Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism
By Douglas Rushkoff
Crown Publishers, New York
Review published in Books in Canada, December 2003
Douglas Rushkoff is a dreamer. His ‘vision of the night’ is one of himself surfing on the great ocean of Jewish history, mythology, theology and commentary. The sea is turbulent. From his vantage point riding the waves, Rushkoff can see a cartographer on shore studying a map of the same ocean, trying to chart the way to the New Jerusalem. The cartographer is institutional Judaism. Rushkoff shouts to him from across the roaring waves: “Your map won’t work in these conditions. Let me show you the way.” The cartographer isn’t listening.
Rushkoff’s dream is generated by a parable that Rushkoff tells midway through his latest book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. A careful reader of Nothing Sacred would recognize Rushkoff as the nameless surfer of his parable. Such a reader would also notice that Rushkoff’s parable functions as a multidimensional object, a multi-faceted jewel, at the centre of his new Jewish testament Nothing Sacred. Rushkoff explains why and how he took up such surfing: he had a surprising vision one day of how relevant the core values of Judaism were for his work in media. Until then a happily lapsed Jew, Rushkoff’s vision motivated him to engage in two years of diligent questioning and serious study of every aspect of his tradition. The vision expanded exponentially. Ultimately Rushkoff saw that Judaism’s core values iconoclasm, abstract monotheism, and social justice are the dynamic elements which generated Judaism and have kept it alive for millennia, in the face of every internal or external force which could have eliminated it. As well they are the three key elements, the Jewish Trinity, which authenticate Judaism’s mission to be a “light to the nations,” as it was in the beginning and still is, even now.
Rushkoff surveyed his Jewish world, left, right and centre. He saw that the right [the fundamentalists] and the left [the secular humanists] are incomplete judaisms, and that the centre does not hold. By his reckoning Judaism is in a mess, perhaps beyond salvaging. Unless...unless...it is willing to die to itself in order to be born again. So Rushkoff did a full audit of its history, tradition, theology and commentary. He noted that the best of times for renewal, revolution, renaissance have very often been the worst of times prime example, Rabbinic Judaism forged under Roman occupation after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Rushkoff is not only a previously lapsed Jew; he is also a ‘renaissance man.’ Both stances feed his new vision of Judaism. From his lapsed location on the margins, Rushkoff gains wider dimensional perspective on his tradition. From his stance on the wave of the global renaissance currently in progress, Rushkoff can see emergent new metaphors for Jewish self-understanding. These are living metaphors about how the world/cosmos actually works, and how human beings fit in to the big, actually, biggest picture. ‘Human beings’ includes Jews and Gentiles alike because, as Rushkoff so adamantly points out, science now confirms what Judaism has always intuited: There is no empirical evidence for racial distinction.
Rushkoff’s mission is to reintroduce Jews to their original and essential universalist impulse and mission. Judaism isn’t about race, ethnicity, or even Israel. It’s about ideas without boundaries the best Jewish ideas belonging to everyone everywhere, period. [Thomas Cahill’s thesis in Gifts of the Jews, 1998]. Rather than cower before modernity, Rushkoff suggests that Judaism open itself wide to modernity’s gifts. In fact, he explicates his Jewish renaissance with updated living metaphors like holography, chaos math, emergence theory, and even slime molds, all offering new ways of seeing who we are in the world/cosmos. Rushkoff fearlessly, some would say mercilessly, demands that Jews look and look again at notions like chosenness and ethnicity. He points out that bloodline Jewishness was not even a Jewish notion to begin with, but rather a notion conceived in the mind of various oppressors of the Jewish community for their own nefarious purposes.
One might ask By what authority does a lapsed Jew come so energetically in from the margins and claim to reclaim the centre of his tradition? The Jewish establishment definitely wonders “Who does this troublemaker Rushkoff think he is?” In Nothing Sacred Rushkoff states quite clearly who he thinks he is. Midway through his book Rushkoff plaintively asks, Where is Jacob? Who is still wrestling with God? His answer: Jacob, c’est moi. Rushkoff recognizes Jacob as “the first true Israelite.” This inspires Jacob/Rushkoff to explain what it means to be a true Israelite in the 21st century. As well, he reminds us that Jacob means “Trickster.”
According to archetypal Trickster expert Lewis Hyde [Trickster Makes This World, 1998] Trickster can be found doing his trickster work on the road between heaven and earth, especially when that road is not open. Not surprisingly then Jacob/Rushkoff’s arena of activity is that liminal space between heaven and earth, between divine and human. And Tricksters aren’t afraid of paradox; they deftly juggle paradox multiples as they dance across high wire lines, dexterously avoiding falling over either wayinto dualism. So Rushkoff observes: Judaism is both a precious set of truths and a tiresome set of cultural baggage....Lapsed Jews are not really lapsed at all, but our faith’s truest practitioners....Maybe assimilation isn’t a failure, but our best strategy for disseminating our values....
In his process of ‘wrestling with God’ Rushkoff explodes fixed notions of the divine and generates updates from unified field and emergence theories. He claims to re-open that sacred empty space at the centre of Judaism, that ‘nothing sacred’ space of his title. In his view, it is through this space this opening that the divine can actually and factually enter history in human form. He gives examples of how Jews already practise the dynamic of ‘embodying the divine.’
Rushkoff also claims that fixed notions of God have their genesis in literal interpretations of Jewish narrative. He points out that the Torah read as a literal linear historical chronicle is causing Jewish fundamentalists to march lockstep right into Armageddon/Apocalypse, hand in hand with fundamentalist Christians no less. It is trickster Rushkoff’s task to help Jews, and their Christian collaborators, slip from the trap of such a disastrous fate. Apocalypse heat death of a closed systemis not inevitable.
There is a way out of the tight grip of fundamentalist literalism. Those who can transcend to Rushkoff’s vantage point of renaissance sensibility and allegorical interpretation will experience the Torah as a living document, a multi-dimensional object, in fact as a holograph with every element somehow containing and reflecting every other element. [He does give examples.] And, equally importantly, every individual, Jew or Gentile, is a holograph of the global community, even cosmos, a holograph which gains fuller resolution with each active and open participant. Authentically engaged, this mystical praxis which Rushkoff names Open Source Judaism will lead to the New Jerusalem, the collective realization that the Sh’ma is us. An outrageous vision to some; a compelling vision to others. Certainly not a vision easily assimilable by Jews or Gentiles who find the closed system of fundamentalism a comfortable and comforting space. Nor by those of a more liberal view who might prefer an easy road, without the study and discipline required for genuine insight.
Nothing Sacred is the work of Rushkoff the scholar and Rushkoff the evangelist. As a responsible scholar, Rushkoff includes a bibliography, an index and a full appendix of background commentary for each chapter. But Rushkoff the passionate, some would say rambunctious, evangelist preaches his mission text virtually full throttle no endnotes, little cautiously calibrated debate with dissenting sources, and only minimal compassionate coddling for Jews who might be scandalized, fearful or confused. To Rushkoff it is so clear, so obvious; it’s time to “do Judaism the good way and the smart way,” first to/with Jews and then to/with Gentiles.
Meanwhile Rushkoff dreams of being on an ocean full of surfers, all equally adept as he, all knowing/showing the way.