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The Transparent Faith
Can we talk? Why aren't I surprised that none other than Joan Rivers is responsible for one of the most accurate condensations of the core values of a three-thousand-year-old tradition? Can we talk? Is our subject really up for discussion?
Sadly, for many Jews today, religion is a closed book. Most Jewish institutions offer little more than the calcified shell that once protected the spiritual insights at its core. Disaffected with their synagogues' emphasis on self-preservation and obsession with intermarriage, most Jews looking for an intelligent inquiry into the nature of spirituality have turned elsewhere, or nowhere.
Meanwhile, faced with the chaos of modern life, others have returned to Judaism in the hope of Finding a traditional community with concrete values and well-designed rules. These "returnees" run back to Judaism with a blind and desperate faith and are quickly absorbed by "outreach" organizations, whichin return for moneyoffer compelling evidence that God exists, that the Jews are indeed the Lord's "chosen people," and that those who adhere to this righteous path will never have to ask themselves another difficult question again.
Ironically, the texts and practices making up Judaism were designed to avert just such a scenario. The Jewish tradition stresses transparency, open-ended inquiry, assimilation of the foreign, and a commitment to conscious living. Most of all, it invites inquiry and change. It is a tradition born out of revolution, committed to evolution, and always willing to undergo renaissance at a moment's notice.
Judaism is open to discussion. It can be questioned and reinterpreted; indeed, it is supposed to be questioned, continually. This very discussionthis quest to discover the truth about Judaism and then reinterpret it for a new erais nothing new. It is, rather, a continuation of the Jewish tradition for collaborative reinvention.
While Judaism holds no exclusive claim to iconoclasm, community ethos, or media literacy, its foundation in these values and its ability to translate them into life practices make it an indispensable resource to a civilization experiencing such a series of disorienting shifts. By reviving this tradition's core values within a modern context, and restoring its emphasis on inquiry over certainty and humidity over sanctity, we may discover a truly rewarding path for disaffected Jews and a set of powerful tools for anyone wrestling with the challenges of contemporary life.
To do so, however, will require that we question our own most sacred assumptions. We must crack the code, penetrate the myths, squash the superstitions, and retire the beliefs that have mired Judaism in protectionism and paranoia. We must shatter the walls surrounding this religion in order to rediscover the core beliefs those walls were meant to protect.
What disturbs me is that an ethical system founded in revolution, modernity, and universally applicable ideas has become so very mired in their opposites. Judaism was a breakthrough concept. By focusing on the ongoing revision of its particular implementations, it positioned itself to remain relevant through millennia of cultural, political, and technological change. Yet now, just as humanity finds itself on the brink of a dramatic shift, Judaism has contracted and retreated, rendering itself one of the last places Jews, or anyone, would turn for guidance and support.
Our civilization is facing the tremendous spiritual, economic, and cultural challenges posed by globalization, the triumph of science over nature, and the incalculable potential of new technologies. Judaism, instead of rising to meet these challenges, is obsessing with self-preservation. Instead of contending with, for example, the impact of market culture on our children, Jewish outreach groups are hiring trend watchers to help them market Judaism to younger audiences. Instead of analyzing and tempering the massive power of global corporations and their commercial expressions on the human psyche, Jewish institutions are reorganizing themselves to function more like them.
At their most daring, Jewish philanthropies fund the highly superficial expressions of "Jewish chic" emerging in today's pop culture. But neither Madonna's heeding fascination with kabbalah nor a resurgence of klezmer music on New York's Lower East Side demonstrates any more than Judaism's ability to cater to the media's never-ending quest for commodigable authenticity. Feel-good retreats and countless workshops offering speciously concocted Jewish mysticism do not revitalize the religion; they merely market and trivialize it.
Neither should Judaism be closeted, for the enjoyment of just a few. It is not only our tradition, but our explicit obligation to act as stewards for the greater society. With varying success, Jews such as Freud, Marx, and Einstein have wrestled with the biggest questions of their agesand their greatest works were fundamentally informed by their Jewish outlooks. Today, those who work in analogous realms are derided as "secular" at best, and more often "lapsed" or, in a recently coined term, "latent" Jews.
I find myself not inspired, but actually embarrassed that my own work in media and cultural criticism is so firmly rooted in a tradition that I now identify with the most retrograde of behaviors and beliefs. To mention my affinity for Jewish ideas is to risk marginalizing my work and associating myself with a group whose most public expressions are contrary to the tolerance, pluralism, and universal truths I aim to convey.
Sometimes I feel like giving up and accepting the fact that Judaism is simply irrelevant. But then, during a talk or while writing an article, I'll realize that I'm quoting Talmud or reinterpreting a biblical myth in order to support an idea. I don't want to deny myself this greater intellectual and sociological context or the reassurance it affords me.
Every once in a while, however, I wonder if we so-called lapsed Jews might be the true keepers of the ham. Maybe it is not only our right, but our responsibility to legitimize the practices of ourselves and our peers by demonstrating their consistency with core Jewish values. Rather than admit defeat and withdraw from the debate about how Judaism should be carried forth into the twenty-first century, maybe we should engage in this discussion on equal footing. The tradition demands that these views be heard and, at the very least, considered before being dismissed.
A radical reappraisal of Judaism's ability to contribute to modernity is long overdue, and our refusal to do so is sending the best minds and voices of a generation to more accessible and less self-obsessed faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism. Not that these alternatives are lacking their own truths; they are not. Still, the challenges ahead are complex and multifaceted, and we should not deprive ourselves of any culture's wisdomleast of all our own.
This means opening the conversation, as Jews have done so many times before, to the ideas of anyone who comes to the table. If Judaism is to extend its own evolution into a fourth millennium, we must learn to regard its most sacred teachings as open for discussion.
Can we talk? Of course we can. We have over twenty centuries of experience in doing just that.
Religion on the Road
A people of Diaspora, Jews' professional choices, cultural tendencies, and even their theology were defined by the experience and realities of exile. The Jews' unique position as perpetual outsiders led them to adopt and promote a wide range of cosmopolitan and inclusive business strategies and ethical standards.
For example, Jewish exiles were not allowed to own or utilize land in many of the countries where they attempted to settle. These prohibitions made professional farming or fishing out of bounds as a means of generating income. But just because they couldn't own real estate didn't mean they couldn't become brokers. With nothing to call their own, Jews found ways to help the people who did have material assets negotiate their transactions. Their specialties became banking and communicationsthe world's first truly "virtual" professions.
As the Western world's money changers and financial planners, Jews developed some of the banking systems that are still used today. The only players who lacked a home-geld advantage wherever they went, Jews insinuated themselves into other people's business as arbitrators and referees. Unencumbered by the Christian restrictions on usury, Jews were free to serve as moneylenders in an increasingly currency-dependent society. Besides, money, interest, and brokerage were still new concepts in many places and regarded with some suspicionas were the Jews who worked with it. Jews were middlemen, whose job was to promote fair and open trade among other peoples. The transactions that Jews facilitated had to be kept from appearing mysterious, so that no one would feel cheated. Because everyone needed to understand what was going on, an emphasis on transparency was crucial. The more transparent the transactions, the more willing people would be to trade. Such transparency also depended on a certain amount of knowledge and intelligence. As later Jewish political theorists such as Karl Marx understood, the education of the masses is a prerequisite to a truly just economic scheme. Only people who understand what they are doing can avoid being exploited in their financial transactions.
Jews' passion for open transactions was not limited to finance. They also served as translators and cultural guides, helping people in an increasingly mobile and multicultural Mediterranean society to interact with strangers. Jews were professional intermediaries between societies and their "others." As a result, Jews valued motion and cultural exchange. A fluid society with ever-changing boundaries served them better than a closed or static one in which outsiders and new ideas were feared. Jews' ability to adapt to a variety of cultural situations made them experienced navigators of change and intermingling. And the more things changed, the more Jews were needed.
Jews' later interest in the film, television, and entertainment industries found its roots in these early survival imperatives and cultural goals. In this sense, anti-Semites are not entirely unfounded in their claim that Jews are behind a great media conspiracy. What they don't understand, however, is that the Jewish love for media and entertainment is not part of a plan for global conquest. Rather, it is an extension of the very skills they developed over centuries of serving as cultural mediators.
If there is an agenda underlying Jews' dedication to expanding the role of media in people's lives, it is to promote intellectual perspective and the value of pluralism. Like all good communication, media tends to call sacred values into question. Comedy, for instance, and especially what has become known as Jewish comedy, requires an audience to distance itself from its most troublesome concerns and see them in a different, less threatening light. Media, then, at its best, is a form of mass education. But education is threatening to anyone whose power is dependent on fear and ignorance. Not surprisingly, the McCarthy anticommunism hearings focused on media and entertainment professionals more than on actual political agitators and gained significant traction by stoking anti-Semitic sentiments.
Their tenuous status as guests of the many nations in which they settled made Jews excellent futurists. Because they never knew when they might be asked, quite unceremoniously, to pack up and move on, they had to keep their ears to the ground at all times. Losing a sense of the prevailing winds could easily prove catastrophic.
These factors combined to make Jews think in terms of the "big picture." The more interconnected a society, the more likely it was to engage in complex transactions requiring Jews' services. And the more inclusive and tolerant a society, the more likely it was to include the Jews, too.
But many cultures experienced pluralism as a threat to their own national and religious values. Rapid cosmopolitan incursions tend to erode a people's sense of integrity, uniqueness, and superiority over others. Whenever such xenophobia took hold, Jews were the first to be blamed. Fear of persecution and sudden expulsion was a pressing motivation for Jews to look for ways in which everything was connected and to promote these perceptions far and wide. After all, if everything is connected into an intricately linked whole, then this disenfranchised nation of perpetual immigrants must be connected, too. Jews wanted to advance the idea that they must somehow constitute an irreplaceable node in the web. This is why they habitually reformed situations in their larger contexts, always on the lookout for an explanation of the universe as a single whole. Even Einstein's famous quest for a "unified geld theory"one that could bring space and time together into the same thingcan be understood as an extension of this urge toward wholeness and universal inclusion. Nothing, and no one, is left out. Sometimes consciously and sometimes not, the Jews' many achievements were part of an overarching strategy to make themselves indispensable to others. Assimilation was not a sin; it was survival.