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Confronting the Disaffection with Jewish Life on the Part of Those Seeking Spiritual Meaning

Allan C. Brownfeld
Summer 2003

by Douglas Rushkoff,  
Crown Publishers,  
265 Pages,  

Increasingly, those American Jews seeking spiritual meaning in their lives appear to be disaffected with organized Jewish life, which they see as obsessed with self-preservation, intermarriage and Middle East politics.  

This disaffection and how to address it is the subject of a thoughtful new book, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, by Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of communications at New York University, a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and an essayist for Time Magazine.  

“Sadly, for many Jews today, religion is a closed book,” he writes. “Most Jewish institutions offer little more than the calcified shell that once protected the spiritual insights at its core. Disaffected with their synagogues’ emphasis on self-preservation and obsession with intermarriage, most Jews looking for an intelligent inquiry into the nature of spirituality have turned elsewhere, or nowhere. ... 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 ...”  

Open-ended Inquiry  
It is Rushkoff’s view that the texts and practices making up Judaism were designed to avoid the present situation. Jewish tradition, he argues, stresses transparency, open-ended inquiry, assimilation of the foreign, and a commitment to conscious living. Judaism invites inquiry and change. It is an “open source” tradition - one born out of revolution, committed to evolution, and willing to undergo renaissance at a moment’s notice. But, unfortunately, some of the very institutions created to protect the religion and its people are now suffocating them. Perhaps, Rushkoff declares, if the Jewish tradition is actually one of participation in the greater culture, to wrestle with sacred beliefs, and a refusal to submit blindly to icons that don’t make sense to us, the “lapsed” Jews may truly be Judaism’s most promising members. He poses the question: Why won’t they engage with the synagogue, and how can they be made to feel more welcome?  

The creation of Israel and the stress on Jewish ethnicity rather than on universal moral and religious values have, Rushkoff believes, seriously endangered Judaism’s religious sensibility: “The fear of further reprisals confirmed the Jewish identity as a quest for survival against all odds, while limiting the definition of Judaism from a set of universal ideas to an indelible racial brand. Following the Holocaust, the establishment of the first Jewish nation in two thousand years grounded the notion of Israel in a physical piece of territory ... The Jewish enlightenment may have first separated the church and state, but Zionism put them back together again. Now, like other nations, the Jews had a flag under which to rally, a race with which to identify, and a country to protect. At the time, they had little reason to believe that this protectionism would one day reach near obsessive proportions and pose a real threat to the pluralist and universal values they had developed in the Diaspora.”  

Ethnocentric Propaganda  
By the 1950s, he writes, “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. As they kept their ears to the ground for fear of persecution or worse, the Jewish tradition of prophecy and cultural design became one of survivalist future casting. The incessant Arab attacks presented Jews with a wealth of immediate, identifiable enemies. And these enemies were more feared than the decline of the most elemental and timeless Jewish ideals. Judaism’s universal applications were surrendered to the seemingly pressing realities of state and race. Discussions at synagogues concentrated less on spirituality than on fund-raising for a besieged Israel and stemming the threat intermarriage posed to Jewish racial purity. To young American Jews like me, temple ... was a place where we were told of our great obligation to preserve and protect our special chosen people against a slew of encroaching dangers ... But what was in it for us?”  

The typical synagogue, Rushkoff notes, seemed to say that, “Just keeping one’s children marrying within the faith was victory enough.” He writes that, “By the time moderate Jews realized just how far they had relinquished control over their religion and Holy Land to Judaism’s own version of fundamentalists, it was too late ... Most of us were so turned off by our culture, our practice, and the policies of our namesake nation that we left Judaism shortly after our bar mitzvahs ... Our religious education, such as it was, ended at the age of 13 ... Those who did remain in the fold tended to believe that the supreme role of good Jews was to protect Judaism itself ... Instead of serving as a way to share insights with others, conversion forced on prospective non-Jewish mates as an ultimatum, treating them like members of a lower species ... As the religion and its institutions got increasingly close-minded and self-interested, fewer and fewer people felt any reason to stay Jewish at all.”  

Israel and Jewishness  
The continuing crisis in the Middle East and the extent to which Israel’s policies are justified using religious rationale “complicate everyone’s relationship to Jewishness,” Rushkoff states: “After the Camp David Accords, in which Israel agreed to return Sinai to Egypt, Moshe Levinger, an outspoken and influential settler known as ‘the new Maccabee,’ declared that Zionists had been infected by the ‘virus of peace.’ In response, Menachem Begin announced 20 new West Bank settlements ... Israel became equated in official government rhetoric and pro-Israeli sentiment with the redemption of the Jewish people, and Zionism grew from a way to protect the oppressed into a holy war ... Americans today who want to support Israel in its quest to maintain a safe homeland for Jews must also take into account the fact that its leaders allow fundamentalists to dictate a good portion of foreign and domestic policy ... Does our money go to the enlightened society of Israeli people pushing progressive Jewish ideals or to the Haredim, who, in the manner of the Taliban, throw rocks at cars on the Sabbath and attack the houses of people whose wives dress ‘immodestly?’ Is Israeli policy held hostage to the agendas of Jewish fundamentalists and misguided West Bank settlers?”  

By giving the enemies of Judaism a central role in its history and theology, and by making Israel, a sovereign state, the object of worship, Jews are turning their backs on their own unique religious tradition and engaging in the very real “assimilationism” they so often decry, according to Rushkoff.  

He writes: “Neither the Inquisitors nor Hitler deserve a role in Judaism’s religious evolution. These madmen need not be incorporated into Judaism’s theological schema. To do so risks undermining the iconoclasm at Judaism’s core. Jewish myths, history, and obligation to halakah do not teach that there was some great moment of perfection in the past. There was no better time. The mythic patriarchs turned to Yahweh for ethical standards higher than those practiced by their contemporaries. 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. In this light, most efforts to find theological support for religious Zionism amount to assimilation of the worst kind. ... Jews abandon iconoclasm, the long-standing insight into the false idols of land-based peoples. Although Israel has provided a safe haven for persecuted Jews ... the insistence on preserving its status as a holy nation with a preordained mystical climax has diminishing returns. It exacerbates Jews’ self-definition and concertizes falsely drawn ethnic boundaries.”  

Zionism and Assimilation  
Zionism, Rushkoff points out has “become a mantra for Jews fighting against assimilation. But Judaism itself was formulated as a way of transcending the obsession with physical territory and focusing instead on the supremacy of time and the realm of ideas. What’s more assimilated than rallying around a flag and fighting for a plot of land, just like everybody else?”  

In the Bible, warnings against the false gods of the 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,” declares Rushkoff, “is that the religion itself was founded in the disengagement from the land. As 20th 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.’ For example, after escaping Egypt, the Torah’s Israelites spend 40 years in the desert. They are not wandering aimlessly, but following a cloud of smoke as it moves back and forth across the flat earth. Wherever the cloud stops, the Israelites place their holy ark. This becomes the new Holy Land for a moment; then the cloud moves on. The Israelites must endure this process for 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.”  

Indeed, the story of the Torah ends before the Israelites even capture Canaan. Joshua’s conquest of Canaan does not appear in the five holiest books. As a result, the most important story in Judaism, the Torah, leaves the Israelites in exile. Beyond this, Rushkoff notes, “When the Israelites do take possession of Canaan and get a taste of the responsibilities of land ownership, they start to long for a king of their own. They are no longer satisfied praying to God. They want to be like the people of their neighboring nations, who pay homage to a head of state who can protect them. They insist that their prophet Samuel pick them one. Samuel turns to God and confesses that he has failed his Lord. God reassures Samuel by claiming the failure as his own. He tells Samuel to go find the people a king, if that’s what they really want. Samuel looks out at the crowd and picks the tallest man. That’s how much the Torah cares about affairs of state. ... The Zionist claim that the loss of nation leads inevitably to assimilation and the dissolution of Jewish identity is contradicted by two millennia of existence in exile. A nation can be conquered; an idea is harder to kill.”  

Are Jews “Born Different?”  
Rushkoff shows that those who argue that Jews are “born different - racially predisposed to do God’s work” eliminate the “active choice” in any genuine religious commitment. Both Biblical accounts and archaeological evidence, he writes, “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. The Torah relates that Moses went first to Midian and took a wife there before returning to liberate his people from bondage ... Once in the desert, Moses is instructed in the creation of law by a Midianite priest, his father-in-law Jethro ... 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) ... 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.”  

Those who insist on maintaining the literal notion of a shared genetic patriarchy, Rushkoff declares, must remember that the matriarchs always come from other tribes: “Ruth, ‘the Moabite,’ like many other of the Bible’s foreign heroines, offered her own fertility just when it appears the Israelites’ bloodline was going to die out. Moses’ own wife, Zipporah, was a dark-skinned Ethiopian and the daughter of a Midianite priest, To the Jews of the Bible at least, it is more important that the ideas are passed on than a specific set of genes. ... In Jewish history, just as in Jewish myth, it is anti-Semites who first characterize Jews as a race. The Jews then accept this false label as their own ... In fact, the Jews are an amalgamation of many peoples, all united by an evolving culture and a set of ideas.”  

Ideas Are Borrowed and Adapted  
Not even these ideas are uniquely Jewish, but are borrowed and adapted from the many cultures in which Jews have lived: “The account of creation in Genesis was derived from a much older Mesopotamian myth, while much of the legend of Noah came from the earlier story of Gilgamesh, The order of the Passover seder is based on the structure of a traditional Greek festival meal - from the egg to the afikomen. We find the ‘Jewishness’ in these stories and holidays not by insisting on their originality, but through discovering how they were adapted to serve a uniquely Jewish purpose ... 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.”  

While there are elements in the Jewish tradition which have shunned the non-Jewish world - the Bible has graphic descriptions of priests murdering young Jewish men for intermingling with non-Jewish women - the element of the Jewish idea, in Rushkoff’s view, is quite the opposite: “The most central prayer, the Sh’ma (‘The Lord is One’), amounts to a declaration of the unity of the universe. The Exodus story ... is an account of how several distinct tribes unified in common self-interest, under a single, abstract God. Traditionally, each region of the ancient world has its own preexisting god. By keeping God unnamable and unknowable, Jews could also keep this deity universal ... In the Torah, intermarriage is not a crime, but a blessing. As we have seen, many of the matriarchs, on whom the mythic lineage of Jews depends, were not Israelites at all. (So much for matrilineal descent). The Jews have perpetuated themselves not by shunning, but by embracing ‘the other,’ in custom and in marriage. Assimilation is treated throughout the Torah as a blessing. ‘Love the stranger,’ the Torah commands not once but over 40 times, ‘for you were once strangers in Egypt.”‘  

Judaism’s Deepest Truth  
In the process of embracing the deepest truth of the Jewish tradition, Rushkoff believes, “we transform Judaism into our gift to other peoples ... Jews are only a means toward bringing new people into the Jewish way. In Genesis (22:18), God does indeed promise Abraham that his own offspring will flourish. But he quickly adds that this state of grace will be transmitted so ‘that all the nations of the world shall be blessed through your descendants.’ In Exodus (19:4), the Jews are chosen by God - but only to be a ‘nation of priests,’ implying that Jews should be ministering their ideals to other peoples. By Isaiah (42-6), the role of Jews as a ‘light unto the nations,’ is made explicit:  

‘And I will establish you as a Covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations.’ Owning Judaism means owning up to the responsibility to share it with everyone.”  

The current preoccupations of the American Jewish community - among them ethnic identity and the state of Israel, Rushkoff writes, “may be vestiges of a collective defense and entirely inappropriate for people - such as American Jews - who are no longer fighting for their survival in a lethally hostile environment. Is Israel in a fight for its very survival? Would it be if it returned to the 1967 borders? How would it gain the support of American Jews if it were not under such a threat? 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?”  

Discussing his own experience with Judaism as a young man, Rushkoff recalls that, “As anyone who grew up as a Reform Jew in the 1970s will attest, Sunday school was much more about the stories of the mythical Jewish ancestors than anything that Jews actually believed. We were told of Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Esther - and only the nicest things about them ... I learned that our suburban Reform synagogue was not the place to discuss religion openly.”  

Return to Best Elements  
For Judaism to become meaningful in the lives of those American Jews who now feel alienated from it - a rapidly growing number -it is important to return to the best elements of the Jewish tradition, those which differentiated it from the pagan world out of which it emerged, and which, at the beginning, represented a dramatic step forward in man’s understanding of himself and his place in the world, as well as the universal God who was the father of all nations and whose moral and ethical standards were meant not for Jews alone, but for all those created in His image.  

As Rushkoff describes it, this Jewish tradition “stresses transparency, open-ended inquiry, assimilation of the foreign, a commitment to conscious living. Most of all, it invites inquiry and change ... Judaism is open to discussion. It can 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. By reviving this tradition’s core values within a modern context and restoring its emphasis on inquiry over certainty and fluidity over sanctity, we may discover a truly rewarding path for disaffected Jews and a set of powerful tools for anyone wrestling with the challenges of contemporary life. We must crack the code, penetrate the myths, squash the superstitions, and retire the beliefs that have mired Judaism in protectionism and paranoia. We must shatter the walls surrounding this religion in order to rediscover the core beliefs those walls were meant to protect.”  

Judaism, Rushkoff states, should not be closeted, a preserve for a select few: “It is not only our tradition, but our explicit obligation to act as stewards for the greater society ... To mention my affinity for Jewish ideas is to risk marginalizing my work and associating myself with a group whose public expressions are contrary to the tolerance, pluralism and universal truths I aim to convey. Sometimes I feel like giving up and accepting the fact that Judaism is simply irrelevant. But then, during a talk or while writing an article, I’ll realize that I’m quoting Talmud or reinterpreting a biblical myth in order to support an idea. I don’t want to deny myself this greater intellectual and sociological context or the reassurance it affords me.”  

Humanist Values  
Historically, Rushkoff points out, it was their struggle for self-preservation as well as their own set of deeply humanist values that made Jews both the natural enemies of sacred idols and promoters of open discussion. Jews prized education and inquiry for their ability to keep people from falling prey to superstitions and unbridled ethnocentrism. In the third century, Romans purchased ancillary memberships in Jewish synagogues just so they could take part in intellectual conversations that weren’t overshadowed by sacrifices and other parochial rites.  

By adopting a “more pervasive and abstract conception of God,” Rushkoff writes, “the Jews enabled themselves to survive the eventual destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and develop a path of devotion that could follow them into exile. Gods had always been associated with places. The prophets of the exile, such as Jeremiah, embraced a near, location-independent idea of God. God is within the individual; he can exist in the heart of any believer. In one of Jeremiah’s visions, he describes God handing him a scroll and saying, ‘Deep within them I will plant my law.’ ... One couldn’t look up in the sky to address him. God was everything and everywhere. Since Yahweh was no longer associated with a particular piece of land, many Jews felt no need to return to Israel at all and remained in Babylonia. Instead of bringing sacrifices to the Holy Temple, Jews in Israel and beyond could worship God in a local synagogue through the more inwardly experienced practice of prayer.”  

As Judaism evolved, its universal nature become increasingly evident. Noah worked to save his own family. Abraham bargained to save the righteous. Moses was willing to lay down his own life for sinners. “This progression,” notes Rushkoff, “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. ... 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 third, he intercedes on behalf of a stranger. His sense of social justice is expanding.”  

Continuity Over Experience  
From the 14th to the 20th centuries, Rushkoff reports, European Jews came to value continuity over experience. The chief objective of Judaism became to preserve Judaism itself. Jews retreated from their promotion of science and modernity even further into the protective shell of social and cultural isolation.  

Those Jews “who clung to the scientific, intellectual and philosophical advances of the modern era,” he writes, “found themselves increasingly disenfranchised by religious institutions that encouraged unquestioning support of Israel ... and shunned the impulse for progressive idealism and universal values. The intellectuals enjoyed a more internalized Jewish sensibility and were not threatened by modernism at all. If anything, they were one of the prime motivating forces behind the modernist inquiry. The anti-authoritarian impulse of the modern era, complete with its reevaluation of nation-state, race, economics and existence itself, was to them an affirmation, not a negation, of Judaism’s core values of abstract monotheism, iconoclasm and social justice. This is why so many of modernism’s great thinkers were themselves Jews.”  

Among those Jewish figures whose thought is examined by Rushkoff is Spinoza, whose “keen insights into the relationship of the individual to religion, and religion to the state, served as prescient warnings not only to those who oppressed the Jews by nationalizing religion, but also to those who were determined to bring on the messianic age through the nationalization of Judaism, Spinoza explored and celebrated the essential freedom of the individual ... Spinoza sought to break Jews’ dependence on the authority of their books so that they could begin to appreciate the beauty and intelligence of the insights on their pages ... According to Spinoza, the Jews were a ‘common people, prone to superstition.’ They would first need to reform their religion, basing it on ‘natural principles’ such as justice, liberty and brotherhood, instead of infantile misconceptions like race ... 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 the divine law applies no more to Jews than it does to any other human beings. He understood that the only path toward a universal justice was to abandon the exclusivity implicit in being the ‘chosen people.’”  

State-Sanctioned Religion  
Spinoza’s reaction to the injustice of European state-sanctioned religions was, Rushkoff writes, “not to create a religious state for Jews, but to reject the notion of state-sanctioned religion altogether. This ... position, along with his insistence on the rights of individuals to interpret Torah in its historical and allegorical context for themselves, put him at odds with the Jewish establishment, and he was excommunicated. The rabbis were not yet ready to open up Judaism to a multiplicity of perspectives ... Although the European Enlightenment and subsequent division of church and state were founded in Spinozan ideals, the Jews were by then too addicted to their mythology to entertain his universal ideology ,.. instead of adopting, as most of the modern world did, the insights and philosophies of the Jews’ own greatest thinkers, the majority of Jewish people have retreated from the universal implications of their own faith. These Jews think they’re protecting the word of God, when in actuality they’re letting everyone share in the benefits of Judaism but themselves.”  

While some Jews lament what many perceive to be a decline in the United States -focusing primarily on numbers - what they fail to understand is that the best insights of the Jewish tradition are now widely accepted by men and women of all faiths and races. “It is as if a group of people were standing around a withering flower,” Rushkoff declares, “mourning its death and incapable of noticing that its seeds were spreading everywhere. Perhaps the flower that is organized Judaism has done its job. Maybe what appears to Jewish separatists as assimilation and dissolution is actually the transmission of Jewish values to the culture at large. If our ideas are so good, shouldn’t they be useful to everyone? Are our institutions still protecting our best ideas, or are they stifling them. If we were to stop insisting that they be called ‘Jewish’ ideas, mightn’t they be more readily taken up by a global population ...? What is more important, that the world call itself Jewish or that people everywhere benefit from Judaism? Do we really need the credit?”  

Abandon Narrowness  
For Judaism in America to maintain the support of those who are born to Jewish families, to attract the interest of those who are forming families with those within the Jewish community, and to influence the larger community of religious seekers, it must abandon its narrowness, parochialism, ethnocentrism and obsession with Israel and Middle East politics. Many who lament what they perceive as Jewish decline are those most responsible for driving away those who would embrace Judaism’s most important universal teachings and insights if they were presented by the organized Jewish community. Douglas Rushkoff believes in Judaism at its best but worries that what is presented as Judaism in the contemporary American society is far more likely to drive idealistic men and women away than to draw them in.  

“Judaism itself,” he writes, “paradoxical as it sounds, may offer the best strategy for this process of coming to terms with our Jewishness. Our tradition teaches, quite emphatically, that the challenge of Judaism - like any other challenge - should be approached with questions, intelligence, knowledge, open-mindedness, and as many other questioning, intelligent, knowledgeable and open-minded people as we can find. It is a difficult process with no easy answers. Any answers usually come with more questions of their own, anyway ... I’d like to think that Judaism has a greater purpose than merely facilitating each person’s individual reconciliation with Jewishness. Judaism surely doesn’t exist for its own sake.”  

Rushkoff concludes: “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. Judaism is a means toward bringing more mindfulness, compassion and justice into the lives of real people. ... Above all, we must not mistake our personal challenges with Judaism for the deeper imperative at its core: engaging in the difficult work of making the most ethical, compassionate, life-affirming choice in every situation. The best reason I can think of to pursue Judaism’s texts, teachings and dialogues is to figure out what those choices are and how to muster the courage to resolve to live with them.”  

Important Contribution  
This book is an important contribution to what, hopefully, will be a growing discussion about the future of American Judaism. It looks clearly at what is wrong with contemporary Jewish life and explores, as well, what is right about Judaism itself, not only for Jews but for the world.  

In the field of communications, Douglas Rushkoff is the author of eight critically acclaimed books that have been translated into twenty languages. He has done all of us a notable service by turning his attention to Judaism - to its present unfortunate stress on ethnocentrism and self-preservation - as well as the potential of Judaism’s genuine universal message to engage not only Jews but all who seek to understand man’s place in the world and God’s role in our lives.  

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