I’m working on a new preface, for the paperback edition of Nothing Sacred. The original one talked about new media, and how the values of transparency, literacy and community central to the health of interactive networks can also be found in Judaism. It was really a way for me to explain why a media theorist would write about Judaism, and to suggest that Judaism needn’t be threatened by interactivity since it was founded on itneractivity.
Now that I’m done with my tour, and I can see the ways in which I let myself get drawn into conversations that didn’t really concern me (all the synagogue conversations about continuity and outreach) I feel like I should use the preface to make it clear that I’m not writing a book about preserving Judaism – that this is a book for all the people like me who, in certain respects, don’t really care so much about Judaism, at least not about that thing happening in synagogues. So, here’s my first crack at that.
What I’ve tried to do with this book is find and share the best arguments in Judaism for its own dissolution – at least as we know it. For many of the things happening in the vast majority of synagogues and philanthropies today have very little to do with Judaism. To me, anyway, they represent some of the very same institutional, ethnocentric, and nationalist tendencies that Judaism was invented to dispel.
In order to grasp the sense of this admittedly critical stance – one shared by about half of America’s Jews, in fact – we must come to understand Judaism as an evolving process rather than a list of rules and beliefs set in stone. Jewish continuity is not the maintenance of rituals and behaviors from a particular moment in history, but the continuing journey away from the mindsets that lead to unkind, unholy lives. It is this challenge that remains the same, which is why its expression must constantly evolve.
Ancient Israelites may have had trouble breaking their emotional attachment to the comforting animal gods of Egypt or, later, giving up the sacrifices of animals at the Holy Temple. If today’s Jews are truly concerned about continuity, then they can’t content themselves with the profound achievements of two or three thousand years ago. They must look instead towards the beliefs and ideas that stunt holiness, today. However challenging or even painful, Jews must evaluate the comforting but ultimately stunting contention that God loves his Jews the best, or that he has set aside a particular nation for them. This doesn’t mean abandoning Judaism or Israel, but rather examining the kinds of superstitions and religiosity used to justify them.
To me, Judaism has always seemed less like a religion than the process by which we get over religion. It was not intended as a path to complacency or self-satisfaction, but to questions and action.
We can choose to live up to the beliefs and practices of our ancestors in one of two ways. The first is to imitate them exactly, as best we can. This will preserve their formulaic accuracy, but freeze our faith in history. Our ethics, beliefs, and social awareness will be the same as they were two thousand years ago. The alternative is to discern the intent of our ancestors’ codes of law and then figure out today’s equivalents. This requires work, thought, collaboration, and a commitment to spiritual growth.
Not an easy sell, these days, when times seem so hard. The world appears committed to a new round of holy wars, the Middle East is as far from a lasting peace as ever it was, anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, and even those of us in the West are no longer impervious to the threat of terrorism.
It’s no wonder many people are rushing back to their religions, including Judaism, for reassurance – for a way of fitting the world’s ongoing chaos into a bigger story. To reconstruct the narratives that are being shattered.
But, as I hope to show, religions aren’t necessarily functioning at their best when they provide pat answers to life’s biggest questions. Judaism, in particular, favors open-ended inquiry over unilateral decree. Given our global predicament, the challenge to Jews and to all thinking people is to resist the temptation to fall into a polarized, nationalist, or, God forbid, self-righteously holy posture.
I’ve spent most of my professional life studying and writing about new media, and if the interactive age has taught me anything it is that narratives serve our best interests only when we take responsibility for authoring them. We are all co-writing the future of history, together.
Likewise, as Jews, rather than retreating into the simplistic and childlike, if temporarily reassuring, belief that the answers have already been written along with the entire human story, we must resolve ourselves to participate actively in writing the story ourselves – the story of our civilization as well as the story of our religion. Endlessly repeating the Judaism of the past turns it into a bedtime tale. It was intended and must serve, instead, as a wake up call. Indeed, now as much as ever, it’s time to grow up and take charge of our collective destiny.
I understand that it’s tough to make this leap, particularly for those who have used religion as a retreat or safe haven. It is a frightening moment for a child to realize that his parents are not gods. Likewise, it is a frightening for a people to realize their gods are not parents. We, God helps us, are the adults here.
Whether or not our own institutions are up to the challenge, our religions do hold certain keys for developing the kind of autonomy and fortitude that is now required of us. For its part, Judaism’s emphasis on iconoclasm, abstract monotheism, and social justice makes it a potentially valuable resource to a world on the brink of adopting their opposites. Although Judaism’s outward, obvious manifestation today in temples, religious schools, and Israeli politics often appears anything but thoughtful or pluralistic, its practices and literature still contain the seeds of an extraordinarily progressive and intellectual process that strikes out at blind faith and the fundamentalist passivity it produces.
The experiences gained and insights gleaned after three thousand years of spiritual and ethical debating can offer anyone clear alternatives to the overly concretized narratives that are failing the world — even if we have to move beyond what is currently passing for Judaism in order to find and propagate them.
It’s time we wake up from the stories we’ve been telling ourselves and invent a new one.