Can We Talk?
by Kenneth Applebaum with an intro by Jeanette Friedman

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Lifestyles on 1 September 2003

The Jerusalem Report called him an atheist because he is an iconoclast, but then, the writer who was so supremely critical of this young, 42-year old deep thinker, Douglas Rushkoff, obviously doesn’t understand the second of the Ten Commandments. Jews are the original iconoclasts. That’s why everyone else hates them–for that and providing the world with the rest of the Ten Commandments. But people don’t get it. Douglas Rushkoff, author of Nothing is Sacred, does get Judaism, very, very well. And because he does, more and more institutional Jews and Jewish institutions see him as a threat to their well-being.

Why? Because he asks good, hard questions and understands that we might not like what happens when we get the answers. As anyone who ever read or saw Yentl knows, you are judged by the questions you ask. Many of us know from our own Hebrew School and yeshiva experiences that we really aren’t supposed to ask questions, because a) our teachers (rabbis) might not have the answers; b) they don’t want you to know the answers, or c) they are afraid of the answers. It seems they want to be the exclusive holders of the supreme knowledge and interpretation of the Torah.

In Nothing is Sacred, Rushkoff dares to question some basic assumptions about contemporary Judaism. His questions are based primarily on the Rambam (Maimonides), whose books were burned when they were first published and from whence a rabbinical decree forbidding the study of Greek philosophy was issued. The questions Rushkoff raises have nothing to do with apostasy, atheism or anti-Zionism. He just examines the roots of Judaism, the Torah, the Talmud, the rabbinical writings of the past and does nothing out of the ordinary. He asks some real, hard questions–questions the Rambam and other great sages have raised in the past before there were European pogroms and a Holocaust that somehow turned Judaism upside down.

The reaction to his book has been extraordinary. Rarely has a Jewish author been so excoriated, mostly by people who have only read the reviews and read “bites” that have been taken out of context. Many of them have anthropomorphized God into an old man with a long white beard, micromanaging the Universe and toting up brownie points. Many Jews have forgotten that whatever you think God is, that is what God is NOT. That’s why there is a second commandment, and that’s why Jews are the original iconoclasts. There shall be no graven images before you–not even in your mind’s eye.

Rushkoff is mostly known for his books on cyberspace and the media. He, better than most, knows about interaction and interconnectivity. He writes for the New York Times, Time and other “hot” publications on that subject. He is astonished at the heat and rage his words have engendered. Obviously, when Douglas Rushkoff quotes Joan Rivers and asks, “Can We Talk?” the answer is, “Absolutely not,” prompting the question ‘‘Why?” Perhaps the answers to that lie in the Q&A below, conducted by Ken Applebaum.

Q. How did your upbringing and childhood influence your adult perspectives on media and faith?

A: l grew up watching television in the 1960s and ’70s. Even as a child, I could see the reality depicted in the tube differed greatly from the world outside. What bothered me were the endings. ln the news, Walter Cronkite ended his broadcasts with the assertion ‘‘That’s the way it is.” What an outrageous statement! And most Americans believed it. He probably did himself.

Meanwhile, sitcoms and one-hour dramas strain to resolve their conflicts before time is up. lt didn’t seem to matter that Lucy deceived Ricky for 20 television minutes, or that Fred Flintstone lied to his wife, only that the situation found some technical, plot-driven resolution. TV presented a closed American-driven universe, with very particular rules. It encouraged us to look forward to endings, and to accept the endings we were given–it seemed to make them believe the stories of their lives were already written.

Because of the dissatisfaction I experienced with media and because I love to dissect how it is all put together, I welcomed the age of interactive media with great excitement. I saw it as the process through which people would tell their own stories and develop their own narratives, rather than absorbing srories presented by sponsors. I hoped our society would be less addicted to the certainty of conclusions.

As a youth, I never took Judaism very seriously as a faith-based religion. I suppose I believed that Abraham and those mythic Biblical characters did exist–in the same way that I believed that pro-wrestling was real. That probably went on until I was about 11 years old. We belonged to a boring Refonn congregation that had more to do with Zionism and the preservation of upper middle class suburban values than it did with Judaism. I remember one of our rabbis (subsequently fired) told us that, “God is your conscience.” I liked that. I tended not to have any faith, because I was coming into consciousness as Nixon resigned and no one had faith anymore.

Rushkoff attended Princeton and majored in English and pre-med, then earned his Master’s in Fine Arts in Theater and Film . He gave up theater as a method of getting people to act, because he felt it was too didactic. He tutored kids for their SATs, wrote some screenplays and turned to books. It wasn ‘t a career move; it was simply that he sought venues where he could express his ideas and explain the technology that changed all our lives. He was a pioneer writing about the lnternet for the mainstream press in the ’80s, explaining what we thought was the nerds’ revenge to the rest of us. His first book was Cyberia_. He told Applebaum:_

Silicon Valley was filled with Deadheads, ravers and other radically psychedelic people. I thought computer people were nerds, not freaks. What was there about the technology that excited chem so? They designed the new interfaces–the new realities–and were the only people with significant experience navigating hallucinatory realms. There was a single cultural shift taking place across a disparate range of fields and disciplines. No one had quite put their finger on it, but people accepted the fact that our realities are designed and can be redesigned. Kids working in math, physics, music, electronics, networking, holography, rave, fantasy role-playing, even eco-terrorism, were all coming up with the same basic insight, but thought it was exclusively theirs. I wrote Cyberia to let everyone know about that shift.

Q: What enduring lesson or perspective did you take from Cyberia?

A: I learned that no matter how autonomous a new technology or technique might make us, some people still long for power and others long for charismatic leaders. Look at the Jewish Renewal movement as a case study… But the problem with the rave/Internet culture was that it had no coherent set of values, just the notion that we can redesign reality. It was like the ’60s, but without the policies. Ravers–the ones coherent enough to express big ideas–spoke of having no agenda. And this made them ripe for the picking.

This resulted in a fictionalization of Cyberia, called The Ecstacy Club.

Ecstasy Club is about a social experiment gone awry, about a rave club turning slowly into a cult. Countercultural movements remain countercultural by continually defining themselves against the status quo, but this is a losing proposition because it causes extremism. In The Ecstasy Club, the group of kids keeps repositioning itself in order to remain counter-cultural and different, and so it goes nuts. They don’t realize that the tools for change are right in front of them. It doesn’t take a strange attractor (from chaos math) or an alien visitation to make change.

Q: Media Virus! [another Rushkoff book] explores many of the memes contained in mass media. What are memes and why do we, as consumers of media, need to be more aware of them?

A: Memes are a way of talking about ideas that are less efficient than they are worth. All people need to know is that different ideas are streaming at them through media all the time. The ideas that nest themselves best in our brains and replicate like viruses are the ones that exploit our weaknesses. Ideas spread through the media safely, sometimes because they are hidden in seemingly innocuous media, like kids’ shows. This a good thing because it allows for some very progressive notions to spread for a good long time–like in The Simpsons, which is filled with great ideas, encased in comic shells, but it can also be deadly.

I’m concerned that we are being fed messages. People should know that most media is designed to make you feel bad, so that you regress to a childlike state and transfer parental authority onto the sponsor. You are more vulnerable to messages when you feel really bad or when you feel artificially high (like at a Promisekeepers or Amway rally). The main message of the mainstream media is: The world is dangerous and mean; you are not worthy. You are alone. Nobody loves you and nobody will, unless you do what we tell you.

Q: Last year, Exit Strategy was published. It seems couched in media, the Internet, marketing and society’s burgeoning potential. However, it is also the Biblical tale of Joseph and deals with “born-again” Jews, “lapsed” Jews, the growing disparity between the observant and the secular segments of Jewish culture and subtle forms of anti-semitism or, more properly, systems designed to favor an incumbent, more gentile power structure. Is this novel a bridge between two phases in your writing career or sign of a departure?

A: My books aren’t bridges because I don’t plan out my writing career. Using the story of Joseph as an apt allegory, Exit Strategy looks at how the application of the underlying ethics of the Jewish system could prevent the kind of insanity that we went through at the end of the 1990s. Those years were about market fascism and that has occurred many times before–always with the same result. It is a parable for how we release ourselves from mental bondage, from the slavery of worshiping an idolatrous system like the stock market.

Nothing is Sacred isn’t a departure from media theory at all. Judaism is a medium. The mistake of Internet business people–the same ones I satirized in Exit Strategy–was to think that “content is king.” It never was. Contact is king in an interactive environment. Judaism was invented at the height of idolatrous civilization to make the point: get rid of the gods so that people can come into contact with one another.

Q: In Nothing is Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, the original subtitle was to be “The Case For Open Source Judaism.” Your website is What does “open source” mean, and how are we to apply that concept to what many see as undeniable truths?

A: Open source is a term borrowed from computer software development. People using software should have the ability to change and improve it. The code is not locked down or kept secret; it is open to everyone to rework and evolve. I believe religions should be thought of in this way, too. At least Judaism should, because Judaism was invented as an altemative to the pagan religions of its day. People prayed to gods for stuff–fertility, rain, sun… We were children, depending on the whims of the gods. We measured time with a circular calendar, because there was no concept of progress. We couldn’t make things better–things stayed the same, and got momentarily better or worse because of the gods’ moods.

Judaism was invented as a way for human beings to take an active role in their own existence. We believe in the one God, but we understand that we are responsible for what happens on this planet, in this universe, in our lives. Instead of understanding our religion as a set of doctrines to believe in–as faith–we have a religion of practices and values. Judaism teaches that people can make this world a better place through their actions. This was a radical revision of the accepted world order. That’s why we needed a linear calendar to go along with it, so we could measure our progress over time. Everything was developed on the fly, then improved over the centuries. The Talmudic process is also very much an open source process.

But people today feel that they’re either not entitled to rework and improve their religion, or that they are incapable of doing so. People seem to need permission to have their own conversation with Judaism. People should know they can gain access to the core narrative and customs. This religion belongs to them, as much as to anyone. But they need to study the code of the Torah, Talmud and Judaism before they can “revise” it.

Some people think this kind of “revisionism” threatens Jewish continuity. But Jewish continuity is a process of revision and reconsideration. Revision is simply part of our tradition of radical appraisal and evolution. Our “sacred” truths get in the way of our living relationship with religion. In Judaism, nothing is so sacred that it carmot be discussed. It’s all open, right down to the source, and those who want it have access to it.

Our tradition experienced three main shocks to the system. The first was in mythical Egypt, when we rejected the concretized gods of that first-born civilization in order to invent a more abstract model of God. This was hard to do, and is symbolized in the Torah by the Ten Plagues. Each plague represents the desecration of another Egyptian god: blood desecrates the Nile, locusts desecrate the corn, darkness desecrates the sun, and so on. The Nile, corn, and the sun were gods. Finally, the sacrifice of the lamb, the highest Egyptian god–creator of the universe–is what saves the Hebrews’ sons.


Losing the Temple in 70 CE required Jews to reinvent the religion. So we packed it up in the form of the Torah and Talmud and hit the road. We had to learn to do Judaism without our Holy Temple. Many of the prophets saw this as a good thing, because people had begun to worship the Temple itself–it had turned into an icon, an idol.

Today some people have reduced Torah to an icon, largely because they’ve adopted a more distant, literal interpretation. They’ve done that to make a theistic or religious justification for our claim to the State of Israel. The Jews have a valid claim to territory in the Middle East, but we must find better justifications for it than the argument that “God gave it to us” or “the Torah says it’s ours.” Perhaps we need to exercise a bit of iconoclasm again, so that we can free the essence of Judaism from the institutions built to protect it. The institutions and structures should not be mistaken for Judaism.

I am not reducing Judaism to social justice, as many pundits have suggested. Social justice is the obvious result of behaving in a holy fashion and Judaism is the path to it. Instead of worshiping idols, we learn to experience God as an abstract, an all-encompassing entity. This challenges the more literal-minded Jews, because it means that there is nothing to fight about. After all, none of us knows God. Through the course of the Bible, God gets increasingly abstract and receded (nistar-hidden), as if by our growing up God pulls back and leaves us to our own devices, to spend more time and energy to take care of each other. This is how we get to social justice. We begin to realize that the most sacred thing is what happens between people.

Q: How does this translate into today’s Judaism?

A: I think Judaism today has been crippled by our obsession with race, assimilation and Israel. Right now in America, Jews are stuck in a siege mentality caused by the Shoah, and the institutions built to protect Jewish ideas and methods hang on to that mentality for fundraising reasons, while others try to make their insights into Torah the exclusive insights into Torah.

For starters, Jews are not a race. First, Pharaoh called the Israelites a “people.” The Spanish Inquisitors invented a “Jewish race,” because they needed to persecute Jews who converted to Christianity. Then Jung and Hitler spread the notion of Jewish “genetic memory.” Our leaders, as a “people” accepted these very skewed and false definitions. Judaism was invented to defy imposed boundaries. But we are still dominated by the early 20th century agenda, which is that we’ll assimilate and disappear. Institutions harp on the threat of intermarriage and people violating their “Jewish fidelity.” This makes institutional Judaism less attractive to those who seek a spiritual path or community, so they turn elsewhere, giving credence to the fear that Jewish numbers are dwindling. Then the philanthropies fund more studies and programs to stem assimilation and this perpetuates into a devolutionary spiral.

The Reform movement, for all its great insights, also distanced Jews from their own religion. By placing rabbis on a stage and dressing them in robes like Christian clerics, the reformers made a religion that looked like Christianity in order to defuse antisemitism. They succeeded, inadvertently, in distancing Jews from their own religion. As a result, Jews tended to transfer parental authority onto their rabbis, and with it, the responsibility for knowing Torah and the law. The arguments around the table disappeared and were replaced with responsive reading. The religion became a ‘‘holy thing,” to be ministered by our “priests,” instead of a “negotiation” that was noisily discussed and debated around the table. We could no longer talk.

The establishment of the State of Israel, though important for many reasons, gave Jews a holy place to care about. We used Torah to defend Israel’s right to exist, reducing a transcendental body of literature to a simple land claim. (“God gave this part to Abraham, and Jacob got this piece from that king.”) So now Torah can’t be discussed or questioned. To relate to Torah as allegory throws our land claim into question. But what if the story is an allegory, too? The goal is to apply a bit of Judaism to Judaism. Let’s smash our own false idols, think of God as an abstract, and then see if loving ourselves, each other and other peoples, makes the world a little better. Because we are refusing to allow it to change, Judaism may become a cult. I believe evolution will not compromise our continuity; evolution is our continuity.

Q: To you, God is something that is enacted through the conscious practice of Judaism as a force for good. Some may find this a seemingly cold and lonely perspective or, as you put it so succinctly, “It is a traumatic day in the life of a child when she discovers her parents are not gods; it is a traumatic day in the life of a people when they discover their God is not a parent.”

A: Of course we’re going to feel loss, because we lose the illusion of a parent protecting us. We want to feel safe. We want to believe that God loves us more than he loves other people. We want to feel special; we can’t quite conceive of how everyone can be special at the same time. We need for someone else to be reviled or inferior. Once we get to the heart of Judaism, and wrestle with our illusions of God just as Jacob wrestled with the angel in order to become Israel, we realize that we are the adults here. We are not God’s children; we are the most realized creatures on our little planet and responsible for one another’s well-being. This was the Jewish invention: we will not depend on our gods for everything, but we will begin to see ourselves as in some way connected to the quality of our reality.

We’ve almost completely forgotten that we had this idea, and have almost forgotten the idea itself. But once we reclaim our Judaism, we can begin to see Torah and God’s role in Torah in a new light. The prophets, from Abraham right on through to the end, are each enacting God. That’s what they mean when they say hineni. It’s not that they’re telling God, “I’m here!” They actually become the voices, containers and enactors of God. God is not someone we pray to. God Is something we do.

Q: Some of your greater influences and some of the company you keep include more than a few unorthodox mystics. And you’ve also copped to a certain legitimacy of their positions. How do you reconcile what on the surface appears to be a fundamental incompatibility?

A: I try to present a rational argument for participation in Judaism. Once a person participates, he or she will be confronted by the very mystery of existence. A certain amount of rationality is a precondition for awe. Otherwise you end up paying some fake rabbi to tie a red string around your wrist. [Talk to the likes of Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and their crew.]

Q: Some argue that to question the validity of Jewish institutions, especially as an “insider-outsider,” is to invite further attacks on Jews by baring our weaknesses and fostering dissention in the ranks. How do you respond to such a charge?

A: Better that then the slow, numb death Judaism seems committed to at present. Judaism has always involved wrestling with our conception of Gcxl, not surrendering to a bad one. I’ve met many rabbis who acknowledge that they’re helping their congregations worship a God that no one actually believes in anymore. This is a sure recipe for disaster. A good many reviews of Nothing is Sacred come from the perspective that I am either “killing God” or “hateful of Judaism.” They fear that I am telling people to get rid of Judaism, or at least be willing for it to go away. These people can’t–or won’t–understand that Judaism is not a solid thing. It was born to fight the very mentality that they are espousing. It was invented because people’s religions were set in stone and unchangeable. Judaism is the people’s religion. If it’s a gift from God, it’s ours now. We are the adults in charge of it. The institutionally-addicted Jews reviewing my work and criticizing it cannot imagine Judaism without its walls. They think the walls are Judaism. They have the power right now to dominate the conversation, as well as the way Judaism is perceived by the world. They could kill the very “heart” of Judaism if they are not more careful.

The reactions that trouble me more are from Jews who don’t relate to their religion, but are afraid to accept that if they don’t believe in any particular form of Judaism it may not be Judaism. They think that some Haredi in Jerusalem is practicing the “real” religion. And they get upset to learn that they, themselves, are responsible for their own religion.

But the angriest people are the ones who hear in my message that I hate Judaism, and that I want everyone to burn their Torahs and abandon the whole thing. They call me an antisemite. I presented the head of a million-dollar philanthropy with a scenario: What if everyone in the world practiced Judaism, did all of the mitzvot, read Torah, and performed social justice? Would you be happy if everyone in the world did all this, but no one knew it was called “Judaism?” And he thought for a minute, and then shook his head and said, “No!” This word “Judaism” has become more important than Judaism. God never tells the Israelites to be Jews–he tells them to be holy. That’s all I’m saying. Let’s not mistake the bathwater for the baby.

Q: Has writing Nothing is Sacred changed your life?

A: I can be found at Jewish events more often, but that’s because I’m invited, not because I’m finding spiritual fuel there. As a writer, it’s taught me (and hopefully my audience) that I’m not limited to writing about technology or media or weird stuff. I can approach a real subject in a scholarly way, and say something quite new about it. It’s given me the confidence to think about new areas of inquiry. I hope I’ll be spending the year speaking at synagogues, where people and their rabbis are desperately hoping someone will give them permission to take back their religion. I’d take it as a tremendous victory for God if people took to heart their responsibility for working things out with one another, rather than waiting for the big guy to come down and punish the “other” team.

Q: Do you think any of this is likely to come to pass?

A: To some extent, sure. I’m a Jew, so I believe in the possibility of progress.