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David Plotz: Why Is Judaism Such a Failure?

Friday, July 17, 2009 | Permalink

In his last blog, David Plotz, author of Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, noted how perturbed he was by the idea of alienation in Jewish religious practice, and asked the question: “Is it time to start worshiping idols?”

Author Robert Wright is too polite to ask directly, but The Evolution of God poses an awkward question for Jews. His book goes to great lengths to highlight the contributions each of the three Abrahamic religions have made to the development of monotheism: Judaism for inventing it; Christianity for turning it into a global business model; Islam for refining that model. What Wright never quite grapples with, but we Jews must, is the question: Why is Judaism such a failure?

OK, it’s true that we’re here and all the assorted Molechites, Baalites, Edomites, Canaanites, and other wicked -ites who bedeviled us in the Bible are nowhere to be found. So we can feel pretty good about that. But God told us we would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. We aren’t! If you believe the census data in the Torah — though I don’t — the Jewish population has grown only sevenfold in the last 3,500 years, a period during which the global population has multiplied more than thousandfold.

And just compare us to Christianity and Islam! They’ve got a billion-plus adherents each. And they’re growing like crazy, whereas if you can add a single Jew to the global roster these days, you’re practically hailed as a hero.

So where did we go wrong? (Incidentally, I’m doing my part: Three kids! All with nice Jewish names.) The Evolution of God gives a few hints, more about what the Christians and Muslims have done right than what Jews have done wrong. In the case of Christianity, for example, emphasizing brotherly love, piggybacking on the communities of the Roman Empire to expand, and ditching unpleasant entrance requirements (circumcision, dietary laws) all grew the business.

So why have we been so demographically unsuccessful? One important reason, of course, is that we’ve been repeatedly targeted for extermination. But there are others. We’re very finicky about whom we accept, and theologically, we’re pretty rigid. There are only a few varieties of Judaism, but there are practically endless varieties of Christianity, ranging from Orthodox traditions that encourage iconography to Catholic traditions that venerate Mary, to liberation theologies, to throwback Amish and Mennonites, to a Mormon offshoot that supposes Jesus came to America, to a Unitarian tradition that rejects the Trinity.

The monotheism of Christianity has one simple principle—accept Christ and his resurrection, essentially—and allows worshipers to customize the religion in practically any way they see fit. Speak in tongues! Pray to saints! Do a Latin mass! Do a punk service! Christianity has managed to crush or swallow so many other religions because it’s so adaptable.

We’ve managed to avoid being crushed or swallowed. But we’ve also decided not to compete. (Christianity is Toyota. Judaism is Ferrari.) Judaism largely refuses to adapt to local conditions. One of the oddest moments of my life was watching one Japanese Jew chew out another Japanese Jew for bringing a shrimp-flavored snack on a school field trip: It is almost literally an impossibility to avoid shrimp and pork in Japan.

The idea that our poor co-religionists in Tokyo have to sweat every snack food ingredient is deeply poignant. Our rigidity is a useful survival strategy in a difficult, unfriendly world. It strengthens in-group bonding, and enables us to defend our identities in far-flung places. But it also makes us almost uniquely ill-equipped to entice new adherents. To put it into Wright’s framework: Maybe our god isn’t evolving.

David Plotz is the editor of Slate magazine. His new book Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, is available now.

David Plotz: Is Monotheism for Jerks?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 | Permalink

David Plotz is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

There are the writers who succeed by arguing evolution exists and God doesn’t, and there are the writers who succeed by arguing God exists and evolution doesn’t. And then there’s Robert Wright, whose new book is The Evolution of God.

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of reading Wright’s earlier books—the monster bestseller The Moral Animal and Nonzero — won’t be surprised the ambition of The Evolution of God. The book aims to do nothing less than reframe the entire history of God in terms of game theory: Wright argues that ideas about god changed and evolved based on how much a society perceived it needed to cooperate with rival groups.

This is a blog post, so I don’t have time to do justice to his very rich, sophisticated, and witty elaboration of this theory. Instead, I just want to linger on his Jewish chapters, which I found both satisfying and deeply disconcerting.

I’ve just written a book about reading the Bible (Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, since you asked), and while I was doing it, I had to wrestle with a series of soul-disturbing questions. Why is God so awful most of the time? Why are the Israelites so stupid? Perhaps the most perplexing one was: Why are so many of the Bible’s heroes so unpleasant?

There was one kind of hero in particular who bugged me: The rabid monotheist. I realize that this is a peculiar thing to admit, given that Judaism did, after all, invent monotheism. Still, the nastiest Jews in the whole Bible—and I’m looking at you JoshuaIsaiahEzra, and Josiah—are the most enthusiastic warriors for Yahweh. Make no mistake: These guys are insanely devoted to God. They topple the altars of idolators, banish Baal-worshiping wives from Jerusalem, put to the sword every single man, woman, and baby in a Molech-loving enemy town, etc. The Bible clearly admires these zealots for their savagery in God’s name. I found them horrifying, and shameful. Why should I be expected to cheer while Joshua commits genocide?

Until I read Wright’s book, I never understood why the Bible is so keen on the monotheist jerks. And I couldn’t adequately explain my own discomfort with them.

Wright’s argument goes something like this: When societies are confident, and open to commercial and social relationships with neighboring tribes or kingdoms, they’re flexible about god. Wright describes this openness as a “nonzero” relationship: If we gain more than we lose by interacting with another society, then we’re likely to tolerate their religious beliefs. Even if they worship the “wrong” gods, we’ll overlook it, or maybe even find some way to fold their gods into our religion. Case in point: Solomon, who marries 700 foreign wives, and erects altars to their gods throughout Israel. The Bible views this heresy as a disaster; Wright sees the reverse: Solomon is a successful king who expands the borders of Israel and engages in profitable trading with his neighbors exactly because he welcomes their gods. In fact, Wright posits, our very own single God is in fact an amalgam of several gods — Yahweh, El — fused together to unite disparate groups.

Monotheism, in this reading, doesn’t represent progress, but rather an intolerant defensive response to an interconnected world. Josiah, Ezra, Isaiah, and Joshua, by contrast, are zero-sum thinkers, who choose a rabid, monotheistic nationalism rather than cooperation with mightier foreign empires.

You can understand why this would confuse me. As a citizen of such an interconnected world, I cherish the kind of nonzero sum tolerance Wright endorses: Ethnic mixing, permeable borders, less nationalism, more multiculturalism. Gods everywhere, and all good friends! Then again, as a Jew, I’m perturbed by the notion that Yahweh only gained power because Israelites cut themselves off from the world around them. Is it time to start worshiping idols?

David Plotz is the editor of Slate magazine. His new book Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, is available now.

PW Interviews David Plotz

Thursday, February 26, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Remember back in November when we told you about David Plotz’s Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible? Well the publication date is finally upon us (March). Check out his Publisher’s Weekly interview here.

And stay tuned for a review of this title in the Summer issue ofJewish Book World.

First There was A.J., and Then There Was

Thursday, November 06, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

For all of you followers of A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) and Benyamin Cohen (My Jesus Year), here’s another one for your shelves…Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible (David Plotz) coming out in March from Harper Collins. Plotz, the editor of Slate, who classifies himself as “proud but not very observant Jew . . . with a healthy familiarity with the Bible and its core ideology, main prayer, and moral dictates,” began his journey on the pages of Slate, where he emabarked on a year-long project “Blogging the Bible." Good Book=the full length investigation of this initial venture into the waters of the Bible. Through his investigation Plotz finds himself considering some of life’s most important questions: How many commandments do we actually need? Does God prefer obedience to good deeds? Why are so many women in the Bible prostitutes? Why does God love bald men so much? And…of course… To believe or not to believe….that is the question.