Rushkoff Responds

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.

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