Last night marked the start of the celebration of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. In anticipation, several days earlier, I began rereading a book I’d acquired several years ago, Nothing Sacred, a controversial work by media critic Douglas Rushkoff that seeks 21st century meaning in the traditions and texts of Judaism.
Rushkoff argues that Judaism is “a religion dedicated to media literacy” — an approach to deconstructing, analyzing and questioning media’s messages — which offers digital-age lessons in participatory democracy for the secular world.
He points to Judaism’s core practices:
Judaism is a religion dedicated to media literacy. The initiation to adult practice is not an act of faith, but a demonstration of literacy called a bar (or bat) mitvah…Jews have to be able to not only read the text, but also understand what it means…
Further, Jewish rituals require community participation. The Torah scroll cannot even be read unless ten people — a minyan — are present. This was a safeguard against isolation and its destructive impact. If only such priorities were used in the media space, where an isolated, self-doubting viewer is considered the most valuable target for markets selling on TV or the Web.
In an undated interview with the Jewish Public Forum, Rushkoff observed,
The fact that Jews are not supposed to read the holy texts alone – we’re not even supposed to read the Talmud by ourselves – is also fascinating. It forces us to be social and interactive with our stories and laws, rather than alone with them. It’s more like participating in a chat room or newsgroup than sitting passively on a Web site. We can maintain some critical distance. We are invited to think and comment. The text is kept alive. Transparent.
In Rushkoff’s world, Judaism’s traditions translate into lessons for 21st century citizens. We all bear responsibility to remake ourselves into knowledgeable, literate consumers of modern media who can analyze and decode its messages and gain resistance to propaganda and distortions of fact. Discussion and constant questioning, not blind-faith acceptance, are essential to uncovering truths and debunking false claims, whether in spiritual practices or political ones.
Today, as a new year begins, as the U.S. faces financial chaos, and a presidential election looms just weeks away, I pause for a moment to consider how Rushkoff’s insights on Jewish traditions apply to the secular texts that are the foundation of American democracy — our Constitution, our laws — as well as to the cacophony of messages through media — TV, radio, print, web — that seek to sway us.
Rushkoff of course is right: to participate fully, to be engaged citizens, we must demand media literacy of ourselves (and also, I would hasten to add, of those who would lead us). We must be literate enough to decipher the messages that shape our lives and our decisions — at the moment, the choices we Americans will make in the voting booth in November.