Sunday, June 8, 2008

Doug Rushkoff and Open Source Religion

(Photo of Doug Rushkoff by Royce Carlton)

Several years ago, I wrote a review of Douglas Rushkoff's book, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. Because I think what Rushkoff has to say is so important, I'm revisiting not only the book but its main thesis as stated by Ido Hartogsohn that "Judaism [is] ... a religion of open source activists, literate people who can see the world around them as a code which can be read consciously and critically and also rewritten or reprogrammed.

"Judaism is thus actually a lesson in media literacy, our ability to be smart readers of the mediums and realities around us. It is not without reason, says Rushkoff, that the coming of age ceremony of Judaism is the Bar Mitzvah. In proving to be able of reading the biblical text, the code[,] one becomes an adult."

For the great majority of people, believers or not, religion of whatever stripe is mainly relegated to the myths and legends and to some extent historical events of years gone by. Religion, one might say, lives and thrives in the past.

Whether one is Jewish, Christian or Muslim, religion is a product of literature created many hundreds, or even thousands of years ago, which tell of a god and his people and their many wonderful or not so wonderful deeds. In the case of each of these three major world religions, the canon, for all practical purposes, is closed. Nothing new allowed. The religious traditions upon which various doctrines and practices are based are not to be altered or even questioned.

In the Jewish tradition, we have the Torah, an everlasting gift to his "chosen" people, and that, along with various rabbinical traditions, is God's eternal expression of love and mercy. The Torah may be interpreted, indeed, must be interpreted and differences in interpretation are respected, but no one would suggest that the Torah be changed or added to.

For Christians, the New Testament is closed. While it is true that the canon was never "officially" sealed and thus it remains hypothetically possible to add to it or change it, the divisions within Christianity make such alterations or changes extremely unlikely. Yet, even though the New Testament is considered to be God's "word," Christians have not been able to agree as to what that means or how it should be interpreted. From the very first years of Christianity, there were literally hundreds of different groups holding beliefs at odds with one another.

This "interpretational" splitting of Christianity continues today as is evidenced by the hundreds, if not thousands of denominations, all claiming to be either "the Truth," or "the closest to the Truth."

I am less familiar with the Koran, but from what I have learned, it would appear no one would dare alter a word of that particular "holy" book without risking life and limb.

So, the three major religions of the world find their reason for existence and their fundamental beliefs about themselves, the world and the life to come in ancient texts for which, in many cases, authorship and date are unknown, but which were proclaimed long ago by religious "authorities" to be "of God," and because they remain the sources for faith and life they are forever unalterable.

A major problem for all these religions is that God no longer works in the world the way he used to do. God does not talk to people like he did to Abraham (unless you're George Bush, but that's another story), or appear to folks the way he did to Moses on the mountain, or do wondrous deeds such as Jesus' healing of the 4 or 5 thousand, or raise people from the dead as he raised
Jesus from the dead.

Why not? Why can't we have a contemporary Jonah and the big fish event? Why in our day doesn't God speak from the heavens as he is reported to have done at the baptism of Jesus? Why can't some cool heaven-sent prophet walk across Lake Michigan waving to his believers watching from shore?

Just think how the churches and temples and mosques would suddenly fill to overflowing!

The fact that God chooses not to do these things in modern times should, I think, lead us to assume that maybe he never did those things and that those stories in our holy books are better deemed to be myths or legends.

Which leads to the really important question: What benefit have ancient religious writings for us today? If we finally end up rejecting much of what is written as non-historical, can these
documents have any value for 21st century citizens of the world?

This is where Doug Rushkoff comes in. Much of what follows was derived from an interview between Media Resistance (Digital Minds Blog) and Rushkoff that goes back to July of 2007.

"For those ... who don't know Rushkoff, he is considered by many to be one of the most important media critics of the last decades. He has published a series of bestseller books such as Media Virus and Coercion: Why we listen to what they say which deal (among other things) with media ecology, subversive uses of media and the way media, culture and people interact.

"Rushkoff has also written a series of fictional books. Such as the ambitious graphical novel Testament: Akedah which transpires in part in a futuristic world in which future draftees are implanted with location tracking devices and whose other part follows the life of the biblical Abraham in 3 different episodes in his life."

Doug Rushkoff has become a somewhat "controversial figure in American Judaism" because of his idea of "Open Source Judaism." Open source Judaism is described in Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, this way: "...the basic values of Judaism are critical thinking and the readiness to destroy idols and stay on a never ending, convention breaking search. Rushkoff sees in these Jewish values power vehicles which can assist modern man who is bombarded by a flood of aggressive media and marketing schemes."

Rushkoff describes open source Judaism as "the contention that religion is not a pre-existing truth but an ongoing project. It may be divinely inspired, but it is a creation of human beings working together. A collaboration.

" ... Jews often use Judaism to justify certain static conditions - presumptions about race, nation, and favoritism. There's a need to 'lock down' the religion and understand its stories historically rather than mythologically. And this makes it impossible to *do* Judaism.

"Judaism is a process of interaction, deliberation, and ethical action. It's the process by which we make the world a better place. This was a radically original and revolutionary idea a couple of thousand years ago. It was illegal to presume that human beings can actually alter the story of the world. But that's what the escape from Mitzrayim (Egypt) was all about.

"This is the original open source idea: to learn the underlying codes of the world in which we live and rewrite them together to serve us all better. To participate."

Rushkoff believes that this is not uniquely Jewish, that Christianity and Islam particularly, being derivative of Judaism, "have open source tenets as well. ... but [they are not] quite as central as they are in Judaism. People in these other religions are supposed to *believe* things. As I've come to understand it, Judaism is more about crashing beliefs than constructing them."

Rushkoff is convinced that open source Judaism is "as classical as Judaism gets." In other words, it's not something new, but carries on the tradition as represented in the Talmud and the way Jewish Halacha was assembled and received over the ages.

The problem, says Rushkoff, is that "Jews don't practice Judaism anymore. It is too scary in light of all that's going on in the world. Judaism is just as hard as Buddhism or any real spiritual path. And it is incompatible with the rationale that American Jews, in particular, use to justify their lives.

"It's particularly difficult to justify Israel using Torah stories if you want to also use those stories allegorically. The whole idea that everything is up for discussion is too threatening to those who need to use the text for political reasons. And the enforcement of certain ideas tends to require unifying myths, rather than open ones. If you can get people to believe a particular story in a particular way, they are easier to control.

"So the necessities of state and social control really are at odds with the fundamental teachings of Judaism."

Open source thinking/acting, not only by Jews, but also by Christians and Muslims, may be just what we need to move beyond those boundaries of belief and "truth" we have erected to prove our provenance with our god. We could finally begin to stretch past our static arguments about what texts are valid and what they mean and whether they are true or false and what they insist we must believe, to the place where, by dropping all our usual assumptions, we begin the process of rethinking what and who we are in relationship to one another and the world in which we live. We begin, in Rushkoff's words, to rewrite the code.

For Rushkoff, Judaism means literacy. "Hieroglyphs were 'priestly writing,' and limited to the priest and royal classes. The invention of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet turned the greater population into readers and writers. So when God says to Abraham 'you will be a nation of priests,' he may as well be saying 'you will be a nation who can read and write.' Imagine that! A whole nation of people who have attained literacy. What would that mean?

"It would mean a people who no longer simply react to the whims of their gods, but instead write their own laws, record their own history, and who take the very controversial stand that human action makes a difference. You have to realize in pre-Israelite times, to say that human beings made a difference was blasphemy -- heretical. For the Israelites to run off to the desert after desecrating Egypt's highest gods (sacrificing a calf was illegal, particularly on April New Year's Day when he was being revered) and then create a legal and spiritual system based on life -- that was revolutionary. Lechaim is a naughty thing to say in a society based on death cults."

One of the reasons I become angry at the Religious Right dominionists who want to establish a government under the "dominion" and laws of their god, is that they would take us back to the dark ages, when life was ruled by magic and incense and the ever-changing demands of the deity as interpreted by the "priests." And Religious Right leaders continually preach that humans don't and can't make a difference, because God has everything planned out. Don't worry about the Earth, the Rapture is nigh! Take no thought for tomorrow, Armageddon is upon us.

But the United States was founded by people using an open source system. In that sense, unknowingly perhaps, our founders fulfilled the best traditions of Judaism. They collaborated, gathering together to smash numerous idols as they left behind prevailing myths of church and state and ignored the whims of the gods while at the same time relying on the wisdom of the ages to write their own laws without reference to either god or religion, believing that human beings can indeed make a difference. That fact was the building block of new national experiment.

It is my opinion that only by continuing in the "open source" tradition will we have a chance of survival in the modern world. The answers to the problems we face in the 21st century are not be found in ancient books or religious dogma, but in and through our collaboration with one another, our commitment to one another, our willingness to smash the idols of prevailing belief or practice, and our determination to rewrite our laws according to our needs, all the while believing in the value of human life and that human beings can make a difference.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Judaism is the religion of Jews with religion. As such it is subject to five recognized major denominations, (Yes, five) in the USA and probably Canada. Most of the world, at least those in which there are some Jews left, are usually officially connected to some form of orthodox Judaism. Reform and Conservative are primarily practiced in the USA.
It is estimated that between 50 and 65% of those calling themselves Jews are unaffiliated with organized religion! The majorities of Jews, worldwide, practices no religion or are unaffiliated with any Temple or Synagogue.
When talking of Jews, I think it is a good idea to specify which definition of Jew or Jewish one means. Most anti Semites do not care what belief a Jew has. They just do not like Jews. I think a great deal of anti Semitism is not connected to religion at all. Of the six million rounded up and shipped off to death camps, no one asked about belief or membership in any organized aspect of the religion. It was based on the degree of Jewish blood one had. It is still true of the public perception of Jews. The Jews of Israel are not all religious but Israel is vilified because it is a Jewish state. It is apparent that Jews are thought of as a people or race apart from the rest of humanity. Jews are treated as if all shared some characteristics that set them apart from all others. In some cases the characteristics are complimentary and others are derogative but few bother to explain what they mean when they say “ Jews are…”. Religion is not a factor obviously.
Bob Poris

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