Michael Shurkin
Reinventing the Wheel, p. 4

I'm not making these points to quibble or to criticize Rushkoff for not bothering to do his homework. Rushkoff's poor grasp of Judaism and Jewish history is significant because it weakens his case for how to affect Judaism's "renaissance." His most exciting idea employs the metaphor of a child who, playing a video game all the way through and learning it backward and forward, then turns to the various discussion sites on the Internet and learns all the cheat codes that reveal, among other things, how the programmers built the game. The child begins to play the game again, only now he's playing the "metagame." Rushkoff is absolutely correct. Doing Judaism right is a question of treating it as an open-source code, learning its rules and structures, and playing the metagame. I can attest from my own experience how much more fulfilling Jewish practice became once I learned, for example, the architecture of the prayer service and the function of each section. The Siddur becomes an entirely different "game" once you can see the code streaming behind the words.

Rushkoff wants us all to become hackers, or at the very least metagamers, and treat Judaism like an open-source code. But let's follow the metagaming metaphor more closely. An advanced gamer continues playing the game while conscious of the hidden codes and the program's inner workings. It's still Tomb Raider, still Lara Croft, still about shooting snakes, finding one's way out of the maze, and recovering objects. Indeed, you hack both for the joy of hacking and changing the code, and in order to play the game better. And children can learn their way in by playing, taught by their older brothers until they, too, can learn to code. Judaism, likewise, has its forms, colors, and general content, rituals, concepts, beliefs, rules. This content - including Shabbat, messianism, tribalism, the idea of chosenness, fasting, strange and troubling Biblical stories and liturgical passages - is constitutive of the 'game.' Yet even if were accept Rushkoff's dubious claim that Judaism isn't about the code but rather the process of changing the code (something belied by almost all Jewish practice, and impossible to cultivate across generations), practicing Judaism right requires at least knowing the difference between C++ and BASIC. Rushkoff, however, gets the code wrong again and again.

I would urge both Rushkoff and those who are excited by his ideas to turn instead to three Jewish thinkers who have already argued pretty much the same thing as Rushkoff but have either said it with more credibility or offered more substantive help in figuring out how to save Judaism by playing the metagame.

The first is Mordechai Kaplan, whose absence from Rushkoff's bibliography is shocking, for Rushkoff would enjoy him a lot and learn a great deal from him. Kaplan is arguably the most important American philosopher of Judaism, and it is he who taught American-Jewish intellectuals to shelve the assumptions that Rushkoff wants us to shelve. Specifically, he wrote with astonishing confidence about how the 'truth-claims' of rabbinic Judaism are all false. He also elaborated a sober sociological approach to religion that disassociated it from positive theological concepts and regarded in purely functional terms. He arrived at the conclusion that Judaism was not a religion but rather a civilization, meaning that he placed religious ritual on the same level as everything else that makes a distinct civilization a civilization. Kaplan made his claims on the authority of both an exhaustive knowledge of Jewish tradition and real intellectual rigor.

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Image: Dead or Alive 3 (XBox)

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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