July 22, 2004
I went tonight with my mother to a book discussion at her temple. The discussion focused on Douglas Rushkoff's Nothing Sacred, which I read when it first came out but hadn’t opened in a while. Upon rereading it, I noticed even more strongly what I like about the book, and also what I dislike.
It bugs me that Rushkoff's scholarship is so shoddy (where are the footnotes?), and I think he projects his own Judaic priorities back in time to claim Biblical provenance for them...but I love some of his ideas about what Judaism could and should become, and there are many places I underlined because I think they're right on. Unfortunately, the annoying stuff and the excellent stuff are often intertwined.
Barry, the rabbi leading the discussion (who I've known for most of my life, and of whom I am very fond), began by outlining some of Rushkoff's chief points, primarily his "trinity" of Judaism: iconoclasm (smashing idols), radical monotheism, and social activism/justice. We talked about the tension between universalism and particularism (which Barry aptly noted have both been part of Judaism from the start).
At one point Barry gave his central metaphor for what goes on in Judaism, from the story of Jacob's dream of the ladder with the angels going up and down. It's noteworthy that the angels go up first: this suggests they're starting out down here, with us. And the metaphor implies that our job, like the angels', is to go up towards God, then to bring holiness down to the world. (Another way to read it is that it's our job to go inward into our tradition, then to move outward in a universalistic way.)
We talked about the constancy of change within Jewish traditiion, and how change moves us forward. (This is one of Rushkoff's central points with which I totally agree.) Rushkoff is concerned that the calcification of tradition leads to the tradition itself becoming a kind of idol (again, a point I agree with). The shift from sacrificial Judaism to rabbinic Judaism was an enormous one, and one which implies to me that Judaism has always been strong enough to withstand tremendous change. I just wish Rushkoff had made that point more clearly, and without fudging dates. For instance, on p. 26 of my hardcover edition he tries to argue that in 522 B.C.E, at the time of the rebuilding of the Temple, the Israelites were already beginning to conceive of God as approachable via prayer from anywhere, rather than only approachable via sacrifice from the altar. He suggests that this shift was connected with the articulating of the ethical path of the 613 mitzvot. I agree that the articulating of an ethical path (in lieu of a sacrificial path) was important, but that was a Maimonidean phenomenon, a good 1300 years later than the rebuilding of the Temple. I love his point that the transition from sacrifice to prayer happened and was important...but no way did it happen in 522 B.C.E. when the Temple was rebuilt! This is precisely what drives me nuts about this book: some great stuff, wrapped in flawed historical scholarship.
The book also sparked a good discussion about the contradictions within Judaism between those who believe that our highest calling is social action, and those who believe that our highest calling is observing commandments. Some would argue that the way to bring the Messiah is to work at soup kitchens...and some would argue that the way to bring the Messiah is to study Torah. (I suspect Rushkoff is in the former camp.) Barry made the excellent point that both of these are legitimate Jewish opinions, and that actually separating spiritual from ethical is a false dichotomy: both are important, both required.
We also talked some about the "truth" of the Bible, as distinct from its historical accuracy, and about how our relationship with our central narrative changes if/when we begin to approach it as a metaphorical truth rather than as a historical truth.
All in all, a fun way to spend the evening. I appreciated how warmly the book group welcomed my visit.