Torah! Torah! Torah!

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Today is the first day of Passover, which seems like a good opportunity to say something about Douglas Rushkoff‘s book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. I read it a few months ago. I think it comes out in paperback this week.

“I desire macaroni pictures! And those little shaker things where you put beans inside of paper plates that are glued together! And let us put patterns of glue on the outside of those paper plates so we can then pour glitter on them so they look nice and sparkly!”

A couple of years ago, I read a book called The Talmud and The Internet, which seemed like a painless way for a guy like me to learn a little more about his (then future) wife’s religion. There were some nifty stories in there about the Talmud and its recursive hypertextual nature. For instance, there’s a tract where the Talmudic Rabbis discuss how God spends His days. They decide that, among other things, God spends three hours each day studying the Talmud. In other words, the Talmud is so vast and complicated that even God Himself must study it daily. And—how’s this for freaky movie-within-a-movie action—this discussion of the Talmud is contained within the Talmud itself. Whoa. But I don’t really recommend that book to you if you have any more knowledge of computers than, say, my grandmother. I had the distinct impression the author got most of his information about the internet from Parade Magazine or something similar. A lot of the book was just “Computers! Are they good for the Jews?” if you know what I mean.

Douglas Rushkoff, on the other hand, knows from cyberculture and Judaism both. And Nothing Sacred, originally subtitled “The Case for Open-Source Judaism,” is a pretty cool combination of the two:

An open source religion would work the same way as open source software development: it is not kept secret or mysterious at all. Everyone contributes to the codes we use to comprehend our place in the universe. … An open source Judaism is not Judaism-lite, but a commitment to know the religion as deeply and profoundly as its original programmers.

Let me clarify that my own understanding of life, the universe, and everything is and remains entirely atheistic, secular, and non-religious. Indeed this has sparked minor arguments between L & I. She’s really not religious either, but is more likely than I am to admit that organized religion might occasionally have some small redeeming qualities. What I realized when we had those arguments, though, was that when she said “religion” and thought of Judaism and I said religion and thought of, you know, whatchamacallit, that building with the lower case ‘t’ on it, we were starting in two rather different places.

I’m not converting any time soon, but I gotta give big Sammy Davis Jr. props to the Jews. I’ve gone to High Holiday services with Lisa and I think it’s fantastic that they have a question and answer session where people debate the Rabbi’s sermon. I think the rule that you can’t even read the Torah without ten people present to discuss it is wild—it’s like a built-in inoculation against fanaticism. Think of how much less impact some idiotic TV ad has when you watch it in a group of ten or more people. Imagine a world in which it was forbidden to watch TV without at least nine friends there to discuss it.

Bart: “Rabbi, did not a great man say, and I quote, ‘The Jews are a strange bunch of people. I mean, I’ve heard of persecution but what they went through is ridiculous! But the great thing is, after thousand of years of waiting and holding on and fighting, they finally made it,’.”
Rabbi Krustofsky: “Oy, I never heard the plight of my people phrased so eloquently! Who said that, Rabbi Hillel?”
Bart: “Nope.”
Rabbi Krustofsky: “It was Judah the Pious.”
Bart: “Nope.”
Rabbi Krustofsky: “The Dead Sea Scrolls?”
Bart: “I’m afraid not, Rabbi. It’s from ‘Yes I Can’ by Sammy Davis Jr. An entertainer, like your son.”
Rabbi Krustofsky: “The Candy Man? If a performer can think that way maybe I’m completely upside down on this whole problem.”

Rushkoff basically argues that Judaism is not a religion, but rather the historical process by which humanity is evolving out of its need for religion. Which is the kind of religion I can get behind. So for him, the Exodus commemorated by Passover was not a historical event, but an allegory for the liberation of Jewish thought from the idolatrous death cults of Egypt. Each of the plagues of Egypt is a symbolic desecration of one of the old gods or religious practices of the Jews themselves. That’s the Jewish gift to the world, Rushkoff says: their millenia-long exodus away from superstition. And the point of the book is to urge Jews to keep pushing along that path: to hold on to their traditions of debate and iconoclasm (Rushkoff has described Judaism as media literacy in the guise of a religion) while abandoning their tribal or possessive instincts, indeed abandoning the whole idea of being a chosen people, to create an open-source religion available to all.

Elaine: “David, I’m going to Hell! The worst place in the world! With fires and devils! Don’t you have anything to say about that?”
Putty: “It’s gonna be rough.”

Now, the reaction to Nothing Sacred showed that my man Dougie might have underestimated the continuing appeal of tribalism. Everywhere he went to promote the book, he got called a God-killer or a Holocaust-denier or an anti-Semite. You can almost track the deflation of his optimism by reading the blog entries from his book tour last year. Even L didn’t quite accept the whole argument of the book, though she thought parts of it were pretty cool. “God loves you best,” is a pretty durable meme, I guess. At least as powerful as “You are forgiven,” “There’s a big payoff in this for you at the end,” or “You kick ass.

But whatever your religion or lack thereof, Nothing Sacred is worth a look. Rushkoff is just such a cool and optimistic thinker. I don’t always agree with him, but I always want what he’s saying to be correct. In Rushkoff’s cyberpunk Judaism, God is not a supernatural entity, but an emergent property of the religion itself. God is not to be feared or obeyed or even worshipped, but continually questioned, challenged, and revised. In fact, this very process is all that “God” is. Nothing more or less than people thinking for themselves about their duties to one another:

In a world where God is an emergent phenomenon, the entire premise of good and evil is a meaningless duality. Abstract monotheism insists that there is only one thing going on here: God. He has no antithesis, no evil twin. There is only good and the absence of good—the places where good has not yet spread. It is akin to the way a physicist understands the concept of cold. There is no such thing as cold. It is not a force of its own. Cold is not an energy. It does not exist. There is only heat. What we think of as “cold” is merely the absence of heat. Likewise, what we think of as “evil” may better be understood as the absence of good. … Just because a candle can be blown out does not mean that darkness is an energy of its own.

(Head-bending stuff. Makes me wish it was the late 1990s and I was tweaking to trance music at ‘s, clenching my jaw and gabbling to at a mile a minute.)

Masel Tov!

P.S.: I made a nice big pork roast for tonight.


Hit By A Fish

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

In French, as you may know, April Fool’s Day is called Poisson d’Avril, which literally means “April Fish.”

My Dad sometimes tells a story about when I was a little kid and I discovered a deck of Tarot cards. Immediately enchanted, I set about telling the fortunes of all my friends. Of course, I didn’t know what any of the cards or layouts meant, so my readings were both linear and extremely literal. I’d just slap the cards down one after another like I was playing War: “You will be stabbed with ten swords! Then you will be given seven coins! Then you will become a juggler! Then you will die!”

What I lacked in symbology, I made up in oracular conviction, by bellowing all of my prophesies in a booming voice (as booming as an eight-year-old can muster). It must have worked too, because, as my Dad tells it, my little chums would finish their Tarot readings quaking in fright. All the fortunes I told ended badly. I think I thought you just kept going all the way through the deck until you got to Death or one of the other clearly fatal cards. How else would you know when to stop?

(Some parents might have stepped in after the third or fourth ashen-faced eight-year-old staggered home, each convinced of their own strangely specific yet utterly unavoidable doom. But Dad obviously thought this was all a good laugh. I love my parents and the irreligious upbringing they gave me. Ours would later be the go-to house for scary Ouija board action. And if I’ve never told you my Sunday School story, I will.)

Anyway, Dad was particularly taken by the fate I prophesied for my friend Aaron McLaughlin: “You will ride on a horse! You will drink from three cups! And then… you will be hit by a fish!!” I don’t even know which Tarot card has a fish on it, but that is the line from this story that has stuck as family catchphrase #17,368: “You will be hit… by a fish!” (You’re supposed to say it booming and loud, with just a little pregnant pause before revealing the precise instrument of your subject’s frappage.)

Aaron McLaughlin and his family moved to Alberta, so I don’t know if he ever did get hit by that fish. But the saying has stayed with me, and I’ve come to think of it as my own fortune rather than his. It’s not a terrifying doom, but a warning against hubris, and a reminder of the general perversity of the cosmos. Don’t get too full of yourself. Don’t count your chickens. Just when you start thinking you’re all that—an Emperor, or a Juggler, or some fancy dude on a horse with seven coins and a cup—Fwap! You too will be hit by a fish.

Case in point: me, the last week or so. “Hey, I’m graduating soon! Hey, I got a swell job! Lookit me, big Harvard PhD with a fancy poobah fellowship! Hey, big tax refund coming our way! Wonder what we’ll spend all those coins on?” Then today: Crash of thunder. Deluge of rain. “Hey, it’s been raining steadily for 48 hours. Hey, our ceiling is leaking in seven places. Hey, should it be… bulging like that?”


Happy Poisson d’Avril, everybody. 🙂