Reinventing the Wheel

A review of
Douglas Rushkoff's Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism
Michael Shurkin

Reading Douglas Rushkoff's Nothing Sacred reminds me of a story a friend once told me about a time when he was visiting a havurah in Philadelphia. The friend had made a reference to cholent , the traditional Sabbath dish, and someone at the havurah, proud of his insider's knowledge of Jewish culture, corrected him. "No," the man said to my friend. "It's pronounced hollent," with a guttural "h" as in "shalom haver" and "halutzim." My friend could only smile and observe, "you're new to this aren't you?"

Like my friend, I can't help but appreciate Douglas Rushkoff's enthusiasm for his newfound interest in Judaism, both because I can remember being like that myself and because I think he's moving in the right direction. Rushkoff has marshaled his considerable talents to launch against mainstream American-Jewish culture a withering and largely accurate broadside, and to offer a compelling vision of how to go about Judaism's renewal. What I find disappointing about Rushkoff's book, however, is that it tries to correct American Judaism by offering a counter-model (the "Truth About Judaism" advertised on the cover) that is short on substance and based on widespread factual errors. Most of Rushkoff's best ideas, moreover, have already been said before by men far more knowledgeable than he, writers from whom both Rushkoff and his readers could learn a great deal. Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, Rushkoff's book itself constitutes yet another piece of evidence of what is wrong with American Judaism.

Most of Nothing Sacred consists of a portrait of contemporary American Judaism, at least as seen by someone with a particularly shallow view of it, and an equally superficial narrative of the history of Judaism from its Biblical origins to the present. Rushkoff's critique of mainstream Judaism, the Judaism of countless Reform and Conservative "temples," JCCs, and Federations, is worthy of applause. Most of American Judaism is, as he relates in detail, insipid, meaningless, and totally unappealing. It has answers only for those people who prefer not to ask questions, and it has disfigured itself by fetishizing the Holocaust and Israel, and by obsessing over ethnic continuity (intermarriage, birthrates, etc.). But Rushkoff seems totally oblivious to the many alternatives to that mainstream or even the numerous subcurrents working within it. He mischaracterizes or ignores contemporary spiritual movements, Reconstructionist Judaism, and the wide and almost infinite variety of iterations of Orthodox, Hasidic, Conservative, and Reform Jewish culture that fit neither Rushkoff's mainstream straw-man nor his secular-humanist alternative to it.

Rushkoff writes like the suburban kid that I once was, who hates his hypocritical temple but doesn't know that there's a whole world beyond it. But whereas I went on a voyage of discovery that began with Stanford's Arnie Eisen and led to Yeshiva University, Fez (by way of Paris), Jerusalem, the West Bank, and then back to Arnie again, Rushkoff limits his exploration to mainline rabbis and sheep-like congregants at a mainstream synagogue or a few Manhattan institutions. Even there he only sees what he wants to see and ignores facts. For example, while rightly putting down mainstream Jewish organizations for trying to market Judaism as "cool," he overlooks institutions that really are cool, everything from Tonic, Camp Tawonga, and Elat Chayyim to the New Jewish High School in Boston and the DC Minyan here in Washington. Perversely, he has nothing nice to say about those who have gone the farthest in their revolt from mainstream American Judaism: those who have 'returned' to traditional Judaism in its Orthodox and/or mystical forms. "Instead of inviting inquiry and self-appraisal," Rushkoff writes of returnees, "their mindless worship replaces it." How offensive! And how utterly ignorant of the variety of returnees and their religious experience! I myself am a product of the baal tshuvah outreach programs and yeshivas he implicitly derides, and through them I have met some of the most profound, sensitive, and sophisticated thinkers I have ever known. Likewise his analysis of the resurgence of Jewish mystical thought presents only a caricature derived from his impressions of one particular institution, the Kabbalah Learning Center, which is like condemning all American food, from Cajun food to clam chowder, on the basis of a McDonald's hamburger.

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July 2003

Symposium on
Douglas Rushkoff's
Nothing Sacred

The Sacred and the Profane
A Conversation with Douglas Rushkoff

Reinventing the Wheel: A Review of Nothing Sacred
Michael Shurkin

They Gonna Crucify Me: A 'Lapsed Jew' Responds to Nothing Sacred
Ken Applebaum

Plus these other attractions:

Meditation and Sensuality
Jay Michaelson

Anything You Want to Be
Ben Cohen

Not Mentioned
Hal Sirowitz

Josh Graduates High School
Josh Ring

Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here

David Stromberg

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