Nothing Sacred: the Truth About Judaism|
by Douglas Rushkoff
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|A Review of: Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism
by Gwen Nowak
Douglas Rushkoff is a dreamer. His vision of the night' is one of
himself surfing on the great ocean of Jewish history, mythology,
theology and commentary. The sea is turbulent. From his vantage
point, riding the waves, Rushkoff can see a cartographer on shore
studying a map of the same ocean, trying to chart the way to the
New Jerusalem. The cartographer is institutional Judaism. Rushkoff
shouts to him from across the roaring waves: "Your map won't
work in these conditions. Let me show you the way." The
cartographer isn't listening.
Rushkoff's dream is generated by a parable that Rushkoff tells
midway through his latest book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About
Judaism. A careful reader of Nothing Sacred would recognize Rushkoff
as the nameless surfer of his parable. Such a reader would also
notice that Rushkoff's parable functions as a multidimensional
object, a multi-faceted jewel, at the centre of his new Jewish
testament Nothing Sacred.
Rushkoff explains why and how he took up such surfing: he had a
surprising vision one day of how relevant the core values of Judaism
were for his work in media. Until then a happily lapsed Jew,
Rushkoff's vision motivated him to engage in two years of diligent
questioning and serious study of every aspect of his tradition. The
vision expanded exponentially. Ultimately Rushkoff saw that Judaism's
core values-iconoclasm, abstract monotheism, and social justice-are
the dynamic elements which generated Judaism and have kept it alive
for millennia, in the face of every internal or external force which
could have eliminated it. As well they are the three key elements,
the Jewish Trinity, which authenticate Judaism's mission to be a
"light to the nations", as it was in the beginning and
still is, even now.
Rushkoff surveyed his Jewish world, left, right and centre. He saw
that the right [the fundamentalists] and the left [the secular
humanists] are incomplete judaisms, and that the centre does not
hold. By his reckoning Judaism is in a mess, perhaps beyond salvaging.
Unless...unless...it is willing to die to itself in order to be
born again. So Rushkoff did a full audit of its history, tradition,
theology and commentary. He noted that the best of times for
renewal, revolution, renaissance have very often been the worst of
times-prime example, Rabbinic Judaism forged under Roman occupation
after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Rushkoff is not only a previously lapsed Jew; he is also a renaissance
man.' Both stances feed his new vision of Judaism. From his lapsed
location on the margins, Rushkoff gains wider dimensional perspective
on his tradition. From his stance on the wave of the global renaissance
currently in progress, Rushkoff can see emergent new metaphors for
Jewish self-understanding. These are living metaphors about how the
world/cosmos actually works, and how human beings fit in to the
big, actually, biggest picture. Human beings' includes Jews and
Gentiles alike because, as Rushkoff so adamantly points out, science
now confirms what Judaism has always intuited: There is no empirical
evidence for racial distinction.
Rushkoff's mission is to reintroduce Jews to their original and
essential universalist impulse and mission. Judaism isn't about
race, ethnicity, or even Israel. It's about ideas without boundaries-the
best Jewish ideas belonging to everyone everywhere, period. [Thomas
Cahill's thesis in Gifts of the Jews, 1998]. Rather than cower
before modernity, Rushkoff suggests that Judaism open itself wide
to modernity's gifts. In fact, he explicates his Jewish renaissance
with updated living metaphors like holography, chaos math, emergence
theory, and even slime molds, all offering new ways of seeing who
we are in the world/cosmos. Rushkoff fearlessly, some would say
mercilessly, demands that Jews look and look again at notions like
chosenness and ethnicity. He points out that bloodline Jewishness
was not even a Jewish notion to begin with, but rather a notion
conceived in the mind of various oppressors of the Jewish community
for their own nefarious purposes.
One might ask, By what authority does a lapsed Jew come so energetically
in from the margins and claim to reclaim the centre of his tradition?'
The Jewish establishment definitely wonders, Who does this troublemaker
Rushkoff think he is?' In Nothing Sacred Rushkoff states quite
clearly who he thinks he is. Midway through his book Rushkoff
plaintively asks, Where is Jacob? Who is still wrestling with God?'
His answer: Jacob, c'est moi.' Rushkoff recognizes Jacob as "the
first true Israelite." This inspires Jacob/Rushkoff to explain
what it means to be a true Israelite in the 21st century. As well,
he reminds us that Jacob means "Trickster."
According to archetypal Trickster expert Lewis Hyde [Trickster Makes
This World, 1998] , Trickster can be found doing his trickster work
on the road between heaven and earth, especially when that road is
not open. Not surprisingly then Jacob/Rushkoff's arena of activity
is that liminal space between heaven and earth, between divine and
human. And Tricksters aren't afraid of paradox; they deftly juggle
paradox multiples as they dance across high wire lines, dexterously
avoiding falling over either way-into dualism. So Rushkoff observes:
"Judaism is both a precious set of truths and a tiresome set
of cultural baggage....Lapsed Jews are not really lapsed at all,
but our faith's truest practitioners....Maybe assimilation isn't a
failure, but our best strategy for disseminating our values...."
In his process of wrestling with God' Rushkoff explodes fixed notions
of the divine and generates updates from unified field and emergence
theories. He claims to re-open that sacred empty space at the
centre of Judaism, that nothing sacred' space of his title. In his
view, it is through this space-this opening-that the divine can
actually and factually enter history-in human form. He gives examples
of how Jews already practise the dynamic of embodying the divine.'
Rushkoff also claims that fixed notions of God have their genesis
in literal interpretations of Jewish narrative. He points out that
the Torah read as a literal linear historical chronicle is causing
Jewish fundamentalists to march lockstep right into Armageddon/Apocalypse,
hand in hand with fundamentalist Christians no less. It is trickster
Rushkoff's task to help Jews, and their Christian collaborators,
slip from the trap of such a disastrous fate. Apocalypse-heat death
of a closed system-is not inevitable.
There is a way out of the tight grip of fundamentalist literalism.
Those who can transcend to Rushkoff's vantage point of renaissance
sensibility and allegorical interpretation will experience the Torah
as a living document, a multi-dimensional object, in fact as a
holograph with every element somehow containing and reflecting every
other element. [He does give examples.] And, equally importantly,
every individual, Jew or Gentile, is a holograph of the global
community, even cosmos, a holograph which gains fuller resolution
with each active-and open-participant. Authentically engaged, this
mystical praxis which Rushkoff names Open Source Judaism will lead
to the New Jerusalem, the collective realization that the Sh'ma is
us. An outrageous vision to some; a compelling vision to others.
Certainly not a vision easily assimilable by Jews or Gentiles who
find the closed system of fundamentalism a comfortable and comforting
space. Nor by those of a more liberal view who might prefer an easy
road, without the study and discipline required for genuine insight.
Nothing Sacred is the work of Rushkoff the scholar and Rushkoff the
evangelist. As a responsible scholar, Rushkoff includes a bibliography,
an index and a full appendix of background commentary for each
chapter. But Rushkoff the passionate, some would say rambunctious,
evangelist preaches his mission text virtually full throttle-no
endnotes, little cautiously calibrated debate with dissenting
sources, and only minimal compassionate coddling for Jews who might
be scandalized, fearful or confused. To Rushkoff it is so clear,
so obvious; it's time to "do Judaism the good way and the
smart way," first to/with Jews and then to/with Gentiles.
Meanwhile Rushkoff dreams of being on an ocean full of surfers, all
equally adept as he, all knowing/showing the way.