Rushkoff Responds

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In discussing the “Next Big Jewish Idea” question, I cited Douglas Rushkoff’s writing on business innovation and noted his book on Judaism, Nothing Sacred, which caused a bit of a stir a few years ago, and prompted significant criticism.

This criticism was echoed in our comments when I suggested finding a way to, once again, bring Rushkoff back into Jewish communal conversations.

Now it’s Rushkoff’s turn to respond. Douglas sent me an email response last night, which he’s graciously allowed me to post here.

Hi Daniel, and thanks for the post. It’s always nice to be invited into a conversation – or even to be considered for inclusion. The responses to your suggestion in the comments section kind of tell the story, though. Not the true one, but the one that keeps a lot of smart people from engaging in anything but truly local, face-to-face forums.

As for my own real recent history with Judaism: yes, I wrote a book called Nothing Sacred, after about four (adult) years of what I’d consider to be intense study – both of Torah, Midrash, Talmud, and history, as well as the current condition of Jewish culture. Like many of today’s Jewish writers, I was bemoaning what I saw as organized Judaism’s solipsism, and suggesting that Judaism was indeed interesting and relevant enough to stand on its own merits. No need to make it “cool” or to do things “just to get people in the door.”

Focus on the genuine inquiry at the heart of the practice, and we’d attract more people than by demanding “fidelity” in the form of allegiance to Israel or prevention of intermarriage.

Indeed, one of the main arguments of the book was that Judaism transcends race and place.

The theological argument of the book – the “nothing sacred” part – was based on the idea that Jews get their specific idols out of the way (iconoclasm) in order to gather around a more abstract notion of God (monotheism) all for the real job of social justice. So I made the point that Jews who were resorting to civil liberties or social activism instead of synagogue worship shouldn’t be seen as failures – especially when their experiences of synagogue didn’t offer them the opportunity to engage with ego-smashing inquiry or the rethinking of society’s dangerous underlying structures. And I offered examples from Torah of people taking the gods off altars – or creating empty tents – in order to engage with God. Protecting the empty space, because out of this engagement with one another – devoid of all idols – emerges the sacred. The “nothing” we get after all that difficult work is actually sacred.

One BT wrote a review in Jerusalem Report, accusing me of pretty much everything from being a yoga-practicing atheist to holocaust denial.
This got picked up by some anti-defamation folks who, instead of reading the book, demanded boycotts. They had phone trees to call magazines, and everything. I was scheduled to do a fundraiser for the UJA, which was promptly removed from the online calendar at the request of some angry members.

The other apparently controversial thing I argued (in an NYTimes OpEd) was that Jews shouldn’t obsess so much with counting Jews. It’s not the numbers that matter so much – and the more counting we do, the less fun Judaism looks to the people we’re supposedly trying to attract. And, of course, this is contrary to much of the institutional and philanthropic energy these days. Low numbers raises money.

Nonetheless, I organized a forum for all this to be discussed – it was called Reboot, and the central premise was that each generation must engage with Judaism anew. The Bronfman and Spielberg Philanthropies funded it, and gave forty of us the opportunity to test the premise of my book: if Judaism were simply offered up to smart but “lapsed” Jews *on their own terms* would they willingly and enthusiastically engage? Of course they did, and the forum led to a multitude of projects, havura, and lasting communities.

Although some of your posters accuse me of being commercial or self- promotional, I actually resigned from Reboot when I felt the spirit of the project was being compromised to more promotional, media efforts. The object of the game, for me anyway, was not to put out records or books under a hip new Jewish brand, but just to extend the conversation. To do Judaism for its own sake. “Cool,” to me, was the enemy. Not to disparage what they’re doing with Reboot now, but it’s not what I was interested in. And writing a book about Judaism was the worst “career” move a popular writer could make – although my agent at the time let me do it, because he knew it mattered to me.

I’ve actually made it a point to avoid anything in that promotional or “let’s be cool Jews” vein, and turned down more talks than I’ve accepted because they’re framed in that way.

Ultimately, the reviewer who led to all the hoopla wrote me a letter of apology – and told me she had disavowed Judaism, and that she now really despised the whole thing. It was a very disturbing email, even though she was now praising my work. I felt it was for all the wrong reasons. She thought I had been attacking Judaism. She reviled me for it when she considered herself Jewish, and liked me for it when she left the fold.

Of course, I wasn’t attacking Judaism at all. I was celebrating a Judaism that is as relevant and demanding as the Buddhism so many Jews have run to, instead.

As for the critics who say there are “factual errors on every page,” that all came from a single anti-assimilation rabbi who they pitted me against at Lishma. It’d be hard to say there’s factual errors on every page, when there are ten page stretches of arguments about my experiences or those of people I interviewed. I mean, how is it a wrong fact to share the experience of a rabbi who feels burdened by fundraising?

As for the accusation of being passionate but not doing any followup, that doesn’t quite play, either. I believe the three years I worked on Reboot counts as a real and substantive contribution. And I still speak at synagogues around the country, contribute to anthologies, and now do my comic book. A few dozen havura have started across the country around my appearances, and I’ve supported those groups through email, as well.

So I really do feel I’m a part of the conversation – just not the one about “what is to be done.” That one got a little tired for me – and filled with the strange folks who fill up the comments sections of those blogs. I’m spending more time with people who are simply doing Judaism for its own sake.

I’d have done Lishma this year, but couldn’t get invited. I hated that first year because they tried to make controversial “hay” out of my appearance, booking me in a “conversation” with some rabbi who stakes his claim to fame on his arguments against inter-marriage. It was supposed to be an opportunity to teach Torah – but the organizers obviously thought it would be more newsworthy to have me debate. I appeared, but refused to “fight” with the guy. He declared “victory,” and I felt all the more convinced that these Jews were more interested in “right” and “wrong” than Judaism. I thought I’d “teach” better by modeling an open-minded style of engagement than by fighting an obviously upset person.

And I still sit with rabbis in their studies, and listen to their heartfelt, often teary confessions about not being able to teach the Judaism they believe in for fear they will be fired by their congregations – who still stick to the more superstitious and racist forms of Judaism that allow them to believe God loves them the most, and that all our patriarchs most definitely walked the earth, were promised a certain patch of land, and called themselves “Jews” even though Judaism didn’t exist yet.

So you are right: but I’d add a twist. It would be great to include Rushkoff in the “Jewish conversation.” But first there’d have to be one. Yes, I have the official reading and education chops. I guarantee I’ve read more Torah, Midrash, Talmud, and texts than most of the hotheads that make judgments about who should and shouldn’t be “included.” But again, that conversation is way too meta. Nobody really wants to talk Torah – they’d rather talk about who should and shouldn’t be talking Torah. Or how to get the “institutions” to get more of a certain this or that.

And, from my perspective, that’s just another excuse to avoid Torah.

Posted on December 19, 2006

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16 thoughts on “Rushkoff Responds


    Wow–Ruskoff studied for a WHOLE FOUR YEARS! I’m so sorry I ever doubted his depth of knowledge.

    Sorry, I normally try to refrain from sarcasm, but come on.

    Should Rushkoff be included in the conversation? Sure–just like every other member of our People…even those who haven’t studied a whole four years of (Adult) study.

  2. Douglas Rushkoff

    Wow. Thanks so much. But I don’t really feel like you mean it, somehow.

    Seriously, you’ve got to look at what’s making you so angry. Surely it’s not me.

    If you really want to know all of my study, I can run down the first fifteen years of “kid” study until I was about twenty, and then the next ten years of general study, and the four years of more adult reading. For most writers and academics, four years of advanced reading (as your whole life’s job) is enough to begin commenting on something. And even to make some positive contributions. It’s more than most non-fiction writers spend specifically dedicated to the subject they’re going to write about.

    But I’m actually much more concerned about *you* than about whatever you think of me. I don’t matter at all. But the way you relate to people does matter. If you’re my teacher, cool. Be my teacher. Think of how best to serve my poor ignorant soul. Try to figure out how to make the most positive contribution to the life of another human being.

    Unfortunately, the style you’ve adopted is all-too common in online Jewish circles. It’s sad, really. Not very inviting to others who might be witnessing it. And it’s part of the reason I’ve stayed away, and spent more time in real life forums.

    But I assure anyone who is reading this: there are places where you can engage with Judaism and even Jews without hostile replies. There are havura where whatever knowledge you bring is welcome, and where you are treated like the intelligent adult you are.


    Rebbe Rushkoff, I am certainly not your teacher, and I’m certainly not angry. I could be, if lucky, a peer. I am certainly not as accomplished as you are, nor, at 27, do I have nearly the number years under my belt that you do.

    If you like, see me as a potential student that thinks, well, that your theories hold very little water. Ok–as much water as secular humanism. Which isn’t very Jewish, even if lots of Jews do it. Ok, less water than secular humanism–because at least secular humanism admits that it isn’t Judaism.

    My reaction was to the tone of your letter, and its amazing lack of humility. When learning Torah, I was always told that one is to never brag about the number of years one has learned–because insight can come from anyone, even the neighborhood drunk. (Especially from the neighborhood drunk).

    That said, argument is argument, and intelligent adults treat other intelligent adults to sharp comments and often harsh criticism–such is the life of intellectual debate. You are proven by the strength of your arguments, and, more often than not, are proven wrong. It’s not an easy existence, sure. And I’m sorry, Rebbe Rushkoff, if you do not feel your four years of (adult) study has returned with it the respect you feel it deserves. Unfortunately–or fortunately, perhaps–no one “deserves” to be listened to more than anyone else–even if they study 4 of the 7 years it takes to be certified to start on the path to becoming a full Rabbi.

  4. Douglas Rushkoff

    Just because you’ree 27 doesn’t mean we can’t be each others’ teachers. I’m not looking for your respect, whether or not you think I deserve it. Just basic civility. And these sorts of boards are just not the place to find it.

    I understand what it’s like to be young and to see blowhards seeming to get attention and money for producing work that you know you could do better. That’s why you’re the next generation. Do better than me! (And get paid more, too.)

    The “lack of humility” you cite was in direct refutation of some of the incorrect personal attacks in earlier posts. It’s not lack of humility to respond to factual errors about oneself. In fact, my general REFUSAL to do this over the years may have been my most crucial error. (If Kerry had only struck out against the Swiftboat crowd a bit earlier, we might have a different president.) If I were really going to tout, I’d have to, okay, I’ve been studying for forty years – but felt I only really “got it” about ten years ago, after four years of studying Torah in its more historical and evolutionary context – studying as an adult, rather than as a kid. As a religious historian rather than a “believer.” And that this work actually gave me more faith in the process of Judaism than its supposed beliefs. And that it is wholeheartedly supported and endorsed by seminarians, religious historians, and rabbis around the world. That’s why they said all those nice things on the back cover.

    As for calling me rebbe, well thanks. We should all be calling each other that if we feel it. I have been ordained, as a matter of fact – but that’s besides the point. We should all be calling each other rebbe.

    Intellectual debate is fun and fruitful. But not personal attack or bs obnoxious crap. The Chabadniks are really good at engaging with people – even those whose views they don’t respect – and attempting to share their Torah as effectively as possible.

    But this conversation here is such an absolute waste of time. I’m not asking for your respect. I was just challenging the facts and disrespect that showed up in the comments section after Daniel’s thoughtful post. He asked if he could put up my email, and I said he could. Then you go off again.

    I feel my book got the respect it deserves. I’m honored by the hundreds of different rabbis from many denominations who wrote to tell me how much it meant to them. I’m honored by the dozens of congregations that invite me to speak, and the thousands of people who were inspired to study Judaism after encountering my work. That’s gratefulness – not lack of humility.

    I’m also saddened by kneejerk reactions against anything that smacks of secular humanism, of getting over false notions of “God” so that we can get on with the real work of making the world a better place. I was saddened to see magazines that interviewed me boycotted by children of holocaust survivors, under the false impression that I had written a book denying the shoah happened. And I’m sorry some institutions felt obligated to fall in line with the boycott.

    The real objection to my work, I believe, has less to do with where and how I did my study, but to its conclusions. I studied Judaism beyond the context of a covenant established by the character God with Abraham, or of a Torah written by Moses on Mt. Sinai. I saw the tradition as a changing one that evolved based on our capacity as human beings to develop ethically and spiritually.

    I understand how this contention, in itself, could be considered non-Jewish or anti-Jewish. I really do get that. But I – and thousands of others (not followers, but fellows) – don’t want to give up on Judaism so easily. We really feel that true fidelity to Judaism means fidelity to its tradition for change – and that locking it into its ancient, medieval or even its 20th Century form denies Judaism its true power to address an ever-changing reality.

    I get that it’s heresy among some to venture in this direction. And that it seems unsupported by the text. I’ve got a bibliography filled with brilliant scholars who believe otherwise – and I believe I’ve got the facts of history on my side. But I understand that this all appears lazy, stupid, and recklessly freeform – especially to those who have suffered for their faith. It looks to them like I’m saying “take what you want from Judaism and leave the rest.” That I’m saying not to work.

    When it’s actually quite the opposite. I’m saying to read Torah and push on it as hard as you can stand it. Try to understand why God does such apparently horrible things, and consider everything in the *historical* context in which it was written.

    Do you know how few rabbis get to study Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite religions along with Judaism? Do you realize how much of Torah you just can’t understand without that context? How you can’t get the jokes, the puns, the nods to other gods, the obvious melding together of stories from neighboring people’s – both as a way of satirizing and transcending them.

    But you’re right in that I’m claiming that secular humanism is a product of Judaism. One of its best. I’d go further than Dawkins, who says God is a delusion and religions support the delusion. I’ll venture that Judaism is a path that can lead quite directly and logically to a kind of atheism. It shares the bad news that we’re responsible for this realm.

    But you’re not just allowed to go there without doing the work – I grant you that. And this work is a whole lot harder than simply listening to your elders and practicing your faith as you’re told to. But it’s especially important when Judaism is in such a very sick state – Jews having been tortured and killed for so many centuries, it’s totally understandable. It’s only natural that Jews would have longed for a “religion” like all the others. One that gives a literal explanation for why we’re here, and why we suffer.

    But sorry – *real* Judaism doesn’t let us rest on that. It’s a whole lot harder.

    And if the Jews don’t want to be the ones doing Judaism, anymore, that’s okay with me, too. It may be that your secular humanists need to carry the torch for a while. Hopefully, they can be made to recognize that what they’re doing has its foundations in an entirely richer set of mythology and legal thought once called Judaism.

    If some Jews want to scold secular humanists for finding strength and inspiration in the Jewish model, so be it. It’s to Judaism’s detriment.


    Hi Douglas,

    I’m more than willing to move beyond the personal and into the world of ideas. Instead of responding to your self-justifications-through-credit-claiming, I’ll let them stand as a repudiation for the claiming credit for past effort instead of providing proof for thought in thought. Later in this last post, however, you reflected deep thought, and I’m more than happy to respond in kind.

    My objection to your work, I think you might find interestingly enough, has nothing to do with your religious contentions. I’m in the middle of a jurisprudential analysis of the Elephantine Island Jewish community of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, so I am rather well aware of what scholars believe passed for a belief in God prior to the popularization of the Torah by Ezra, or its unpacking and reworking by his Rabbinic self-declared heirs.

    No, I do not disagree with your statement that “God” as we think of God does not exist. God doesn’t. God doesn’t not exist–but that’s a Rambamian point, and too deep and long-winded to prove for the moment, so let’s just agree to agree that God as many of us think of God is no more than a figment of our imagination, and that the God that could exist if existence could describe God is too vast and powerful an entity for us to understand, so we cannot not believe in God.

    I disagree with the “Humanist” part of the “secular humanist” ethos you are pushing.

    To be a humanist, one must first believe that there is an absolute standard of justice towards which all humans aspire–or should aspire, if they had their heads screwed on right. That is, that there is a normative “human,” and not just a evolved ape with a brain and opposable thumbs. I’m not sure I know that is true, and I’m rather sure that “humanists” are for the most part continuing a tradition of universalism that has led to more pain and suffering than particularistic claims to justice and truth.

    People seem to be much more ready to oppress and kill and censor for the good of “humanity,” “modernization,” “[White Man's] civilization,” the “working class,” the “Universal Church of Christ,” than even the most militant of particularisms. Why? Because a healthy particularism leads one to be found of one’s community, happy in one’s territory, and less likely to want to start conflict with the outside world–a world a particularist does not expect, let alone really want–to think the way one’s people does.

    Healthy particularism, for that part, is content with its limited destiny. Humanism — whose underlying proposition is that there is a commonality to all human beings — does not rest until everyone recognize the “universal rights of [civilized/revolutionized/christian/Muslim] man.”

    Your emphasis on social justice seems to me–and correct me I’m wrong–more concerned with enacting the abstract calls of Amos amongst the nations than taking care of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Seemingly inspired by Isaiah, you yearn for an age of universal Humanity–eternal social justice.

    Now I’m not sure what the later prophets were smoking, but it sure got them to see crooked at times. Less poverty? Sure. No killing for revenge or profit? that sounds good too. But above the 7 core restrictions, it is hard for me to believe that all of humanity will ever seek out the Jews and ask them how to pray for the social justice of their God.

    Judaism, from what I know, has always been the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jaacob. While recognizing that God created the Universe, we–as a sovereign community–tied ourselves to God’s Law through our own Narrative (whether or not that narrative was made up a few centuries post-national-partum), and our narrative created a Judaism that adapted to historical conditions in order to maintain the community as a collective actor. Thus, Ezra read to returnees; Thus, Judah HaNasi compiled laws that could be carried where-ever a Jew would travel post-Bar-Kosiba; Thus, the Geonim set up a system of responsa world-wide; Thus, Rambam wrote communities far and wide, and imitated the Philosophical impulse to revamp Judaism for his generation; Thus came Herzl and Ahad Ha’am who understood that the time has come for us to unfreeze our national potential, and to return to our natural state as a people.

    Judaism, as a living faith, in my opinion, does not need people dedicated to its tradition for change–as you seem to advocate. It needs people dedicated to its tradition of preservation of its core. These dedicated to the community and its life are willing, as Ahad Ha’am wrote in his essay “Imitation and Assimilation,” to learn from the best ideas in the outside world and to build structures within the Jewish People so that they Jewish People will be able to be better equipped to negotiated new historical circumstance. Social Justice? Absolutely! But first we need to ensure the health of our widows and our orphans. We make distinctions because they’ll make distinctions to us. As the late Robert Cover pointed out, obligation is the core of our community–and if we can’t feel obligated first and foremost to each other, we won’t be able to help anyone for overload of options.

    So I scold secular humanists, and those who think that humanism in general is the wave of the future, not for their secularism (though I could do that too if pushed, for different reasons than Orthodox people would), but for being imperialists in thought, expansive in motivation, and abandoning the core of Judaism: the Jewish People, and the importance of a strongly knit community.

  6. Pingback: Blogs of Zion » Debate with Douglas Rushkoff on Mixed Multitudes: Secular Humanism?

  7. Douglas Rushkoff

    That’s the biggie, right on the head.

    It’s really the core of the particularism/universalism quesiton, and ends up coming up in the Jewish community as zionism v anti-zionism, and a whole lot of other polarities.

    There are those of us who are more comforted by Isaiah’s universalism than God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacbo. And even if we start thinking about the latter, we focus on “light unto nations” and all that Jews-helping-the-others part.

    But I definitely see – and sometimes feel – the weakness in that argument: that without protecting and supporting Jews first, how the hell could we possibly help anybody else?

    Still, as I go through Tanakh I can’t help but feel that even most of *us* are someone else. I can’t see the years in Sinai as anything but a gathering of disparate tribes, the creation of a shared mythology of brotherhood, and the development of a new culture. It seems to me that this is the example to follow, rather than to hunker down in the particularism of being Jewish.

    But to your point: if the object is to protect Judaism’s core, then we’d have to agree on what that core is – the stasis or the evolution? Or, most likely, some balancing of the two?

    Where we really differ, is in how we prioritize conservation and fluidity. Oddly enough, I’m a staunch defender of the evolution of Jewish theology and relationship to community, but also a staunch defender of the most traditional no-nonsense davening and Torah study. So I’m a bad personal example, as I’ve got a whole lot of trouble with the Reform movement.

    In some ways, I think the Conservative movement, as expressed by folks like Gillman, most accurately represents my own sense of how Judaism works best. It’s definitely contradictory and, worse to some, it doesn’t *necessarily* lead to the support of Isael the nation.

    ANYTHING relativistic in the Jewish community, anything that questions Jewish race or peoplehood as defining concepts puts Israel the nation in greater danger of losing US financial support. And I think this additional weight on the issue is what makes it so hard to discuss properly.

    And I believe, more than anything, that’s what leads to the kind of name-calling we’ve seen here. Or even the notion that we should be “having it out.”


    I’m happy you agree that this is the crux of the matter–and it is interesting to me that while you preach change you practice conservatism; I always learned to take people at what they do and not what they say.

    In that case, it seems to me that you might be more interested in this as an intellectual game–a way to push the envelope, to explore reasons to justify what feels right.

    That’s not why I do what I do.

    For me, defining Judaism is crucial only insofar as it is a value set that keeps the Jewish People one piece. It is the people, not the religion or its values, that are the core we should seek to preserve: the living blood is God’s, the rest is only a plaything for good times, dynamic depending on the season. Being loyal to an idea over a fellow comrade is one of the greatest regressions thinking humans have undergone: it causes violence and oppression all in the name of an abstract philosophical concept that’s relative to frame, anyway.

    Thus, Zionism is the understanding that Jewish people can generate their own interdependent community, governed by their particular set of values, only in the land of our birth as a People.

    How was that people born as a particular entity? Sure, it had a bit to do with amalgamation. Historically, if we take hints in the early books of the Torah to be telling some truth about our ancestry, we come from Iraq. But more than that we don’t know, and it does not matter much. What seems to have happened was that a community developed naturally, as many communities do, through oaths and pacts and intermarriage. Then, once formed into a confederation–or a nation–they viewed themselves as one People, thereby birthing Israel.

    The Children of Israel have lived as a community of one sort or another for over three thousand years–longer than both Temples, longer than Rabbinic Judaism, and longer than the imperial rule of Greece, Rome, Babylon and Britain put together. Longer than Secular Humanism in those days, in these times.

    And after all this time, you can claim that being Jewish shouldn’t necessarily lead to the support of a sovereign Jewish entity?

  9. Douglas Rushkoff

    I understand that perspective on Zionism – and I understand both the job you have as a professional lobbyist and filmmaker, as well as the real passion you have as a believer in the sanctity of the nation state of Israel.

    I’m honored you’d think me important enough, initially, to discredit; and I’m even more honored you’d drop that agenda, at least provisionally, so that we can speak about this problem as human beings, or even fellow Jews.

    It doesn’t excuse the way you started this conversation, or the effort you made to play the part of the idealistic young 27-year-old attacking the famous rich established author (when, if anything, you come from a much much more powerful and institutionally supported platform than I do; I’m an independent writer – no government funding, no mandate to discredit anyone).

    But, in the end, we did get to the heart of the matter – at least for you: the birthing of Israel and our duty as Jews to protect and sustain our brothers and sisters living wiithin its boundaries, or anywhere.

    I, personally, see the nation state as a social construction. (I believe “nation” means something entirely differnet in Torah than what we now think of as nationalism.) And I believe that accepting the contemporary definition of nation state, as well as all that goes with it, may have been a necessary compromise of Jewish ideals for the sake of survival.

    I don’t think it’s easy. Many people and nations, throughout history, have sought nothing but the destruction of the Jews. It’s sheer luck that I’m not living in Kishnev with my grandfather in 1904, or at pretty much any other time or place in diasporic(sp?) history.

    But what are *they* really so pissed about? Our existence as a people? I think not. I think it’s what we bring with us: iconoclasm, true abstract montheism, and social justice. It’s that we have embodied the stiff-necked resistance to tyranny – whether in Egypt or Europe.

    I think that resistance to tyranny *is* life itself. Yes, we need people to do that. And yes – so far, Judaism may have been the best medium yet for preserving and expanding on this human ability to remain conscious in the face of death (Pharaoh, Crusades, Hitler, terrorism…take your pick).

    But by confusing the practicalities and necessities of state warfare with the more important job of maintaining our dedication to LIFE, we can end up becoming the thing we were born to resist.

    So, in the luxury of 21st Century America, I write books inviting intellectuals to consider Judaism as something other than a reason not to inter-marry, as something more than a real estate document, or as something more than the thing they believe they left. I get that the something “more” I’m calling them to look at is very much a “something less” in your eyes.

    Still, if we read Torah enough, and Midrash, and Talmud, and study with the brightest people we can find, should that text work on us in the way it’s “supposed” to? Is it better for a modern secularist to still credit Judaism with every good idea and every good intention he’s ever had? Or is it better for that person to agree that he must leave Judaism behind?


    Hi Douglas,

    You really should do some more research and more thought before you try and attack my character. And by more research, I mean talking to credible sources–and not groupies or groupie websites set on discrediting people they disagree with. Just for the record, I am a full time graduate student at NYU, I live at my parents house, and I in no way in the world am a professional lobbyist.

    I was born and raised by immigrant artist parents, went to public school my whole life, and was ideologically stamped by the socialist Zionist Hashomer Hatzair–the third generation of my family in the movement–for whom I served, eventually, as North American Director. I was a peace activist building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians on the Left in Gaza and Ramallah while you were writing marketing and business books, a soldier putting his life on the line as you moved to Brooklyn and bought a nice house and hobnobbing in massively funded retreats with other upper-middle class “rebels,” a student activist who was involved in a film chronicling the crushing of dissent in Columbia’s classrooms while you were writing for establishment papers–and none of them got me even a percentage of the money you get from the business sector as an author, speaker and cheerleader. Nor would I want money for fighting for what I believe in. In my opinion, therefore, you have a stronger case sticking to your weak arguments. Which is not saying much.

    And now to those arguments: the idea that the nation state is a social construction of Europe is a half-truth, and like all half-truths it does more harm than good. Ever hear of Assyria? Maybe you’ve heard of the ancient kingdoms in China? Or how about a little place called ancient Egypt? For all extents and purposes, all of the above acted as what we now call “nation-states”–that is, as collective actors made up of individuals who band together out of the understanding that there are some problems that cannot be solved on the individual level.

    In economics there is a model called the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy, which I am sure you are aware of, occurs when many individuals all act for their individually conceived “Justice.” It usually occurs like this: a natural resource is found, and one person starts benefiting from it. One’s neighbor sees the benefit, and wants some too, since it’s only just. And then another feels it is only just to benefit as well. And by the time everyone is done getting their just deserves, the resource is depleted.

    Collective actors can help save resources–and they can also help allocate resources effectively. Another economics model is called the “prisoner’s dilemma.” the lesson learned from the prisoner’s dilemma is actually quite simple: people tend to give others more of the benefit of a doubt if they trust them. Moreover, the collective as a whole benefits from that trust–because zero-sum games become nonzero-sum games.

    In other words, collections of people within sovereign communities produce bonds of obligation, which help everyone out. Survival is just the least of the reasons for collective existence.

    Collective life IS life — communities and the social goods they produce are what allow you to wear the trendy clothes you do, live in the house you live in, and eat your gourmet food.

    The truth is, there is a lot you write that I agree with. But I cannot stand by the implications of your arguments since they argue for an effective dissolution of the Jewish People as a community of mutual obligation. You see, Judaism, in my eyes, and Torah too, is no more than the fence around the people who have a covenant first and foremost to each other.

    Torah isn’t a philosophical text to be dissected and thought about–Torah is a narrative within which real people live, real communities celebrate life, and a real People finds its history and affirms its bonds of obligation. It matters little to me how much Torah, Midrash and Talmud one reads and studies. Even four years worth. Study is not the point: it’s practice that matters, because life is practice. Without flour, there is no Torah. Without the Jewish People, no one has a conveant with the Eternal and the social justice that results.

    By metaphysicalizing Judaism, and then using it to justify your borgeouis way of life of minimum obligation to those who would fight and die to ensure you can be you, it is better in my opinion that a person agree that he must leave Judaism behind, because they’ve already left the Jewish People.

  11. Douglas Rushkoff

    Your facts on me are wrong – but I’m over that. I have only written one book on business, the most recent one, in which I tell businesses to get over their obsession with money (much in the way I told Jews to get over their obsession with numbers) and made “marketing” documentaries that tell teens how their culture was co-opted by corporations (much as I told Jews how their religion was co-opted by institutions). And all your framing devices of “gourmet food” are too rudimentary given your training and experience.

    The facts I’ve got about you are right, however. Right out of yoru bio. I leave it to others to research your movie, what you did to Edward Said, and your job as an IDF spokesperson. You’ve got a total right to do these things; you just can’t present yourself as some indie little student at the same time. You’re most definitely more established than I am. And you have certainly paid more for your dedication than I have; you are an injured veteran of the war.

    But that also gives you more of a right to tell me to butt out. You are working hard to defend Israel from real weapons and real terrorists. And it’s easy to see those of us in America who are wealthy enough to think about what I consider to be “advanced” Judaism as simply decadent intellectuals. Maybe there is no room for voices like Said. Maybe things aren’t safe enough for the kinds of conversations I like to raise.

    Maybe real theological and ethical inquiry needs to be discussed OUTSIDE of Judaism, so that Jews can maintain their racist, particularist, and superstitious relationship to the ONE TRUE GOD invented around the time Deuteronomy was added to the Torah. For engaging in real inquiry turns the masses into thinkers, and threatens the maintenance of the nation state. I get that.

    By the same token, however, I’d ask how one can even swallow a single spoonful of dessert when people are dying in Darfur the way the are? Maybe the Wagner school will help you see that we’re all connected – Jews and non-Jews alike. That approaching problems from within a perspective as sadly limited as Zionism is more the result of centuries of persecution than centuries of good acts.

    Your opinions though, are honest and understandable. And they may be right. I have been wrestling for many years with the possibility that people could just be mean and stupid, and in need an elite squad of public relations specialists to go tell them what to believe. That justifies the systematic discrediting of intellectuals as dangerous “elites” and the recontextualizations of mass stupidity and superstition as a kind of populism.

    I believe the Jewish people rallied around a set of ideas, an approach to life, and a mandate to make the world a better place. You believe that Jewish ideas are nice and all, but that the Jewish people – the collection of humans calling themselves Jews – is more important.

    Since I see calling oneself a “Jew” as the acceptance of a human-written covenant, then Judaism itself is an idea. Is it worth fighting and dying for? Perhaps. But has it been bastardized through its calcification into a nation state? Definitely.

    And so the demands from your side of the fence (or wall) for me to stop considering myself a Jew or what I’m practicing Judaism.

    Frankly, I’m pretty much okay doing that since I never liked the word Jew anyway. It’s so Greek. When I asked Charles Bronfman if he’d be okay with everyone in the world practicing Judaism, social justice, reading Torah, going to services, but never knowing it was called “Judaism,” he said “no.”

    Thanks to your responses, I understand where he was coming from. But I think it’s also a place that guarantees continued violence, the perpetration of great evil by our people, and the continuation of heinous persecution *of* our people by others.

    Just because someone is willing to die for me doesn’t mean they’re doing the right thing. There are many Palestinian terrorists willing to die for their people, too, but more progressive members understand that death cult for what it is.

    And so, I move on from here. I don’t have the time or money to argue in a comments section – not with Darfur and dozens of other real issues to address. To me, the endless energy you seem to have to attack people online with whom you disagree – and to do so in ridiculing, sarcastic ways – is a waste of your time and undermines your talent.

    Enjoy your Judaism. I’m still honored to speak at synagogues and JCC’s around the country, and I’ll still counsel the dozens of rabbis who call me each year for support. I’ll let them know, though, that they must judge for themselves whether where I’m coming from has anything to do with Judaism.

    The effects of my actions on real people will always matter more to me than what it’s called.


    Douglas, that’s why you are hilarious: you can claim your independence in the same breath you mention speaking to Charles Bronfman. Or getting paid to speak to Jewish communities across the country. Didn’t you just buy property in Park Slope? Good luck with that whole “indie” thing.

    In that way you are a lot like your hero Edward Said: a well-educated, upper-class metaphysicist who likes to parade himself as a member of the oppressed in cocktail parties with the rich and famous, and is willing to support certain forms of particularism but, well, can’t stand it when the Jews claim the inalienable right to self-determination. But hey, guess that’s what it takes to get you into the elite intellectual circles nowadays, huh?

    Guess I’m too close to the unwashed masses to understand how a professor telling Zionist students in the classroom that they cannot speak is part of that professor’s “academic freedom” and is not, as we claimed, the abuse of power. (And you oppose tyranny? I’m confused.) Guess I’m too close to the unwashed masses to understand, as you have, that nations are no more than superstructures invented for the oppression of individual minds. Guess I’m too close to the unwashed masses to understand, as you have, that anything is Jewish if you brand it as such. Because that is what you are an expert on, right? Branding. Well, at least that’s what it says on your website. (That I am more established than you? Sure thing. That’s why you just bought a house in Park Slope and I live with my parents. See, I served in the army for the IDF Spokesperson, after being injured in training as a infantryman. Serving in the Unit is well, what people do when they serve their country. I got paid 1,300 shekels. How much do you get for your various consulting gigs? Yeah, I thought so).

    But I digress–were you not to make ridiculous claims of my “lobbyist” profession I would have never come all the way here, and so return to the more important task of making clear that which is convoluted in your ideas.

    The problem with your ideas is that they are based on ideal-world scenarios: in the idea world, not eating dessert could benefit the people in Darfur–that is, even the most minute actions that individuals do on one side of the planet could benefit those in need on the other side. In the ideal world, all human beings are connected, and feel equal loyalty to one another.

    In the world we live in, though, actions only gain momentum when they are transformed and multiplied in force through collections of people who are bound together by a sense of obligation. As such, were the African Americans in the US to care about the genocide of people of like skin-color in Africa, they could have made it an issue in this last election cycle. They didn’t. Because they don’t care, as a community, about the welfare of people of their same skin color.

    That they should care more than anyone else is a racist proposition: it is based upon the assumption that people of the same race are somehow more loyal to one another. As we see, they are not. In fact, were it not for the Jews, Darfur would be no more known than the genocide brewing in the Congo.

    So why do Jews care? Statistically it is because they care about other Jews first. Strange–that particularism would push people for universal concern, but, as Steven M. Cohen pointed out to me, it’s true: those who care more about their communities also devote more time to helping others.

    Why? I think it is quite simple: when you know that you are safe, you can help others. Now some people, who live at peace in Park Slope or the Upper West Side forgetting that rough men guard them as they sleep, forget the first step and want to jump straight to the second. They believe that we can throw away all this particularism stuff and run the ball all the way the court without relying on the team. Well, it doesn’t work. Not for the person, not for the team, and not for the people that need help.

    In other words, in order for their to be an age of peace, each person needs to feel that their needs are taken care of, and each community needs to understand that it is responsible for the lives of its members. Once strong communities exist, strong people exist, and these strong people can help others. This is the basis for understanding what some people call “Democratic Peace.” Democracies are, over all, a covenanted community of trust that first and foremost are formed to protect and advance the particular interests of their citizens. Once those needs are met, however, democracies have the strange property of spreading the wealth further–allowing democratic governments to do what Peter Singer would like them to do: help those who aren’t their citizens but have a real need.

    The most the Jewish community could do to help the Darfuri and other members of the oppressed, therefore, is to ensure that members of the Jewish community are protected and feel safe enough to extend their collective hand out to others.

    But developing a strong community centered around our indigenous land is not good enough for you. No worries. It wasn’t good enough for Paul, either. And look how successful he was speaking to Jewish communities and rabbis–Christianity is the largest philosophy in the world! Or maybe you’d rather see yourself dropping the whole “Jew” word and teaching the values of social justice like another favorite boy of our faith, Karl Marx. Go for it. Because as far as I’m concerned, there is little difference between your “Jewish” identity and the Jewish identity of the early Minim (Jewish Christians) or those Bundists who convinced the Jews in Europe that a brotherhood of the working class was an imminent reality. Guess what: the effects of their actions on real people mattered to them too, and we see those effects ever time we close our eyes and picture the smoldering remains of those Jewish communities of Europe who hoped that one day, when the messiah comes, human beings will finally understand that we are One.

  13. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Did I chime in with my thoughts about an argument for the sake of heaven too soon? I hope not.

    Two things:

    (1) You write: “That they should care more than anyone else is a racist proposition: it is based upon the assumption that people of the same race are somehow more loyal to one another. As we see, they are not.”

    Did you mean “NOT” a racist proposition? I’m assuming you did. (Unless you meant to call yourself a racist.)

    But do we really still *believe* in race? Maybe it was just my uppity college education, but I thought we abandoned that concept.

    (2) You write: “In other words, in order for their to be an age of peace, each person needs to feel that their needs are taken care of, and each community needs to understand that it is responsible for the lives of its members. Once strong communities exist, strong people exist, and these strong people can help others.”

    Does this mean that the end goal is helping others? That the end goal is universal care, but that you believe that can only happen through (originally) particularistic means?

    Finally: I don’t mean to be jumping into the conversation at a point that protects one of you, but since I just got invested by posting my two cents — and my hopes that this debate will have a productive outcome — I need to say, Ariel, where Douglas lives and whether or not he owns a house is unfathomably irrelevant. Living with your parents is not a morally superior position. Sorry dude…

  14. Douglas Rushkoff

    ((And I don’t own a house. We rent a four-floor walk up.
    But if I did have the money for a house, I would buy one.

    I didn’t take Bronfman’s money, because – even though I could have sold them on the idea that my goals and theirs were the same – it would have been unethical. I came to understand that what he was looking for, and that what I was hoping to accomplish were two different things. However the man came by his money, it wouldn’t have been right for me to take it.

    I do usually earn more than 130 shekels to do a scholar-in-residence at a US synagogue. But I’ve also done them for free. I acknowledge Ariel’s bravery and dedication; I once tried to help a non-Jewish guy who was getting mugged, at great risk to my person. I failed in my efforts, and did not show the courage of a real soldier.

    I am still amazed that people think I’m rich. It used to be that someone with 10 or more published books and two documentaries *was* rich. But it doesn’t work that way, anymore. Still, it’s a romantic notion. And, like Septimus says, one that has little place here.))

    And I really really don’t have time for this, given my need to earn money (if my book hadn’t been blacklisted, I might have more time!), but I think the difference between universalism and messianism is an interesting one. I don’t really call myself universalist – though it’s an easy way to distinguish my position from that of particularism. I’m into the idea that we each bring something particular to the universal table.

    But I believe the time to come to that table is NOW.

    I’m into messianic Judaism, except for the *future* part. My main area of study is narrativity, and I’m always suspicious of narratives that use the future’s peace as justification for the present’s violence or suffering. It’s comforting to those in great pain – but it’s not the healthiest call to action.

    I prefer to think of us living in the messianic present – slowly coming to realize who we are and what we’re capable of. My objections to messianism are the same as my objections to 2012 prophecies: they can yank us from the moment we’re living in, and lead to an ends-justify-the-means prophetic exception to ethical behavior.


    if the object is to protect Judaism’s core, then we’d have to agree on what that core is – the stasis or the evolution? Or, most likely, some balancing of the two?

    I’m inclined to go with door number three — some kind of balancing of the two. One of my teachers is fond of pointing out that we need to balance, on the one hand, the desire to drive using the rear-view mirror (in other words, we need to see where we’ve been, and take that into account) and using the windshield too (we need to keep our eyes open to the vista ahead of us, as well.)

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