The Medium is the Message: Getting Over Race and Nation

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in What Israel Means to Me on 1 August 2007

I love religions. I think they’re great great things—as long as no one actually believes in them.

As a Jew by choice who also happens to have been born Jewish, what excited me about Judaism was its emphasis on religion as a process, rather than a thing one “believes” in. Judaism, in many ways, is less a religion than a process by which we get over religion. And I don’t just mean this facetiously. No, in a world where people’s inflexibly absolutist perspectives on our shared reality are colliding with disastrous results, we are in dire need of a way to negotiate an understanding of our world that is not mired in obsolete notions of race, place, and God “himself.” Judaism offers just such a negotiation. At least it used to.

Let me explain.

Historically, the Israelite religion was a reaction to land-based religions where different localities worshiped different gods for good fortune. The ancient world was one where people depended on the grace of their gods for rain, sun, children, and pretty much everything. The calendar was circular, since nothing ever really changed. Each season was differentiated only by how much or how little the gods favored the people.

In such an environment, people did all sorts of things to appease their deities. They enslaved their fellows to build monuments, and even—according to some archeological evidence—sacrificed their firstborn male sons to the god Moloch. There had to be a better way.

The Torah (let’s look at the narrative allegorically, for the time being) shows a people desecrating the gods of their civilization in order to build a new one. The “first” civilization, represented by all those firstborn sons who are damned, exiled, or otherwise rejected in Genesis, is replaced with a new civilization—that of Jacob, the man who wrestled with God to become Israel.

Instead of accepting the preexisting conditions of gods who either bestow or withhold their mercy, the Israelites invent a new scheme. First, they rid themselves of the Egyptian gods they worshiped. The plagues—recounted every Pesach—are not mere lists of awful things that the Israelites’ God did to the Egyptians. They are each a desecration of an Egyptian god. Blood desecrates the Nile, a god. Locusts desecrate the corn god, and darkness desecrates the sun god. Finally, the slaying of the Paschal lamb is the desecration of the most important of the Egyptian gods, who was to be celebrated and worshiped in the Egyptian new year’s month of April. Instead, its blood is put on the doorposts in defiance of local religion and law.

And what does this slaying and sacrifice accomplish in the story? It spares the Israelites from losing their firstborn sons. If we are to understand Torah as allegory, we see how the abandonment of these false local gods—iconoclasm—frees us from the obligation to sacrifice our firstborn male children. We are liberated from this passive and self-destructive relationship to deity.

Once iconoclasm is achieved, the Israelites learn to relate to a more abstract notion of God. No one knows who or what God is, and that’s about all that can be said. The boundaries that used to exist between people—their individual races and nations beneath particular gods—no longer count. There’s only one. This abstract monotheism gets God out of the way, so that people can get on with the real work of making the world a better place: social justice.

As I experience it, Judaism is the fuel for modernism. The birth of our civilization—or at least a significant strand of it.

But as I approached institutional Judaism for a confirmation of this sensibility, I got something very different. It seemed to me, as a so-called lapsed or unaffiliated Jew, that Judaism had become obsessed with intermarriage and assimilation. We were mistaking ourselves for a race, rather than a set of ideas that intentionally transcend race. Jewish “fidelity” became the reason to be Jewish, instead of the ever more attractive call to make the world a better place. Jews were to ask of themselves what they could do for Judaism, rather than what Judaism could do for the world. Our philanthropies began the counting game, treating Jews like an endangered species, and then wondering why this strategy further disenfranchised people looking for a spiritual path.

Our current disconnection with the lifeblood of this tradition stems, I fear, from three major sources: misperceptions about race, a lack of knowledge about Jewish texts, and an inability to discuss Israel.

It’s not surprising that Jews think of themselves as a race. Everybody else does—especially our oppressors. The first person in Torah to mention an “Israeli people” is the pharaoh. He thinks that “Am Yisrael” won’t recognize themselves as Egyptians if there’s a war. The first people, historically, to talk of a Jewish race were the Inquisitors of Spain. Jews had converted to Catholicism, so a new reason needed to be invented to hate them: their blood. Finally, it was Hitler, bastardizing a bit of Carl Jung, who justified the extermination of fully assimilated German Jews by claiming Jews had a “genetic memory” for their inquisitive nature.

So the Jews, who were originally persecuted for their refusal to submit to the artificial racial and theistic boundaries of their contemporaries, now thought of themselves as a race, too.

In an effort to appear more like their contemporaries, Jews in the Reform movement made the synagogue into something like a church: the rabbis donned robes and stood on a stage, ministering the religion to their congregations. But this distanced Jews from their texts. Jews regressed to a childlike state, and transferred parental authority onto their rabbis. Judaism became more of a religion to be ministered than a negotiation with which to be engaged. The shul—literally “school”—became a “temple.” Active study was replaced by monotone responsive reading.

Finally, the establishment of Israel—though perhaps a necessary way of saving Jewish bodies from continued persecution in Europe—has also affected Jews’ relationship to their religion. By equating Judaism with Israel or, worse, seeing Israel as a prerequisite for the coming of the Messiah, we concretize an otherwise abstract religion in the realities of State. We turn Torah into proof of a land claim, and sacrifice its more allegorical function. We start to think of ourselves as a people “chosen” by “God” to own a particular stretch of land—rather than as the carriers of a universal truth that transcends nation, race, and even religion.

We end up with our own nation to protect and our own flag to wave, just like everybody else. In a sense, it is the ultimate form of assimilation.

The way out is Judaism, itself. Judaism is a conversation, not a doctrine. Our rules—our laws—are highly procedural in nature. They are the requirements for respectful interaction between people. Even the requirement for a minyan—ten people to open the Torah—conveys a lot about the priorities of this religion. In a sense, the Torah is just the starting place for a living interaction between real people.

Our shared narrative is an excuse for us to interact. A conversation starter. Judaism serves not just as a message, but as a medium through which people can have more profound and intimate relationships with one another. It is a process through which people can get over their racial, religious, and national misperceptions, and relate to one another on a higher level.

The conversation that is Judaism must be opened up. Nothing is too sacred in Judaism that it can’t be put up for discussion—not Israel, not our peoplehood, not even God. The last thing a Jewish God would want to do is stand in the way of a good conversation.

So let’s not use her that way.