June 25, 2003

CHUTZPAH: Author and social critic

CHUTZPAH: Author and social critic Douglas Rushkoff has a very convincing and very brave piece in last week's New York Press on what he calls "The Death of Institutional Judaism." I don't agree with all of Rushhoff's views, but he's saying very important things- many of which I've thought myself for quite some time.
Rushkoff's NYP piece is extrapolated from his current book "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism," which I have not yet read but plan to. In a few months on the shelves the book has caused nearly as much controversey as the mid-'90s priest-centered TV series of the same name, with Rushkoff being called everything from a self-hating Jew to an anti-Semite to (since his mother is a gentile) not even a Jew at all.
I should say right off the bat that parts of Rushkoff's critique of modern Judaism very much rub me the wrong way: he doesn't appear to be a Zionist; I am. He seems to all but completely reject religiosity and literal belief in God; I do not. And his belief that all Judaism should be centered around "social justice" is something I've long opposed, as too often (especially in the Reform movement) "social justice" becomes nothing but a synomym for a left-wing politics that has little to nothing to do with Judaism itself.
So why does the rest of Rushkoff's thesis resonate with me so deeply? For one thing, I admire that he's willing to question long-established tenets of the faith: institutional Judaism, as I've experienced it, has often been all-lockstep, all the time. But more importantly, it's because Rushkoff, in decrying "organized Judaismís self-defeating obsession with race and numbers," shares my disdain for the habit of Jewish institutions (like the Federations, individual synagogues, and even the ADL) to adopt a Chicken Little philosophy, and accompanying scare tactics that Judaism will DIE if Jews don't acquiesce to a list of demands: reject intermarriage, abandon assimilation, and (of course) donate lots and lots of money.
Rushkoff gets that these tactics not only make the millennia-strong tradition of Judaism look falsely like it's dying on the vine, but they also perpetuate every negative stereotype there is about Jewish people: pushy, money-grubbing, guilt-purveying, elitist, etc. The nadir of this was the Marc Rich pardon in 2001, a truly shameful episode in American Jewish history, when the leaders of virtually every major Jewish organization in America, including Abe Foxman of the ADL, pushed (successfully) for the presidential pardoning of a thief, swindler, and fugitive- really, an example of the absolute worst Judaism has to offer.
Rabbis and purveyors of "checkbook Judaism" have been pulling the "Judaism is dying" card ever since my dad was a kid in the '50s, always (always) with a healthy dose of Holocaust guilt thrown in for good measure. And they're still playing it today despite the facts, which are that Jewish people in America in the 21st century have more power, more influence, and face less adversity than in any society (other than Israel) at any time in human history. We're not in the desert anymore.
No, there's no secret Zionist conspiracy or "cabal," but many individual Jews -and more importantly, Jewish culture- has managed to rise high in American life. How else could "Seinfeld" have been the most popular television show of all time? Rather than continuing the counter-productive pity-party, I'd like to see Jewish "leaders" actually look as these advances as something to be proud of, as they are.
I really believe, as Rushkoff writes, that many of those who abandon Judaism do so because of this sort of stuff, not despite it. But in any pluralistic society, some people will choose not to buy into religion- and I wouldn't want to live in a society in which everyone did. And besides, is the percentage of Jews that choose to reject Judaism anywhere close to that of Catholics who reject Catholicism? I don't think I've ever heard anyone over 30 call himself a "recovering Jew."
These are all important issues that are long overdue for re-examination, and I look forward to reading Rushkoff's book and looking at them further.

Posted by Stephen Silver at June 25, 2003 01:04 AM
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