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.

Moses
“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.

23 Comments

  1. Dude, you are seriously one of the smartest people I know. I mean, did you just read what you wrote? That read like a fucking article in an academic journal (‘cept a really, y’know, witty and comedic one).

    And you cook, too! You’re like the perfect husband! L&#151 is so lucky.

    Do you think she’d duel me for you? 😉

  2. Last week, I thought I was going to have to duel you for her. Maybe, since she & I are both a little old for you anyway, the two of us should just adopt you.

  3. Any post that combines the South Park version of Moses, “open source religion,” the Elaine/Putty “going to hell” discussion, and Judaism as anti-religion is damn all right with me.

  4. It’s going to take a few days for me to get through all of the articles on his site. I added the book to my Amazon wish list, and it will get bundled into my next Amazon splurge. I have a fairly robust collection of religion books and texts, everything from a copy of the Jerusalem Bible to GNOSIS to my Biblical Hebrew textbook to Chu Hsi’s Reflections of Things on Hand, the fundamental text on Later Sung Neo-Confucian thought. I’ll buy it, read it, and it will live on my shelf with my other strange books, maybe next to my weirdo Kabbalah texts.

    I haven’t stepped foot into a Temple since maybe 1993, when I gave up on Reform Judaism as being “too silly,” but what this book says interests me greatly. Judaism is different from Christianity in ways that are difficult to articulate, except that it’s a proactive religion, not a reactive religion. Jews are not a passive audience to a man standing on a pulpit. It is an intellectual and communal religion. Everything in Judaism is community. You can be born a Christian, but you’re born a Jew and a Jew you will be until you die. When two Jews meet, they start a strange dance to figure out where their common ancestor is and who married who and if they are some kind of cousin.

    Anyway, I can go on about the Judaism vs. Christianity and intellectualizing religion for hours and hours and hours. It’s my Near Eastern Studies background from Michigan, hidden deep within my engineering shell. It’ll take me a few days to digest all the material.

  5. I always thought that Judaism really was the perfect religion for intellectuals. The belief in questioning your own religion, rather than blindly following it in some biblical leap of faith is tremendously advanced, particularly considering the millennia that Judaism has been around for. Had I been raised Jewish rather than absentee Anglican, I wonder whether I would have developed into the staunch (read: rabid) atheist that I’ve been for most of my life. [I likely would have eventually switched to Buddhism so I could have learned some crazy Kung Fu moves to lay to my opponents – if what I have learned about the religion through Shaw Brother movies is correct.]

    I am a little unsettled about Rushkoff’s discussion about Abstract Monotheism and the concept of good and evil, “… what we think of as “evil” may better be understood as the absence of good.” From this you could extend that humanity without a god (or religion, or community) is inherently evil; that without religious structure (no matter how abstract it is), society is chaotic and barbaric. Historical and current faith-based global events seem to indicate otherwise.

    Come on over to my place and we can discuss this manically in my living room. Sneech can bring the gum and I’ll give you a light show as you jabber to 140 BPM acid techno.

  6. Another passage I like from Nothing Sacred:

    “When asked by a non-Jew to summarize his religion while standing on one foot, the talmudic sage Hillel merely said, ‘What is hateful unto you do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary.’ Even in this ultracompressed version of Judaism, Hillel is careful to state himself in the negative. Do not do what is hateful. The much better-known inverse, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ has an entirely different meaning. It is a particularly dangerous phrase in the mouths of reformers and crusaders. … According to their logic, if you yourself would rather be slain at the hands of a righteous man than die a nonbeliever, then you must kill all nonbelievers. Hillel’s negative phraseology keeps any particular command from God out of the equation. It resists misuse by warmongers and violent proselytisers by leaving in doubt just what it is God wants his people to do.”

  7. I hear you about Judaism and Buddhism both. I wonder if there are any Hebrew martial arts styles? I understand your extrapolation of the “God as emergent good” idea, but Dougie would argue his point is almost exactly the opposite. Remember, he was a pacifier-sucking PLUR candy-raver in the 1990s too.

  8. I wonder if there are any Hebrew martial arts styles?

    Well, there’s Krav Maga…
    http://www.northatlanticbooks.com/products/1583940081.html

    I very much buy the “God as emergent good” as a part of my personal philosophy. Not the sum, but it’s in there. I also think that evil can be emergent, too, though that seems contradictory. If it’s simply the absence of good, then you might be able to think of emergent evils as dark dots on a light Life field, rather than the usual light dots on a dark Life field.

    I suspect an interesting variant of the Brian’s Brain set-up of emergence could include another color for the emergent evil…

    Pondering.

    I’ll grab that book, I think.

    CU

  9. But it sounds like all Rushkoff’s got there is elementary qabbalism out of the Sefer Yetzirah and Bahir, really.

    The universe begins as nothingness, or ain and then becomes boundlessness as it becomes aware of itself, ain sof and then through the process of tzimtum, or contraction, becomes the limitless light, ain sof aur and illuminates all things. Through the process of the light’s endless journey through infinity, the physical universe comes into existence, and the purpose of existence is for all things to fully develop their potential and then cease to be, returning to the limitless light… in essence, the universe and everything in it are the emerging mind of God and our purpose is to help God define itself. All things are the thoughts of God. In Qabbala, evil is the qlippoth, the cracked shells, the shadows thrown by the limitless light…those places God’s light is withdrawn for our sake, so that we might have someplace to grow.

    Sounds to me like Rushkoff is just repackaging the words of Maimonides, Rabbi Nehunia ben haKana and others.

    The main point brought out by this paradox is the fact that this space is only ‘dark’ and ‘vacated’ with respect to us. The “lamp of darkness” mention in the Zohar is “darkness” to us, but with relation to God, it too is a lamp.

    I need to read the Rushkoff book to be sure, though. I hadn’t heard of it before. His metaphor quoted by you above makes me think of the old qabbalistic saw of the coal and the burning coal from the sefer yetzirah, though.

  10. His metaphor quoted by you above makes me think of the old qabbalistic saw of the coal and the burning coal from the sefer yetzirah, though.

    Oh yeah, that old qabbalistic saw. Sheesh, that’s all you hear about on kid’s LiveJournals these days: Sefir Yetsirah r0xx0rz, ain sauf aur is teh b0mb, yadda yadda yadda. 😉

    (That was meant to be good-humored sarcasm. I actually do appreciate the info in your post but I would point out that DR is writing primarily for an audience to whom the qlippoth is not old hat.)

    To your complaint that he is “just repackaging” the words of historic sages, he would probably say: yes, that is exactly the point. Hence: “An open source Judaism is … a commitment to know the religion as deeply and profoundly as its original programmers.”

  11. Hillel’s formulation also allows a derivative statement: “What is hateful to you, do not allow a THIRD PARTY to do to your neighbor.” And right there we have the guiding principle of social justice, one of Rushkoff’s three main points of what Judaism is about (the others are monotheism and iconoclasm).

  12. Well, as much as I’d love to have you two as parents, I’m fairly (read: very) accustomed to certain, um, monetary standards of comfort. And I know how much teachers generally make. 😉

    But, then again, I would be the first one to hear all your cool game ideas…

    Hrm.

  13. Fantastic entry! And ironic because just this morning two co-workers and I were discussing religion and moral relativism. Hope you don’t mind, I’m sending them the link to this entry. I think we’ve got a meme here!

    The one time I have ever been to temple on a high holiday with M, we got there during the ‘fund raising’ section of the service. Lots of people donating a specific amount of money.. (chaim? $7? I forget). It was very strange and informal to me, someone who is ‘used to’ (in the sense I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to Mass) the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism. But I admit I am fascinated by this give and take with the rabbi on his sermon you write about. I may have to go to temple with M & her family sometime. That sounds fascinating.

    When you write for academic journals, are you able to preserve your wit and light tone? Or will your fellow patriot-scholars not allow such cheek? 🙂

  14. Well. This is pretty much the smartest thing I’ve ever read.

    Mm-hm.

    That’s all I got.

  15. You know, it honestly didn’t occur to me that there was anyone left who hadn’t read the Sefer Yetzirah.

    I keep forgetting they don’t exactly teach mystical judaism in schools.

  16. Well, gosh, thanks! Funny you should say that actually, because I was going to make the EXACT SAME COMMENT about the enormous dick made of ice in Avengers/JLA! YOW!

    And now I return you to dorky posts about rock stars from outer space.

  17. While growing up Presbyterian, I always felt a bit ripped-off. It’s probably one of the lamest branches of Protestantism. Your post reminds me of this fact.

    More importantly, your post reminds me of a sunny late-1980s lunchtime during which you and I spent kicking dirt on one of the many baseball diamonds in the park beside the high school. You were telling me about an “LA Law” episode you had seen the previous night, where a guy, engaged to a Jew, was considering converting to Judaism. He asks his Lawyer, “What’s it like, to be a Jew?” It was something about the _delivery_ of the line that totally cracked you up, and the fact that it cracked you up in turn cracked me up, too. How did the Lawyer respond? I can’t remember, but it probably wouldn’t have been as heavy as Rushkoff. You start ranting about the Talmud on “LA Law”, and people gonna change the channel to “Night Court.”

    Oh yeah, the whole “cold is merely an absence of heat” analogy [I guess the Physics degree wasn’t a total waste of time] totally influenced the way I grew to think about evil, or rather the absence of good. Further direct application of this thought allowed “God is energy” to spin in my mind for years…

  18. Wow. Just think, that episode turned out to be my life! It’s all karma for my immature fascination with the subject of anti-Semitism in those days. I was never an anti-Semite but I did think Nazis were funny. Well, I guess “karma” isn’t the right word for it. I really did deserve to get punched in the face, just once, for being a little asshole in my youth.

    Things I love about Adam (a continuing series):

    #12,475 : You can remember a conversation we had over lunch, more than fifteen years ago, about L.A. Law.

    #12,476 : You would uncomplainingly listen to me discuss episodes of L.A. Law.

    #12,477 : “You start ranting about the Talmud on “LA Law”, and people gonna change the channel to “Night Court.”

    #12,478 : “God is energy”: Groovy. It did occur to me, though, that one could flip the heat/cold good/evil analogy: What if there’s no such thing as good/God in the universe, just the presence or absence of evil?

  19. Wow, Rushkoff has never met a social phenom he couldn’t turn into some kind of technological allegory. (Pee Wee Herman = virus, Judaism = open source, ham and cheese sandwich on rye, no pickle = Donkey Kong)

    Still, it sounds like a cool book, one that I’d add to my reading list but for the fact that I still haven’t gotten around to Exit Strategy.

    — S

  20. Wow, Rushkoff has never met a social phenom he couldn’t turn into some kind of technological allegory…

    You ain’t kidding! You could make a game out of it – Rushkoff Jeopardy. What social phenomenon do you suppose he’s talking about here?

    “I can’t help but think the trend is also fueled, at least in part, by our increasingly confused relationship with technology and media. … As we grow increasingly dependent on video and computer simulations for the imagery in our fantasy lives, we may begin to aspire towards that which the machine can recreate, rather than that we can create ourselves.”

    Give up?

  21. Pingback: How I’ll Spend My Summer Vacation

  22. Gee its a big leap to say there is no such thing as Teh Evil. Christians fought for a thousand years over the “God made/is everything and therefore made evil and the flesh and why would He do that” problem. Often, I think in my civilian way, people either chose “God wants to test us, the big old jokey torturer, so we have to flee evil and the flesh and let’s just not eat anything any more so we can get to Heaven quickly” Or “I dunno, He’s smarter than we are so we don’t get it just like the tortoise doesn’t understand the approaching truck… so just keep going and hope for the best cos God ain’t no old jokey torturer that’s for sure…”

    (Actually, given the visual rhyme between truck and tortoise, I guess the reptile could think he was made in the image of the truck… Must. Stop. Now..)

    All this logic chopping disappears for me in the presence of a baby. I just go, “Derrr. wow.. I’ve gone all gooey again..”

    Can I propose an extension to that group questioning rule? All important human discussion should be carried out in the presence of children. If you can still concentrate, the idea is robust.

    On a serious note, maybe Rushkoff should play a bit with Freud, on the grounds that the Big F. takes the discussion away from the properties of systems to the nature of the human psyche.

    The trouble with two or four thousand year old religious debates is that you have to read sooo…. much. And I guess you always find out there is nothing new on the altar, not even a different analogy, or tools to think with. Who first thunk of the atom again?

Comments are closed.