There are many other inaccuracies in Rushkoff's depiction of what Jews today think and do, but one of the most important to his argument is his conviction that religious Jews of all denominations (but above all the Orthodox) have become fundamentalists and believe that the Torah is literal truth. He even suggests that there is something of a conspiracy afoot among rabbis and communal leaders, and that they fear letting the 'secret' out about Torah. As someone who has spent almost twenty years in Orthodox communities, I can report my own anecdotal experience that this is hardly the case. All knowledgeable Jews outside of Orthodoxy admit that Biblical criticism has a point, and even the Orthodox have, for at least as long as rabbis have been writing Biblical commentary, understood that not every word is to be taken literally. I wonder, has Rushkoff read Nachmanides? Does he even know who he is?
The second part of Nothing Sacred is prescriptive, concerning the 'true' Judaism and its recovery. What exactly is the "truth" about Judaism? What is Rushkoff's big insight? First, that Torah is allegory. Rushkoff means this in several ways. At the most simple level, Rushkoff wants to inform us that the stories of the Bible are allegories and metaphors rather than literal truth. In fact, he seems to think he has the skinny on such passages as the Ten Plagues and the Binding of Isaac, which he says has been "sadly misrepresented to this day." Apparently he heard some novel allegorical interpretations of these stories and assumed not only that the fact of having an allegorical interpretation is a big deal, but that the particular interpretations he heard are the correct ones. This is mistaken on many levels. First, it's not a new idea, or a secret one. Second, it is ludicrous to suggest that this or that allegorical meaning is "the" meaning of a particular Torah passage, when dozens of other interpretations are equally plausible. Third, it is a violation of the premise of midrash itself to do so. And finally, it is a contradiction of the very "open source" Judaism Rushkoff wants to promote, a model in which multiple interpretations compete within each other and form the Jewish dialogue. Rushkoff sometimes suggests he is only offering one possible interpretation among many, and thinks he is being "post-religious," which really means post-orthodox (in the literal sense of the word), but in fact by providing only one interpretation, and then calling it "the" meaning of the Ten Plagues, et al., and then delegitimizing other ones, he is more dogmatic than most Orthodox Jews, who are very familiar with the multiplicity of allegorical Biblical interpretations. And on top of it all, while Rushkoff's commentary is interesting, I've heard better.
Rushkoff builds on his insight that Bible is allegory and develops it into an elaborate and compelling metaphor according to which Judaism is a "virtual" rather than "real" religion and the Torah is its open-source code. This means, among other things, that Judaism consists of signs, symbols, and metaphors that must never be reified or confused for positive objects, for things in themselves. For example, Rushkoff understands the story of Abraham breaking the idols as emblematic of what he perceives as Judaism's mission: teaching others to be iconoclastic and to shatter the false idols of fixed ideas. True Jewish values, he alleges, are not substantive but procedural, and are procedural in the same mode as any open code community: transparency, democracy, universalism, and inclusiveness. It follows that true Jewish practice is not observing this or that law or believing anything in particular but refusing to see the law as fixed and hacking into it. Anything particularist (such as nationalism, tribalism, or chauvinism) and any instance of taking myth or metaphor to be literal truth is mistaken and, in a sense, heretical. Jerusalem, for example, was never meant to be anything more than a metaphor. Even the word "Jew," Rushkoff argues, is an incorrect word, to be supplanted by "Israel," which refers to one who wrestles with the code rather than a member of any historically defined people or nation. Finally, Rushkoff claims that most Jews have always known these things to be true. It is only recently that Jews forgot.
The Sacred and the Profane
A Conversation with Douglas Rushkoff
Reinventing the Wheel: A Review of Nothing Sacred
They Gonna Crucify Me: A 'Lapsed Jew' Responds to Nothing Sacred
Plus these other attractions:
Meditation and Sensuality
Anything You Want to Be
Josh Graduates High School
Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here