Welcoming One Another
Special To The Jewish Week
So just who is allowed to participate in the conversation that is Judaism, anyway? Is it a blood test, a history of contributions to the right philanthropies, or a working knowledge of the Talmud that earns one a place at the table?
Sure, I spent the 15 years after my bar mitzvah engaged in the secular world fighting for media literacy and social justice, with nary a High Holy Days service to keep myself in the correct column of the ledger in the U’Nesaneh Tokef.
Does that make me “lapsed,” or worse, turn me into an “outsider”? Because, ironically, the further away I got from what most of us think of as Judaism, the more I could see how my choices, even my career and books, were informed by the religion’s values. I was more surprised than anyone to realize that in spite of my efforts to the contrary, I wasn’t truly “lapsed” at all.
So I decided to re-explore Judaism directly by reading texts and attending services at a Conservative synagogue. I even wrote a couple of mainstream articles hinting at some of Judaism’s best fruits, such as the Sabbath or an emphasis on literacy and community-based learning.
But the further “in” I got, the more disheartened I was by what I found. Jewish institutions appeared frozen in a protective crouch, desperately counting their remaining constituents and wondering why young people were intermarrying and “assimilating” at such alarming rates. Instead of offering the opportunity to engage in the Jewish process of inquiry and engagement, most places I went were obsessed with saving Judaism from its many internal and external threats.
And instead of seeing engaged, secular Jews as success stories, we were mourned as the religion’s failures.
Yeah, I took it personally. I decided to write a book about Judaism’s core insights of iconoclasm, abstract monotheism and social justice, as well as the many reasons why these ideas have taken a back seat to self-preservation. Some of them are very understandable: We’ve been persecuted for centuries. But others, such as the false conception of a chosen Jewish “race” and the inability to parse messianic fantasy from the reality of Israeli national security, seem ripe for revision. I’d welcome everyone to the table to reach a new consensus about what Judaism could be for the future.
The National Jewish Population Study provided an excellent opportunity for me to test some of these ideas in a secular forum, so I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times chastising the organized Jewish world for obsessing with numbers. Treating Jews as an endangered species in dire need of a breeding program was hardly a good strategy for attracting more young, successful and universal-minded people into the fold, I suggested, if that’s even the object of the game.
I received several thousand e-mails — the vast majority extremely supportive. “If that’s Judaism, count me in!” most of the so-called lapsed Jews wrote me. Jews of choice were elated, and told me of the various trials associated with conversion, as well as their continuing sense of exclusion. Even the philanthropies I criticized seemed to welcome the attention from a member of their latest target market and invited me to advise them on how to focus on Judaism’s many offerings rather than its imminent demise – and still raise money.
Dishearteningly, the vast majority of negative response came from rabbis and Jewish pundits who feared that I was reducing Judaism to tikkun olam (which I wasn’t). For some reason, they couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a participatory, welcoming Judaism that emphasizes what it can do for the world rather than how many descendents of the mythical generation at Mount Sinai remain on the roster. Social justice might be the most tangible way to extend our truth, but it’s not the only light we can share with all peoples.
As a historically persecuted bunch (“for you were slaves in Egypt …”), we should understand better than anyone the sin of exclusion. In the Torah, God doesn’t tell his people to be Jews – he tells them to be holy. But too many in the organized Jewish world still think self-preservation is the right course for us as a people, thank you very much, and that we’re in no need of secular outsiders with big ideas.
“Along comes Douglas Rushkoff,” griped one of my role models, Anne Roiphe, in the Jerusalem Report. She wrote as if I were an unwelcome foreigner to the scene, and unaware that “fixing the world is not an idea that has been waiting around for Mr. Rushkoff to discover.” Roiphe’s main problem with emphasizing ethics was that ‘so do many other religions and people.’ She labeled as ‘silly’ my effort to rescue Judaism’s core insights from ethnocentrism, and used the evidence of Jewish disease (such as Tay-Sachs) as proof of a Jewish race.
I can understand the wish to believe that we are direct descendents of the people described in the Torah, and it’s not my purpose to challenge Ms. Roiphe’s faith. But, 42 years circumcised, I refuse to be treated as an outsider for seeing the great benefits of contending otherwise, and beseech Jews of all denominations to consider whether our need for particularism undermines the universalism – the Shema – at the very core of our belief system.
If we’re ever going to welcome in – or be welcomed by – the world’s many communities, we must first learn to welcome one another.
Douglas Rushkoff is the author most recently of “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism” (Crown, April 2003).