A prolific author and professor of media studies at The New School, Douglas Rushkoff is a prescient observer of the Jewish community. His 2004 book, “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,” advanced his advocacy of an “Open Source Judaism” that draws on the Jewish traditions of iconoclasm and no-holds-barred inquiry. He is a frequent critic of what he describes as contemporary Judaism’s tendency to unquestioningly follow accepted wisdom and authority figures. On the eve of a new year, The Jewish Week asked Rushkoff to look at the Jewish community and do some trend spotting.
Q: What are the main issues — problems or challenges, if you prefer — that face the Jewish community in 2011?
A: I guess the same ones as seemingly always: Israel. Intermarriage. Differing notions of continuity. Bris shalom, the practice of naming a male Jewish child without actually altering the genitals; the religious part of the covenant without the surgical part; no skin removed. Real estate, the buildings and land that small communities must maintain. The American economy is in an extended crisis and this makes it hard for people to maintain big expensive buildings.
The readiness with which Jewish leaders join in with more racist, fearful factions in American discourse. The relative decline of the Conservative movement and the intellectually rich scholarship it fosters, [which] has led to a more stark divide between Orthodox and Reform.
The financial obstacles facing Jewish day schools are particularly troubling, especially when the failures of public education would otherwise be sending lots of families to them.
What should we watch to determine how we’re doing?
I don’t generally watch metrics, as they are almost always deceiving and superficial. I’d watch more subjective indicators, such as the joy and dedication in my own community; the atmosphere at Hillels across the country; the sense of desperation or contentment expressed in the editorials in this newspaper. Perhaps the easiest way to see how well Judaism is doing is by seeing how focused on repairing the world it can become, rather than how focused it is on repairing itself.
The Jewish community was split this year over the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. The Anti-Defamation League and others came out against Cordoba House. Does such opposition from a community that has suffered from religious discrimination surprise you? Is the character of American Jewry changing?
No, the Jewish community has been split this way as long as I can remember. There’s the [Sen.] Joe Lieberman side and the [Tikkun Editor] Michael Lerner side, if you will. I personally see Jewish values as being expressed by the progressive side. But many see Judaism being more about the preservation of ideas than the development or ongoing evolution of ethics. The more regressive side understands the threats to Judaism more clearly, while the more progressive side understands the opportunities for Judaism more clearly. When things get dark, as they have been since 9/11, the more defensive posture tends to dominate.
Is increased reliance on new technology coming at the cost of spirituality?
Well, the rabbis promoting the oral tradition asked this about the written law, right? New mediating technologies always cost us our intimacy and direct social contact. The less Judaism is about being in a room or under a tent together, the less real it becomes. It’s not that technology costs us spirituality. It’s that the misuse of technology compromises the spiritual components of real life.
In your book “Program or be Programmed,” you write that one either figuratively creates the software “or you will be the software.” Which sounds like a new way of saying that a person without vision, who lacks guiding principles, is spiritually lost. Is the Jewish community creating its own software? Who is, who isn’t?
I think too many Jews are more comfortable thinking of Torah and Talmud as the word of God, as sacred and locked down, rather than mutable creations of human beings. They would rather be driven by Torah than partner with Torah.
Today, the Reconstructionist community seems the best at maintaining this awareness — that Judaism is a process. But I’m finding many Modern Orthodox practicing in highly evolved and open-minded ways; many Reform shuls engaging with Torah and totally rethinking their approach to their after-school programs; many Conservative synagogues revitalized by embracing gay and lesbian constituencies.