So I think I’m finally learning how to speak about Judaism.
That is, I’m learning how to speak about religion as a process, rather than as a thing. And this tends to make the whole discussion a heck of a lot less contentious.
In media theorist’s terms, I guess what I’m trying to do is show how Judaism is less about content than contact. The Torah, for example, can be understood as a way for people to interact – a tool for discussions. (That’s why you’re supposed to have ten people around to read it.) It is not an end in itself, but a means. Not a message as much as a medium.
But I can’t just say it like that – not to a group of people that might believe Torah is a message from God and only that. To such people, the assertion that the torah is a medium (or that God is a medium through which people can relate) negates the image of God that they hold as dear and real.
So, what I’m learning to do is to speak of things as balances. I no longer say that I don’t believe that the Torah is an accurate historical chronicle of the Jewish people. Instead, I’ll say something like, “by requiring the Torah to serve as proof of our real estate claim in the Middle East, we might be inadvertently undermining its value as allegory – and it’s value as a shared, multi-dimensional narrative.”
I no longer say that Reform Jews screwed themselves up by putting the rabbi in robes and up on a stage, forcing congregants to regress into a childlike posture and transfer parental authority onto the rabbi. Instead, I start by explaining that the comfort afforded by using our rabbis as priestly parent figures must be weighed against the tendency to defer to them our responsibility to engage with our religion as responsible, conscious adults.
Or instead of just saying that institutional Judaism is obsessed with race, intermarriage, and assimilation, I’ll say that from the perspective of a lapsed Jews encountering organized religion again for the first time, or even a non-Jew exploring the Jewish path, it’s easy to come to the conclusion after reading a few publications and listening to a few sermons, that a great amount of Judaism’s attention seems to be inwardly focused on threats such as assimilation and inter-marriage.
And this style of communication not only seems to elicit much less hostility, but is more consistent with the values I’m stressing in the book and in my work. I’m arguing for radical plurality – for Judaism as a medium for the development of a shared, open source value system. I can’t let my own opinions about Judaism’s content, which are irrelevant to the current discussion, get in the way of my effort to facilitate a better conversation about it.
(PS: If you’re in LA, come join me at Borders this Monday evening at 7:30pm.)