The Truth About Judaism

By Douglas Rushkoff

Crown. 259 pp. $24.95

Toward the end of Nothing Sacred, Douglas Rushkoff's indictment of contemporary American Judaism, he recounts an anecdote that helps explain the tone and agenda of this book. When he was attending Sunday school at his Reform temple in the 1970s, Rushkoff recalls, he once asked the rabbi, "What is God?" Winking at Rushkoff, as if to praise the question and underline the answer, the rabbi replied, "God is your conscience." Several weeks later, the temple dismissed the rabbi. And Rushkoff writes that he "carries the scar and the inspiration of the whole episode to this day."

I can empathize with the life-changing quality of such an experience. When I was three weeks shy of becoming bar mitzvah, my rabbi refused to conduct the ceremony, declaring that he had just discovered the food at my reception was not sufficiently kosher. In fact, he was applying leverage to solicit a gratuity, not to say bribe, from my father. Although we found another local rabbi to perform the rites, the trauma set me on a 25-year exodus from Jewish observance.

Rushkoff, like me, has returned to study and practice Judaism, but as this book shows, he has returned convinced only of one thing: his own rightness. Nothing Sacred operates from the supposition that the searing moment of his childhood reflected not one congregation's small-mindedness but the very essence of organized Jewry, then and now. In the name of seeking to revive American Judaism, Rushkoff has produced a book that is awesomely narcissistic and strikingly ahistorical.

Rushkoff believes that Judaism should be invigorated by the critical reading of theological texts and a commitment to social justice. He calls for a decreased concern with Israel, intermarriage and the traditional religious law known as halakhah, which governs everything from diet to business ethics to sexual conduct.

Yet nothing in this prescription is nearly as radical or unique as Rushkoff seems to think. The history of Jewish life since the Enlightenment has been the history of a dynamic, often difficult interplay between tradition and modernity. In the centuries since then, the Modern Orthodox movement and the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist denominations have all arisen to offer divergent answers to the challenge of reconciling antiquity with the present. The past few decades alone have seen a variety of innovations: Jewish feminism, the small, communal worship groups known as chavurot, the do-it-yourself ethos compiled in the "Jewish Catalogue," the Renewal movement led by such rabbis as Arthur Waskow and Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, and the Lubavitcher Hasidim's missionary work among unaffiliated Jews.

A reader finds scant mention of any of these forces in Nothing Sacred. To put it another way, Rushkoff never acknowledges that the reforms he proposes have largely been in practice for generations.

I cannot believe that a scholar as erudite as Rushkoff -- an expert in cyberculture and the author of eight previous books -- simply did not know all this relevant history. To the contrary, I believe he avoids mentioning it because doing so would muddy the demagogic clarity of his argument. For he premises his revisionist Judaism on a falsely simplistic view of contemporary American Jewish life.

He draws a polarized portrait of American Jews who must either subscribe to "ethnocentric platitudes" or be consigned to the category of "lapsed." In one emblematic passage, he writes, "How can we belong to a religion that is so hopelessly entrenched -- or at least associated -- with values we abhor, especially when we don't feel we are in any position to change it?" Here is one more example: "The religion seems to get more racist, patriarchal, parochial and homophobic rather than less."

All I can say is that Rushkoff's description doesn't resemble the multifarious and deeply contentious American Jewish community that I know, one that suffers, if anything, from a surfeit of disputation. To accept Rushkoff's caricature, one must accept his erroneous underlying premise, which is that organized American Jewry is essentially an Orthodox monolith. First of all, he is wrong on the facts; the Orthodox represent something between 7 and 10 percent of American Jewry. Second, he is wrong on the interpretation. While Orthodox intolerance and arrogance certainly inflame non-Orthodox Jews, the Orthodox model of cohesive, sustaining community offers both challenges and lessons for American Jewry at large. From religious day-schools to Hasidic praise-songs, elements of the Orthodox model increasingly appear in Reform and Conservative circles, as well.

But Rushkoff appears uninterested in exploring why. He dismisses the Orthodox ba'al teshuva -- returnees to the faith -- as mindless fundamentalists. When he turns his attention to Israel's ultra-Orthodox, who might be plausibly criticized on any number of points, he cannot resist a hyperbolic comparison to the Taliban because they "throw rocks at cars on the Sabbath and attack the houses of people whose wives dress 'immodestly.' " Do such activities really parallel those of a government that demolished historic statues of Buddha, denied females education and played generous host to the mass murderers of al-Qaeda?

Douglas Rushkoff may have subtitled this book "the truth about Judaism," but it's more like the truth about himself. So much of what he insists Judaism must have -- historicity, pluralism, communal study, decentralization -- already exists, however imperfectly. But there is nothing like nuance or complexity for ruining a screed. *

Samuel G. Freedman, associate dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry."