The Sacred and the Profane
A Conversation with Douglas Rushkoff

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Zeek on 1 July 2003

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Douglas Rushkoff is a well-known media theorist and social critic who made his mark as a prophet of the early Internet. In pioneering works such as Cyberia, Playing the Future, and Media Virus , as well as in reconsiderations in works such as Coercion, Rushkoff advanced and then partly retracted a theory that the Internet’s new modes of social communication were truly revolutionary, and entered into the media theorist’s lexicon a host of terms once reserved for computer programmers.

Now Rushkoff, Professor of Virtual Culture at NYU, has turned his attention to Judaism, which, he says, has some of the same virtues as the early Internet: text-centeredness, open source values (in which everyone has access to the ‘code’ and can contribute new ideas, in contrast to closed source systems in which the code is kept secret and modified only by those in charge), the capacity to change. Judaism’s core message, Rushkoff says, is in some sense post-religious; in contrast to cultic religions which give to the gods all responsibility for worldly affairs, Judaism gives that responsibility to human beings. Our job is not to venerate idols but to smash them, and “engaging in the difficult work of making the most ethical, compassionate, life-affirming choice in every situation… to figure out what those choices are and how to muster the courage to resolve to live them.”

However, Rushkoff claims, Judaism has of late lost its way, venerating its teachings instead of debating them, worrying more about Israel and demographics than social justice and responsibility. What’s needed, he says, is a new, open-source Judaism, led by those “lapsed Jews” who are not beholden to any sacred cows.

Perhaps not surprisingly – but still somewhat surprising in their acidity – many Jews have taken strong exception to Rushkoff’s descriptive and prescriptive arguments. His ideas misconstrued and mischaracterized by the mainstream, Rushkoff has been called, variously, an atheist, an ignoramus, and an assimilationist, and has been taken to task for his history, theory, and theology. In this conversation between Rushkoff and Zeek’s Jay Michaelson, the author answers his critics. Taking a cue from Rushkoff’s own writing about the Internet and its possibilities for new forms of communication, the interview was conducted as a series of emails back and forth, with each participant commenting on the posts of the other. Moreover, readers are encouraged to post their responses on Rushkoff’s website dedicated to Open Source Judaism. The conversation is just beginning.

First thread: Ethics, mysticism, and pluralism

The tour for Nothing Sacred is underway. I’ve got a few more dates in NYC and DC before heading out West. Very intense, so far. So intense, that I’m thinking of softening my approach….

People have very little room for entertaining doubt in their relationships to religion. (This inflexibility is called triumphalism) That’s probably because these relationships are always fraught with so much doubt - conscious or otherwise. Of course, engaging with different models of theology needn’t shake anyone’s belief that there is a God - only that we may not yet conceive of God exactly as God is.

In order to have a conversation about religion, people must be able - at least provisionally - to accept that it’s quite possible that their brain hasn’t yet processed the totality of creation and the supreme being, if it exists. In my book (subtitled ‘the truth about Judaism’) I propose that it is only by negotiating our collective truth that we’ll stand a chance of figuring out what’s going on here. The retort from a student rabbi? “What about the people who don’t believe what you’re saying? How does your multi-perspective include the perspectives of people who don’t believe that we need multiple perspectives?” That’s called Sophism.

I’m not sure this is really Sophism here. Your view that there are a set of partial truths out there is not just process-oriented – it is a substantive position as well, because it excludes from the conversation/ theology development process those contributors who disagree with your premise, namely, that greater truth can be achieved in a collaborative way.

Western fundamentalists, at least the ones I know, tend not to believe that they have “knowledge of God exactly as God is.” In fact, precisely for that reason, they doubt the ability of humans to know such things, and appeal to revelation. It’s ironic, but it seems to me that your project – which claims to be grounded in a healthy skepticism about our ability to know God – is in fact very (perhaps overly) confident in our collective ability to sort things out.

JM (continued):
You’re clearly right that doubt and uncertainty make the zealots’ positions more rigid. But what DO you do with the religious position of “God cannot be known except through miracle, and this text records miracle”?

Or, let me pose a harder hypothetical. Clearly from a rationalistic perspective, obtaining multiple views of truth is likely to increase the total amount of information. However, to the extent religion accesses non-rational (even trans-rational) parts of the self, isn’t it possible that by refusing to enter into the conceptual universe of a single tradition – a universe which includes the view that that single tradition has better access to truth than others – you are forever going to miss the emotive, spiritual, communal, tribal essence of what religion is about?

Are all truths cosmopolitan?

It is true that the only people who will engage in a truly honest conversation about religion are those who believe that a truly honest conversation about religion will not hurt anyone or prove useless. Engagement requires at least the acceptance that conversation and negotiation can potentially be fruitful.

What do I do with fundamentalists who believe that God can only be known with revelation? Well, honestly, they’re not my responsibility. I do think they can join in the conversation, because some of them might believe that God is not continuously revealing the Truth to them. Many Jews I’ve met believe that there was a revelation at Mount Sinai. But this does not rule out the possibility that we may not have completely grasped the truth as it was revealed. It is still quite possible that the profundity of what was revealed at Sinai will take yet more generations to unpack. And I see the best way of unpacking it being some form of collaboration.

The rabbis did, too, which is why they didn’t want people studying Judaism alone. We’ve got minyans for that. And those who study Talmud are supposed to do it with at least a partner. These are not Rushkoff’s Rules! I’m just reading the rules, and trying to make sense of them. Seems to me that the notion of maintaining a conversation, of commenting on Torah, and then commenting on people’s comments, was not invented by me. It’s not a controversial notion, at all.

As for all truths being cosmopolitan? No. But you are confusing Truth with a single human being’s ability to comprehend and express the truth. As far as I’m concerned, no human being is capable of comprehending the Truth. Therefore, all individual human creature understandings of God, reality, etc., are flawed and, yes, provincial. That’s why it’s called a perspective.

Again, this is nothing new - it’s the blind men with the elephant. And it’s certainly not worthy of generating controversy and the boycotts I’m getting. It doesn’t mean, as Jerusalem Report claims, that I’m an ‘atheist.’

You are not an atheist. The people who think you are an atheist are idolaters, believing that their image of God is God. You are, it seems to me, a Reconstructionist, i.e., someone who believes that an ultimately unknowable God unfolds through non-supernatural means, including most importantly the best efforts of human beings interacting according to the rules of Judaism with the source texts that it provides. (I wish you’d engage more with Kaplan in the book, actually.) As your rabbi said (and I don’t agree with this part): “God is your conscience.” Certainly, in this view, the text is far less important than the procedure for interpreting and debating it. This is a consummately rabbinic view as well as a Kaplanian one. But I think you are much more fundamentalist than you really want to be. You exclude the possibility that non-rational practices have any place in discovering truth. You seem to insist (and please correct me if I’ve misread you) that your particular allegorical readings of the various Biblical texts are “the meaning” of those texts. Although you espouse Midrash in the book, what you’re doing isn’t Midrash, it’s halacha. You’re telling me that the text “means” this or that, and in particular, that it means a particular, 2003-flavor middle-left social liberalism. I happen to be more or less a liberal too, but I don’t go around saying that Judaism “means” that. What about radicalism? Conservatism? All are present in the Biblical texts. Midrash accommodates this multiplicity of voices. Rushkoff seems to say you’re either for labor unions, or you’re misreading Torah/Jewish tradition.

I’ll go along with your claim that it’s the conversation that matters, but I don’t believe the conversational ethos itself engenders your particular form of social liberalism.

JM (continued):
Moreover, for me, it is impossible to have a conversation about ethics without my own direct experience of non-unitive Divine reality entering into the conversation, because, for me, my ethics flow (hopefully generously) from that enlarged awareness. Your book has very nasty things to say about my brand of Judaism. I wear a red bracelet, but I didn’t pay a dime for it; actually I got it myself on a pilgrimage to Rachel’s Tomb in Palestine. I don’t think it keeps away a magical evil eye; I think it is a reminder of the Oneness of all reality. I’ve never been to the Kabbalah Center, but I teach at Elat Chayyim, and I translate Kabbalistic texts for my students. I am a post-denominational, queer, multicultural, postmodern, mystical, meditating Jew. Where do I fit into your conversation? What beliefs of mine do I have to check at the door in order to participate? Do I have to pretend that your ontology is correct in order to join in?

Well, what you’ve said convinces me that I have terribly miscommunicated almost everything I meant to say with Nothing Sacred.

While I am just as upset about the Kabbalah Learning Center as I am about infantilized Reform Jews, I thought I had written an extraordinarily mystical take on Judaism. The entire notion of ‘nothing’ being sacred, and the divine emerging in that nothingness, is spiritual Judaism.

And I’ve counted at least 8 times in the book where I explain that any midrash I use or borrow in the book is not meant as a definitive explanation for some piece of Torah, but an example of a process that people can use to engage with Torah for themselves. Open source Judaism, as I’ve called it, is a process through which people arrive at their own midrashim. But people need to understand what midrash is, and that they’re entitled to engage in it. I was modeling this behavior.

The important part of the book I’d have you look at again is the central metaphor of post-renaissance Judaism, where each person’s point of view is resolved into a holographic, multi-dimensional, living Jewish reality. This is as trippy as you’d ever want something to be described. I don’t see why you would think I am belittling spirituality when I simply don’t think that the Jewish-named cults that popstars are joining reflect Judaism’s potential.

Second thread: Mainstream and Margins

In media theorist’s terms, I guess what I’m trying to do is show how Judaism is less about content than contact. The Torah, for example, can be understood as a way for people to interact - a tool for discussions. (That’s why you’re supposed to have ten people around to read it.) It is not an end in itself, but a means. Not a message as much as a medium. But I can’t just say it like that - not to a group of people who might believe Torah is a message from God and only that. To such people, the assertion that the torah is a medium (or that God is a medium through which people can relate) negates the image of God that they hold as dear and real.

I agree with your position but wonder: Who are these people you’re talking to? None of my friends who are rabbis, including Orthodox ones, believe these things. Torah is far less discursive than the Talmud, which audaciously states that law is to be decided by humans and not God, and which encodes in its textual structure the models for debating the text.

Come to any of my talks at bookstores or synagogues, and you’ll meet plenty of people who feel this way. It happens largely because they are using Torah to support the land claim to Israel. Thus, it can’t be discussed in allegorical terms. Interpretation can no longer be done, because an interpretation implies that we may not really know what it says.

Maybe the media question here is really one of mass media and which audience you’re talking about. Sometimes I forget that I’m talking to the Douglas Rushkoff I know from Coercion and Cyberia, because I’m just puzzled how you can elide the dumbest of the Jewish mainstream with “contemporary Judaism.” Who sets the rules for who speaks for contemporary Judaism? Granted, there is a large am haaretz contingent that wants to hold onto the West Bank and will use Biblical texts to justify that. I find that idolatrous. But I think you are doing the large numbers of alternative Jews a massive disservice by completely ignoring us in Nothing Sacred. Why is Tikkun never even mentioned? What about Hazon, Dorot, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Deot in Israel, Jewish Renewal, the Havurah Movement, Netivot Shalom, and a thousand other groups who deeply engage with Jewish text in the service of really important social and spiritual transformation? Where is the Knitting Factory, Orthodykes, the Jewish Burning Man and Rainbow gathering groups, Mordechai Gafni and the Festival movement in Israel, the Hadar minyan in New York, neo-Hasidism, Pardes, the New Shul, Nathan Englander, John Zorn, Textual Reasoning, and Arthur Waskow? Largely through the Internet, in fact, these groups have created a matrix of alternative Judaisms which have nothing to do with the mainstream.

Now, of course, numerically, the mainstream is larger. But in your regular media criticism you are acutely sensitive to the interplays between dominant and subversive cultures. Why do you act as though “Jews” think what the squarest, dumbest, and most Establishment Jews think? There are teeming, lively, amazing Jewish subcultures – and I’ve only mentioned a few of the cultures and figures above that I personally participate in or know (hence the East Coast bias..). This situation is no different from that of “American” culture, which you of all people know cannot be reduced to ABC, CBS, and Fox. What is going on?

I’m not sending people to conservative shul or Skirball or anywhere. I’m just letting them know that they can access these texts for themselves, and get into the conversation. Yes, I’ve stressed humanism because I saw it as my job in the book not to turn people back to Judaism, or to show them where they can access cool Jewish stuff, but to recontextualize our behaviors in the secular world AS Jewish. I’m saying that it’s not the object of the game to get people to behave more Jewishly. It’s our job to accept all these great behaviors as Jewish. Change the boundary condition around this thing. Then the whole world becomes Jerusalem.

So - from your POV which is, as I see it, coming from the opposite perspective (not the opposite sensibility, but the other side of the same object) you’re asking questions about why I’ve included or belittled certain things.

I’m writing from the perspective of someone completely outside Judaism.

Yes, I could have told people that there are valuable resources [in the Jewish community and the mystical traditions]. But the presentation of pshat, alone, is already more controversial than most Jews can accept: you’re saying Moses’s wife was black????

Third tread: Judaism and/as Social Justice

A lot of the people I’ve been speaking with lately are [..] afraid that if Judaism becomes primarily concerned with social justice, it will lose its particular roots, and get lost in the “same ethics” as every other religion.

I’m not reducing Judaism to ethics. I’m measuring its success by its ability to make the world a better place. There’s a difference.

I do think many religions do strive to make the world a better place. Before Judaism (and, perhaps, Hinduism) the notion of human beings having the ability to make the world a better place was heresy. We were to depend on the gods, alone, for any improvement. So, as I see it, Judaism’s big initial contribution was to make human beings the adults on the planet, responsible for their actions, and capable of manifesting the divine through action.

This required Jews go from following commandments to ‘hearing’ commandments to interpreting commandments to actually generating commandments. Open source Judaism means getting down into the code of the commandments, realizing they were developed by human beings (working divinely) and bringing ourselves to the place where we can engineer them to the next level. (Not just to our ‘liking’ or to make them ‘easier’ but to continue the Jewish project - the painstaking effort to move into conscious, responsible, adulthood.)

So I’m trying to show how much great, evolutionary, non-exclusive, pluralistic, and radically collaborative traditions there are in this Jewish process.

I get the idea of pluralism - better lawmaking - making the world a better place, but do you have any room for debating the premise of your evaluative mechanism? On a first-order basis, obviously you do; we can engage in a lengthy debate as to whether stem-cell research makes the world a better or worse place from a Jewish perspective, and that’s what it’s all about. But you seem to elide “making the world a better place” with “social justice.” What about union with God? What about environmental justice? Or, to take some values I might not want to argue for, what about fulfilling the collective-historical (or collective-mythical) destiny of nations? Someone could very well argue for ethnocentric, chosen-people Judaism on the basis that a “better world” is one in which people live out their Volk’s distinctive destiny. What is your response to the mystic, radical Green, and patriot?

Would you evaluate a work of art according to whether it makes the world a better place in terms of social justice? Hopefully not – that’s not what a lot of art does. I do think that art can stimulate the individual soul to become more sensitive, attentive, and respectful of beauty – all values that in turn lead to more social behavior. But is the social behavior piece the criterion for evaluating the art? Or might there be other yardsticks of the Good?

I don’t reduce making the world a better place to social justice. It’s just the most tangible contribution Jews have made in the 20th century - and an easy yardstick for your progress.

We can surely make the world a more spiritually aware place. Environmental justice is a form of social justice (particularly if we stop, say, Bronfman’s parent company Vivendi from starving people of their water rights in South America). It’s extraordinarily Yiddishkite. Look at the environmental rules in Torah for the support of the topsoil. It’s as progressive as what the Native Americans were doing.

DR (continued):
As for the Volk’s distinctive destiny, I guess what you’re saying is, “we all define ‘better place’ differently, so what about people who might say the world is a better place with only Jews - or with no Jews?” It’s the Hitler argument, really.

I go with Hillel on this one. We evaluate if it’s a good thing not through its positive attributes, but by whether it’s not something we wouldn’t want done to us. Your oversimplification of better place led to Luther’s disastrous twisting of the Golden Rule to mean ‘you’d want to be killed by a Christian hand if you were a heathen.’

As for art, of course art can make the world a better place. But you must come to understand ‘better’ from the perspective of someone who cares about the world. As far as I’m concerned, if it makes you smarter, more empathetic, or more attuned to reality, then it will necessarily lead you to be nicer to your fellow humans.

I mostly agree with you here prescriptively, though I think your characterization of this ethos as descriptive of some “real” Judaism is a huge historical inaccuracy. Personally, I have no particular interest in rooting my social ethics in the “real” practices of someone who lived hundreds of years ago anyway. I think, though, I just can’t handle the rationalism here. It’s nice that God is your conscience, but your conscience speaks in terms of rational moral norms. I understand the fear of mysticism expressed in the book, that it leads to the Luther rendition of “better.” But that’s not really mysticism. If Luther was uniting with God, that would mean that God would be here and now for him, in the living face of the heathen. Instead, he maintains your undefended view of the deus absconditus, and fills that gap with dogma.

Two hundred years ago, the German Jewish reformers had precisely your program. Religious ritual, they said, was an excrescence on the face of socially progressive Judaism, brought on by the neuroses of diaspora. As you note, it turned into robes and churches and lost its way. But if you look at what’s happening to Reform now, the move toward ritual is happening even in places with no robes. It seems like social-justice-Judaism just doesn’t satisfy people who are looking for something that a religion does, and that there are a lot of those people. I am all for discarding notions of race and chosenness as a way to prop up the ego. I’d like to efface the ego entirely and become entirely a vessel for the Divine. But I don’t believe that when we are suffering great pain or sadness, or when we are at our most profound moments of ecstatic joy, that the articulation of our dreams is really only about “social justice.” Do you?

I believe [our concepts of God] must be kept empty so that the sacred can emerge. Just like God’s kavod filled the tent of meeting. But, in order to do that, we have to do the first part of nothing sacred, which is hold no truth to be so sacred that it’s not up for discussion.

All perspectives matter. Judaism is a process through which many perspectives can exist simultaneously. Do not settle for a belief, when you can have an ongoing experience. The greatest ecstatic experiences will bring you to sense of connection with all living beings. You will care.

Judaism is one system that offers this possibility.