Nothing Left

Reviewed by Benjamin Balint

Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism
by Douglas Rushkoff
Crown, 265 pages

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Ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Study revealed high levels of assimilation, disaffiliation, and intermarriage among American Jews, alarmed leaders and institutions have struggled to stem the community-wide erosion of religious and national identity. They sponsored trips to Israel, built community centers, trained leaders, commissioned studies on how to promote Jewish commitment, and shepherded funds to day schools, adult-education courses, and outreach programs. But according to Douglas Rushkoff, a representative member of the very group they target, these efforts are at best wasted, and at worst terribly un-Jewish.
Rushkoffs attempt to explain why this is so sets in motion the tumble of irreverences that make up his latest book, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, a personal account of what he takes to be the failures and longings of a divided, dysfunctional Jewish people. In the wake of its publication, Rushkoff, a 42-year-old media theorist at New York University and commentator for National Public Radio, has been hailed by the Forward as a“latter-day Baruch Spinoza [whose] interactive approach to Judaisms sacred truths has found a receptive audience among the Internet generation,” while the feminist author Naomi Wolf called his book “uncompromising and honest and brilliant and true.” He has become a featured speaker at synagogues and other Jewish venues across the United States, and his iconoclastic message seems to have struck a chord among a large number of Jews like himself, who wonder how they “can belong to a religion that is so hopelessly entrenched…with values we abhor.”
That these Jews have received Rushkoffs message so eagerly is no surprise. His is the language of todays progressive intellectual discourse, with its breezy dismissal of authoritative truths and its insistence on the relative nature of all values. Such, at least, is the ideology that guides Rushkoffs other works, including Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace (1994), and Playing the Future: What We Can Learn from Digital Kids (1999), which extol the Internet-age counterculture of the “screenagers,” hackers, and cyberpunks who challenge the narratives previous generations have employed to understand the world.
In Nothing Sacred, Rushkoff turns his attention to a somewhat older subject, and in so doing provides a fascinating if unsettling view of the growing “silent majority” of disenchanted or estranged young Jews who ordinarily do not write sweeping manifestos on Judaism. To understand Rushkoff is to understand them.
A self-described “lapsed” Jew, Rushkoff suggests that it is Judaism itself that has lapsed, becoming all the time “more racist, patriarchal, parochial, and homophobic.” In its place, he seeks a Judaism in his own image: Iconoclastic, secular, pluralist, untethered, and “post-Jewish.”
To this end, Rushkoff advocates a Judaism that would mirror recent changes in computes technology. He calls for an “open-source religion” that would work “the same way as open-source software development,” adding that “the writings and ideas of Judaism are not set in stone, but invitations to inquire, challenge, and evolve.” Indeed, he writes,” Everything is up for debate.” Reaching this degree of interpretive freedom, however, requires that Judaism be stripped of its classic attachments—and of three big ones in particular: The God of Israel, the State of Israel, and the people of Israel.

Benjamin Balint is Assistant Editor of Commentary.

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