November 20, 2002
BE FRUITFUL, BE EVANGELICAL OR BE A MEMORY:
Judging Judaism by the Numbers
(Douglas Rushkoff, November 20, 2002, NY Times)
The Jewish people are not a race, to be preserved. Judaism is a set of ideas to be shared. Its universal tenets should not be surrendered to the seemingly more pressing threat of tribal dissolution--particularly not right now. Judaism is founded in iconoclasm, a principle especially relevant to a world so hypnotized by its many false idols. Judaism finds its expression in radical pluralism, an assertion that there is no name for God--at least none that any human being could conceive. And because it puts human needs above anyone's notion of deity, Judaism is ultimately enacted through the very real work of social justice.
As our nation and the world struggle to balance the conflicting priorities of religion, freedom and human rights, Judaism's core strengths are greatly needed. It would be a terrible shame if the religion's biggest concern continued to be itself.
Can anyone decipher what Mr. Rushkoff is talking about here? There's no real arguing with the demographics--Jews are reproducing at a level so far below that required for replacement that one would have to say they are doomed to disappear. So is he saying that doesn't matter so long as some of the ideas that Judaism has bequeathed to us
live on? Or is he saying that Judaism needs to become an evangelical religion and seek converts? That's certainly one solution but doesn't it run counter to thousands of years of Jewish theology and tradition?
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2002 12:01 PM
That has to be the most incoherent thing I have ever read in the New York Times. To the extent I understand it, it's also skull-splittingly stupid.
Thank goodness it wasn't just me. What is it the guy wants people to do?
What he's saying is clear. Judaism is a secular religion, the inspiration of liberals everywhere. This secular Judaism "puts human needs" above "anyone's notion of God," including Abraham's, Isaac's, and Jacob's. Its first principle is iconoclasm, and it is the privilege of every practitioner of secular Judaism to praise himself (incessantly) for his courageous iconoclasm. Moreover, Judaism is best expressed not in the preservation of the people of Israel (threatened by "tribal dissolution" at the hands of mass murderers), but in a "radical pluralism" that accommodates any viewpoint except
viewpoints asserting some knowledge of God. As he puts it, we are so radically ignorant of God that we can neither "name" God nor form a conception of God's identity. The only legitimate expression of this pluralist Judaism is the "work of social justice," not such idolatry as worship in a temple.
During this time of global stress, he is saying, it is desirable that this secular Judaism conquer the world. What is standing in the way is the desire of Jews to defend the state of Israel and the lives of their fellow Jews against terrorism. If they would only abandon the war on terror, accept the "tribal dissolution" of the people of Israel, then they could obtain the true triumph of Judaism (secular version). And this is what all good Jewish readers of the NY Times should be aiming for.
And this is not incoherent?
To the extent that it is coherent it is so self-loathing as to be suicidal.
The closest I could come is that, based on his lifetime of study, he's discovered that the essence of Judaism is not torah or temple or monotheism, but rather the social policy platform of the Democratic party. As a result, we should give up on this irrational insistence that there actually be people running around calling themselves Jews, but rather go quietly into that dark night knowing that the fight for social justice will continue.
But only a professor of communications could write that "Judaism was built around the contention that human beings can make the world a better, more just place." I mean, its not like we hide the contention that Judaism was built around. Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.
Per St Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews and Pope St Pius X's Syllabus of Errors, true Judaism, the faith of the patriarchs and prophets, is now the principal religion of humanity. Who is correct? A lot of Christian evangelicals believe that we're going to find out any day now.
Judaism has been evangelical in the past; look what the Hasmonaeans did with the Idumaeans (Edomites). Why, they were so effective at it that the Idumaean Herod even took charge as King of the Jews.
Certainly, the views are controversial-which any decent article on "What is Judaism?" ought to be (weren't Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jesus, etc., controversial?). And aside from a few inaccuracies (quibbles for some, howlers for others) and contentions one could argue with, I find his views to be pretty interesting and pertinant to a large extent.
Orrin, I believe that what he's actually saying is, "If you're up by two with three minutes left, don't sit on the ball...."
Isn't the point that the Arabs have the ball, they're driving, and it's a single elimination game?
He writes "Judaism will dwindle unless its leaders begin to acknowledge that every generation will reinvent Judaism for itself. Instead of lamenting the withering flower that is institutional Judaism, they must learn to rejoice in the dissemination of its seeds."
If every generation is going to reinvent Judaism, in what sense is Judaism being preserved? And if "institutional Judaism", i.e. covenental Judaism, is to wither, and all that is to be left are "disseminated seeds" of the Judaism which is "a set of ideas", then all that will be left are non-Jews who have been influenced by Jewish ideas. What is he arguing for then but that Judaism "go quietly into the dark night" as David Cohen so aptly puts it?
Except that he's looking at the issue from the angle of how best to get the (for him, wonderful, beautiful, pragmatic) message of Jewishness across (to Jews primarily). And that's not by shaming or frightening them that Jews are on the brink of disaster or disappearance, or through "sho'ah business" or anything else he believes is negative. Thus, he's not looking at the issue of Israeli security (though one could argue he ought to at least consider it); in fact, he's explicity not looking in that direction (and he questions the underpinnings of the Zionist enterprise) precisely because the anxiety (and the idea of Jewish particularity) it engenders gets in the way of his own message,viz., once the strengths and beauty of Judaism are exposed (through education), those Jews who don't at all feel attracted to it (preferring practically anything else, it seems, instead) will come flocking, and Judaism will be strengthened and regain its vitality.
I'll go out on a limb and say that regarding Israel's survival, he would likely say, that while he wishes it to survive, no question, the survival of a vital Jewish religion is more important. This stands in contrast to those who believe that the survival of Judaism, today, is inextricably connected to Israel's survival, to which he would likely respond by saying that history is on his side (as the episode of Yohanan Ben Zakai at the destruction of the second temple indicates).
In any event, Shmuely Boteach's "Judaism for Everyone" has a similar message, but he diverges from Rushkoff in that he comies from a more orthodox starting point, and Israel is central to his worldview.
Isn't this precisely the paradox inherent in any organization or institution (religion, country, family)--or individual?. Adapt or die? Make the message relevant to the age or risk its atrophying? Find new meaning, interpretations, significance? I realize that this then becomes a question of Conservatism: Do things really change, etc., even if human nature may not?....
And isn't it likewise a question that pertains to the US Constitution's enabling of Constitutional amendments--and of course, how to interpret that Constitution (e.g., is Bork's view correct?---Or is it even possible to know what the framers intended and what they would have done in later ages? etc., etc.).
Warning, long two part post follows:
Well, I've come to respect Barry's opinions and my wife, too, tells me that I'm overreacting, so I've gone back and reread the original. I've tried to give Rushkoff's points coherence by reordering them. What I found is worse than I thought. While still incoherent, I now think that Rushkoff has been purposely incoherent. He is trying to hide his attempt to drain Judaism of religion and replace it with politics.
Rushkoff's points are these:
1. Institutional Judaism is fixated on the number of Jews who attend temple.
2. It is in the institutions' short-term financial interest to promote the idea that Judaism is dissappearing, because this idea promotes charitable giving to those institutions.
3. By focussing on demographics, institutional Judaism is accepting the concept of Judaism as a race or tribe, which is an idea promoted by Judaism's enemies in order to present us as the "other." [We are, in other words, internalizing the world-view of the oppresser. dgc]
4. This focus on the number of observant Jews, which is pervasive throughout institutional Judaism, actually makes Judaism less attractive because (a) "come back to the small, isolated and oppressed minority subject to violent attack from which you've escaped" isn't much of a slogan and (b) institutional Judaism has fallen away from true Judaism.
So far, this is not particularly controversial and I would agree with much of it. But when he defines true Judaism, Rushkoff goes off the rails.
5. "Judaism is a set of ideas to be shared."
6. The central insight of Judaism is that people can make the world a better, more just place. [Judaism, religion or pop song? You decide.]
7. True Judaism "puts human needs above anyone's notion of deity."
So far, this is silly and wrong, but not particularly incoherent. It is similar to the problem secular Christians have in distinguishing between G-d and Santa Claus. But from here on, Rushkoff (intentionally, I think) becomes entirely incoherent:
Long, two part post continued:
8. It is a "cruel joke" that as a result of the insitutional bias described above, civil rights workers, social justice questers and ego-shattered Buddhists who were born Jewish
are not considered to be Jewish in the institutionally sponsored demographics.
9. In fact, true Judaism does not require membership in a temple or any other connection to institutional Judaism, but rather is an "ongoing conversation that . . . can happen anywhere, between anyone." ["Hey, Fidel, wouldn't your people be better off if they could speak freely." "Ah, Steven, free speach is a bourgeois concern that would be twisted by the enemies of the people." "Fidel, you are so outward-reaching, its a pleasure to
daven with you."]
In 8, Rushkoff severs Judaism from G-d, torah and ritual, but is still focussing on the Jewish born. His appears to be arguing that people born Jewish should be counted as Jews even if they have no other connection to Judaism so long as they live "outer-directed" lives. This would, of course, increase the number of Jews by ignoring assimilation, lapse and (maybe) intermarriage. At this point, I thought that, by downplaying the demographic crises, Rushkoff was simply attacking institutional Judaism, which he seems to feel is overly zionist, conservative and ritual-bound.
But in 9, Rushkoff goes further. Judaism is not tied to the person or even to lifestyle at all. It is an idea that can be voiced anywhere by anyone. This is, in fact, po-mo Judaism.
Isn't it still possible that Rushkoff has simply been carried away and that I'm jumping on some inartful language? I think not. I think the payoff is his statement that:
10. "Judaism is ultimately enacted through the very real work of social justice."
So, Judaism is centered on man. Human needs trump G-d's commandments. Anyone anywhere who is working for "social justice" is furthering Judaism. If Jews could only understand this, they would drop their attachment to zionism, leave the unattractive, racialist and oppressive institutions and, by working for social justice, bring man into his rightful place as the most important being in creation, whose needs trump any other consideration.
At this point, I hope this is simply incoherence.
Barry - re your post addressed to me -
Traditional Judaism and Christianity have held that some things are universal truths -- e.g. the existence of one God, and the ethical truths "Do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness." Then there are other matters which are either less clear or may be contingent upon circumstances. These latter issues may be subject to re-appraisal as our knowledge grows, but the essential universal truths must be respected or we're no longer talking about Judaism or Christianity. Richard Baxter's motto applies across centuries as well as across sects: "Unity in essentials, liberty in inessentials, charity in all."
Judaism is not like the US Constitution, because its essential truths are thought to be given us by God, God said they were universal and timeless truths at the time He gave them to us, and God can neither lie nor change His mind. So these truths can not be rejected without also rejecting Judaism. And if Judaism is true -- if God really did give us the Decalog -- then we will never fall into circumstances in which we need to "adapt" away from those principles "or die."