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Gonzo Judaism

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Excerpted from Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith (St. Martin’s Press, 2006)

Niles Goldstein is the founding rabbi of The New Shul in Manhattan and the author or editor of 7 books, most recently Gonzo Judaism (available on Amazon.com and in major bookstores everywhere). In this excerpt, the youthful “rebel rabbi” sounds a bold clarion call for change. By defining a provocative new approach to Judaism, Goldstein means to inspire the young and disaffected to embrace their faith anew.

One of the sure signs you’ve entered the world of gonzo is that you often find yourself feeling uneasy and agitated—not angry, so much as indignant toward the foolishness of the powers that be. Another is that you feel a deep cynicism and a biting urge to revolt, directly and personally, against the establishment causing your discomfort. You want to get off your ass and jump into the fray. You want to do battle with the Machine, whatever and wherever the Machine might be. I would argue that it’s been the gonzo impulse—the urge to rupture, rebel, revolt, take risks—that has served as the dynamic life-force of Judaism.

Hunter S. Thompson was the guru of the gonzo form of journalism in the Sixties and Seventies. What he fought was the dispassionate, “objective” approach to news writing that was so prevalent in his field at the time. Thompson’s approach to the stories he covered was intensely personal and opinionated—he embedded himself in everything he wrote about, from the violent Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang to the seedy culture of Las Vegas. He was outrageous and, not infrequently, offensive. Like the blast of a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah, Thompson’s words shook people up, kept them awake, and forced them to think and see in new ways.

That’s what a gonzo form of Judaism can do in our own era.

I first felt the gonzo impulse for myself a few years ago, when the Southern Baptists came out with a public statement in which they said that, as part of their continuing mission to spread the “good news” and try to win converts to Christianity, they would start to proselytize actively among members of the Jewish community. I was a freshly-minted rabbi and, at the time, still read all the Jewish papers and magazines. The reaction from the Jewish leadership was swift, uniform, and unequivocal. Full-page denunciations were published in major newspapers across the country. Familiar talking heads appeared on Nightline and throughout the national media:

Anti-Semitic Assault! Bible-Thumpers Coming After Our Sons and Daughters! A New Holocaust! If we’d only offer American Jews — especially younger and searching ones — a Judaism that was vibrant, inspiring, edgy, and joyful, no one would even be tempted to look elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance.

I was furious. Yet my outrage seemed to stand in stark disconnect from that of most other rabbis and executives of Jewish organizations, who demanded that Baptist and other Christian leaders denounce the plan. While I found, and find, the evangelical focus on proselytization to be highly problematic, even ungodly, the Baptists were just being true to their fundamentalist theology. I wasn’t mad at them—I was angry with us. Our real adversary wasn’t the Southern Baptist Convention, but ourselves. If we’d only offer American Jews—especially younger and searching ones—a Judaism that was vibrant, inspiring, edgy, and joyful, no one would even be tempted to look elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance.

I wanted to say both to the Baptists as well as to my colleagues: “Go ahead, come at me with your best shot. I’m standing my ground, and I’m standing it confidently and proudly. I’m not going anywhere.”

I felt the gonzo impulse again, even more intensely, with the release of Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” Though several years had passed since their open warfare with the Southern Baptists, the reaction of Jewish leaders was nearly identical. Angry protestations appeared in the papers and filled the airwaves and television screens. The usual suspects—the same individuals who’d spoken out against the Baptists—were interviewed by the press over and over again. What did they have to say about the film?

Anti-Semitic! Dangerous! A Recipe for Modern Pogroms!

Holy crap, I thought. What a waste of energy, time, and resources—all of which could (and should) have been put to better use creating the kind of Judaism our people so passionately craved. I offered some of these opinions to the press myself, but I was in the vast, almost silent (or ignored) minority. Then, in our celebrity-driven culture, there was the other burning question: Was Mel Gibson himself an anti-Semite? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. While his film, as most serious scholars noted, was a clear distortion of very murky historical events described in the Gospels, it was his film, and he had a right to make it. All our leaders ultimately did was give the movie the kind of publicity that studios only dream about. “The Passion” became an enormous Hollywood blockbuster, not in spite of the Jewish community, but in part because of it.

Even now, as time has passed and emotions have cooled, I have no idea as to whether or not Mel Gibson is truly anti-Semitic. I do think that, at a minimum, he’s shown himself to be an insensitive, arrogant schmuck for not having treated the complexities of the Gospels with more care and attention to nuance. Let’s build an American Judaism—both in and out of the synagogue—that is joyous, vigorous, vivacious, even audacious.

As a rabbi and as an American Jew, of this I am certain: we don’t want or need more of the same. I’m sick of watching the same hangdog, lachrymose faces of older men—and they’re invariably older and male—uttering their same reactionary, predictable, alarmist messages about what great, grave danger the Jewish people are currently in. Tough words? You bet. But somebody, especially a person in a position of Jewish authority, needs to say them. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

And I’m still in my freakin’ thirties, for God’s sake.

What we need for this next generation and century—and what we need desperately—are new faces and new voices. The messages must be different as well, in content and in spirit. Not the familiar messages rooted in insecurity and fear, but fresh ones grounded in confidence and celebration. Who in their right mind would want to be part of a religious community whose motto, based on its past behavior, might as well be “Come Survive With Us”? I, for one, don’t want to merely survive—I want to thrive. Let’s get the hell over our fears and anxieties about anti-Semitism, assimilation, and intermarriage. Let’s get out from under the shadow of the Holocaust. Let’s build an American Judaism—both in and out of the synagogue—that is joyous, vigorous, vivacious, even audacious.

I refuse to look cautiously over my shoulder; I’m staring straight ahead. And what I see is possibility. Wonderful possibility.

For many years, the mantra of the Jewish establishment was “Continuity, Continuity, Continuity.” But Jewish history itself proves that it has been discontinuity that has often led to the most profound, imaginative, successful, and long-lasting outcomes for our faith and our community. I would argue that it’s been the gonzo impulse—the urge to rupture, rebel, revolt, take risks—that has served as the dynamic life-force of Judaism.

The prophets themselves, from Isaiah to Hosea and beyond, all cried out—often with passion and fury—for radical changes in the biblical societies to which they belonged. Sometimes at great personal risk, they called truth to power. They advocated self-examination. They uncovered the nakedness of kings and shook the status quo to its very core. They shouted heroically and alone from the margins of their world, the edges of their communities.

Though a lot of contemporary Jewish leaders are worried about our future as a religious community, our own past seems to imply that we’ll be just fine. It’s not about numbers, and it never has been. In recent years, the heads of some of the Jewish movements debated in the press about which of them could claim more affiliated members. Who gives a damn? Two thousand years ago, in the tiny village of Yavneh, a small group of Palestinian rabbis boldly transformed the Temple-based religion they had inherited. In the sixteenth century, an even smaller number of Kabbalists in the Galilee (most of them in their twenties and thirties) reshaped the Sabbath liturgy into the form that is familiar to us now, whether we live in Fargo or Fez.

Size doesn’t matter. What matters is commitment and creativity.

We need that same commitment today, that same audacity and willingness to think—and act—outside the box. We need to reach the disaffected in order to construct new models and approaches to Jewish life. What we must create is a Jewish culture and community rooted in affirmation, joy, and celebration, not guilt, fear, and sentimentality. This is a historic, transitional moment in Jewish life, and our generation is living in it. We can act as spectators and let it pass us by.

And so the gonzo spirit must live on, the same spirit that motivated the prophets to lambaste their unjust societies and the mystics to daringly compose new prayers that have lasted for centuries. But now it’s our turn. We must be willing to enter the fray and fight. We must climb down from those Himalayan peaks, from the escapism of more “exotic” Eastern religions, and come home. Judaism will only change if we follow the lead of our forbears and change it ourselves. Are we up to this challenge? Are we willing to break from the herd and run with an alternative, unconventional, and sometimes brazen crowd? Are we brave enough to take risks, including the risk of failure?

Who knows what a truly revitalized and remodeled Judaism will look like—we may not know for decades or more, long after we’re dead and buried. But one thing is certain: this is an historic, transitional moment in Jewish life, and our generation is living in it. We can act as spectators and let it pass us by.

Or we can leap into the muck and mire of our imaginations, as well as our rich and profound religious heritage, and take a ride with the angels.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein has written for Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and many other publications. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Dateline, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. A black belt in karate who craves adventure, Niles has gone diving with sharks in the Great Barrier Reef and mushed sled-dogs in Alaska.
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