this dynamic in a fully participatory framework. Since we are not starting from scratch but, rather, embracing a renaissance tradition, we can engage with the primary sources of Judaism while using our new conceptual framework. I’ve begun to do so, and it hs yielded surprisingly solid confirmation of Judaism’s readiness for reinvention in a new context. (182)

HERE I AM

Perhaps our legend is suggesting that hineni is the utterance not of the Torah character alone, but of God speaking through that human being. God calls out the name of his next prophet, and the prophet, open and ready to follow God’s commands, becomes the embodiment of God’s will. The mythic prophet is, in a sense, possessed by the spirit of God–or, in a more contemporary model, expressing the divinity within himself. (183)

In a way God is one’s conscience–the unnamable internalized voice that knows right from wrong. (186)

We creat God through hineni, by providing him with the arms, legs, and voices to manifest love for our fellow beings. (187)

COLLECTIVE NARRATIVE

Problems arise when one group starts to see its story as the only possible narrative and the characters within it–(188)whether Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha–as the exclusive holders of the absolute truth. For eventually, as the world becomes a smaller place, one people’s absolute truth will come into contact with another people’s absolute truth. When they conflict, so do their true believers. Everyone fights to make the world conform to a particular story. (189)

| It is dangerously presumptuous to believe that one’s own concept of God is right for everybody. The models we use for GOd, and stories we have written to explain his relationship to us on this plane, are merely that: models. Divinity, by definition, is beyond human comprehension. To mistake one’s model of God for God himself is to mistake the map for the territory. On the other hand, by remaining conscious that our conceptions of God are mere models, we allow for the possibility of pluralism. Whatever model gets a person to behave as if other people’s interests are as important as his own is a good one. (189)

The record of human history is not predetermined, but amended with every good or bad deed. Myths develop over time, as a people struggle to define their most enduring collective truths. They begin with our most primitive encounters with forces of nature and extend eventually to our relationships with one another. But when a people experience themselves as under threat–whether from external invasion or the intermingling with others–they tend to cling to their mythology in order to preserve their identity. This is when they find themselves retreating into fundamentalism: the locking down of mythic narrative at a particular moment in its evolution. The story no longer serves as a collectively developed narrative, but as a complete picture of the world worth dying or killing for. (190)

Likewise, the narrative life of our biblical literature is offered to us in the form of a dialogue as well. It is an emergent narrative, dependent on the interpretation of its readers for its life and applicability. We participate in its writing and its telling, co-creating our collective mythology from the bottom up. (192)

…just because a candle can be blown out does not mean that the darkness is an energy of its own. (193)

Hineni, like the force behind any developing narrative, is pure potential. Readiness. Here I am. It turns divinity from a state of grace into a living process. (193)

Like open source programmers, we write our own narratives around a central core. Judaism is an act of continual creation. It is based in the remembrance, revision, and recontextualization of myth. The texts become alive not because they are based in historical fact, but because they are being read and responded to. (195)

To celebrate life means to accept that there is no (196) conclusion to our story. It is open-ended and forever continuing. … This requires a great tolerance for plurality as well as for a tremendous amount of uncertainty. (197)

…our narrative offers an infinite possibility of outcomes, limited only by the ability to think and act creatively. … As Jews, we do not live for our story; our story lives for us. (197)

| This allows Judaism to be a living religion. (197)

RELIGION’S NEW PURPOSE

The difficulty in formulating a single approach to practice is that religion generally serves two main functions, and they are often at odds with each other. On the one hand, religions quell the baser expressions of human nature. They are meant to keep violent, selfish, and destructive people from harming others. Religion is, in this role, a form of social control. On the other hand, religions must also sere to inspire thinking, tolerant people to achieve new levels of understanding and spiritual development. Religion’s role, in this case, is to provide the tools for human evolution. (199)

| Can Judaism do both? (199)

| Probably not. (199)

…the only way to relate to a “way” that is in a constant state of evolutionary flux is through intelligence. (201)

Real Judaism is a smart person’s religion. Through intelligence we develop compassion. This is not an elitist stance. There is no place for the unwashed, uneducated masses, because their very existence depends on injustice and cruelty. No, everyone must be smart. (202)

The prophets were, first and foremost, according to Maimonides, men of intellect. Their ability to reason prepared them for their subsequent revelations. (202)

NATURAL HALAKAH
A LIVING COVENANT

TALKING LAW

REINVENTING RITUAL

Rituals generally have three main functions in a society. Magical rituals are conducted for the purpose of affecting nature. … Sacramental rituals are performed in order to rpovide focus or create an inner state. (214)

The third style of ritual–the one that best applies to Jews today–takes place in a more figurative context. This type of ritual is more like theater or a visit to a museum. We don’t believe anything magical is actually taking place or that anything tangible–like rain or peace–will result from the ceremony. It is more of a reenactment carried out to keep something in our sense memory. … It is a form of play that extends a common language throughout a community. (215)

The Hasmonaeans were totalitarian in their own right, believing that all aspects of life must be dictated by the Torah. Their struggle was not against the Greeks, it was against the assimilated Jews, whose altars they destroyed and on whom they performed forced circumcisions. (220)

As leaders of our own ceremonies, particularly in the home, we have the authority to update them however we choose so they make more sense to us and our families–as long as we base our decisions on our best efforts to understand the ritual’s intended effets in its original context. (222)

RUN TO THE BEIT MIDRASH

Although a participatory and self-authored relationship to Judaism will be key to its survival in the coming years, our rejection of the religion’s obsolete institutions needn’t rob us of the ability to educate ourselves. (227)

People began to think of the synagogue as a place to hear answers instead of a place to find new questions. (228)

| In order to fuel a renaissance in participatory Judaism, we will need to reverse this trend and reinvent a beit midrash for our age. …part of the Jewish mandate is to wrestle not just with Torah, but with one another. There is no such thing as personal refealtion or individual enlightenment in Judaism. Unlike the Gnostic and mystical traditions, Judaism does not offer transcendence from the real world or the body through spiritual practice. (229)

The beit midrash model is akin to that of a teaching hospital: to learn is to teach, and to teach is to learn. (229)

The job of a new beit midrash would be to give all seekers direct access to Torah–the very source code of Judaism–as well as a place to hash out their interpretations. (230)

It’s not about rejecting the rabbis; its (230) about not having to experience religion entirely through the footnotes of others. How far back must we go to reorient ourselves to Judaism’s essential codes? As far back as necessary to make the Jewish model fit our current reality, but no further back than the Torah itself. For Jews, the Torah is the point of origin. (231)

NEGOTIATING OUR TRUTH

In Judaism, nothing is sacred–at least not anything that you or I are capable of producing or even conceiving. (237)

This is why we must engage one another. (237)

The Jewish contention that nothing is sacred means more than rejecting all forms of idolatry. By confirming our iconoclasm at every turn we create the space for something sacred to emerge between us. Judaism, our texts, and our practices are all designed to create a kind of emptiness. It is not the emptiness of despair or the loss of meaning. It is the emptiness that mythic Abraham felt on being denied the right to sacrifice his son. It is the emptiness of the holy “tent of meeting” that the Israelites carried through the desert that held place for a new kind of God that had no idol. It is this emptiness, this nothingness itself, that holds open the possiblity for the divine to emerge. | This nothing is sacred. (238)

EPILOGUE | NOW WHAT?

We are probably serving the tradition of Judaism best when we worry less about the degree to which we meet the obligation we have to Judaism and, instead, consider the obligation we have, as Jews, to the entire world. (242)

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