By Niles Elliot Goldstein
Hunter 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. 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, confrontational. Like the blast of the ram’s horn we hear during the High Holy Days, 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 for us today, in this era when most American Jews find their faith boring and irrelevant to their lives.
I first felt the gonzo impulse several 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 the Jewish community. 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!
I was furious. Yet my outrage stood in stark disconnect from that of most other rabbis and Jewish big wigs, who demanded that Baptist and other Christian leaders denounce the plan. I wasn’t mad at the Southern Baptist Convention, which was just being true to its fundamentalist theology—I was angry with us, the real adversaries in the situation. If we’d only offer Jews—especially younger and searching ones—a Judaism that was vibrant, inspiring, edgy, and joyful, rather than one that was fearful, defensive, ossified, and out of touch with the needs and desires of a new generation of Jews, no one would even be tempted to look elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance.
I felt the gonzo impulse again with the release of Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ” (and yet again after his alcohol-fueled rant in Malibu). Though some time 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 again. What did they have to say about the film and the man?
Anti-Semitic! We demand an apology! A Catalyst for Modern Pogroms!
Oy. What a waste of energy and resources—all of which could and should have been put to better use creating the kind of Judaism our people crave. All our leaders ultimately did was give the movie the kind of publicity studios dream about. “The Passion” became a Hollywood blockbuster, not in spite of the Jewish community, but in part because of it. The troubling truth is that whatever their intentions were, Jewish communal leaders turned out to be, once more, our community’s own worst enemies.
As a rabbi and an American Jew, of this I am certain: We don’t want or need more of the same. I’m sick and tired 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.
What we need are new faces and voices. The messages must be different too, in content and in spirit. Not the familiar messages rooted in insecurity and fear, but fresh ones grounded in confidence and celebration. Let’s get over our anxiety 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, vivacious, even audacious.
For 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, and long-lasting outcomes for our faith and our community. It’s been the gonzo impulse—to rupture, rebel, revolt, take risks—that has served as the life-force of Judaism.
The prophets, 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, like the High Holy Days themselves, urged self-examination. They uncovered the nakedness of kings and shook the status quo to its very core.
Though a lot of contemporary Jewish leaders are worried about our future as a religious community, our own past suggests we’ll be just fine. It’s not about numbers, and it never has been. We will always be a minority, and I could care less. 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 reshaped the Sabbath liturgy into the form that’s familiar to us now, whether we live in Fargo or Fez.
Size doesn’t matter. What matters is commitment and creativity. That is what has sustained us and kept us players on the world stage for millennia.
We need that same commitment today, that same audacity and willingness to think—and act—outside the box. We need to reach the disaffected, namely, most of us, in order to construct new models and approaches to Jewish life. Asking people to become more active Jews through the use of guilt; sending out alarming fundraising letters that imply there’s a knife-toting skinhead hovering at the corner; building Holocaust memorials in nearly every major city around the country—none of these things are going to make disinterested Jews want to embrace or pass on their Jewish identities and spiritual traditions. What we must create instead is a Jewish culture and community rooted in affirmation and celebration, not guilt, fear, and sentimentality.
As far as I’m concerned, the fiddler on the roof can take his fiddle and stick it where the sun don’t shine.