Monday, November 29, 2010

Orthodox Jews in Space

By Susan Esther Barnes

For many years now I’ve been a reader of a magazine called, “Analog Science Fiction and Fact.” I’m not a hard science kind of gal, and I don’t always like all of the stories in the magazine, but I find most to be well written, plausible, and entertaining. I find it a welcome way to take a short break from the more serious reading I do about Judaism and related subjects.

Imagine my delight when I thought the two areas that take up most of my reading time would come together when Analog published a story titled “The First Day of Eternity” by Domingo Santos, as translated by Stanley Schmidt. On the third page of the story it says, “Project Diaspora was originally conceived, developed and financed by the great Jewish lobbies of Earth as a second Exodus from the incomprehension of gentile societies, to spread Judaism throughout the Universe. So the pilgrims chosen for the first Diasporas … were all strictly Orthodox.”

I thought, “Cool, Orthodox Jews in space. If everyone on the ship is a strict Orthodox Jew, then they’re going to, for the first time in a long time, experience what it’s like to be in their own community without any outside influences or temptations. I hope they don’t need to do any important ship maintenance – such as to life support systems - on Shabbat!”

I suppose I should have been tipped off to the author’s lack of knowledge about Judaism when he went on to say the ship’s inhabitants “venerated the menorah” and “celebrated” rather than “observed” Yom Kippur, but on the title page the story says it was translated, so I set those issues down to a probable poor translation.

Setting aside any qualms I might have about the reference to the “great Jewish lobbies,” I thought, “Well, the author must know that the poorest group of people in Israel is not, as certain activists might have us believe, the Muslim Arabs, but it is the ultra-Orthodox Jews, because the men in those families spend all day studying Torah rather than earning a living for their families. So it must not be the ultra-Orthodox who are on the ship. It must be the Modern Orthodox, since they would be more likely to be able to raise the funds.”

I suppose maybe the Modern Orthodox and other Jews might be willing to raise money to send the ultra-Orthodox off in these ships, but that starts to smack just a little bit of people raising money to ship the Jews off in cattle cars. Maybe this story takes place so far in the future that the Jews have become de-sensitized to the horrors of the Holocaust, but we Jews have long memories, particularly about our collective tragedies.

It also struck me as particularly odd that the Jews would flee from “the incomprehension of gentile societies.” Are these Orthodox Jews giving up on being a “light unto the nations?” Sure, they’re supposed to “spread Judaism throughout the Universe,” but since the ship’s mission is to discover and colonize a new, unpopulated planet, this clearly isn’t about proselytization. Still, maybe they yearn for a chance for their children to grow up without gentile influences. I suppose that’s plausible.

But wait a minute. On the first page of the story, one of the inhabitants of the ship says, “We should give thanks to the god of the stars for that,” and a short time later adds, “and to the god of the ship for bringing us this far.” So, this ship full of formerly Orthodox Jews is now a ship of pagans? How did that happen?

The author explains that the ship’s computer decided to make itself a god, and over time influenced the ship’s humans to change their religion. On page four the story says the computer made itself “their prophet, the Moses of the new Exodus,” and goes on to say, “It was the ship, and the ship was it. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the electronic mystery of the Holy Trinity.” Uh, I’m sorry. I do try to suspend my disbelief when I read science fiction, but, frankly, I don’t think the author has any idea what he’s talking about.

Judaism is the world’s oldest living monotheistic religion. Jews are very accepting of the presence of other monotheistic religions. But Judaism has survived as long as it has because Jews are very good at not taking on the beliefs of the religions around them. After being surrounded by pagans in its early years and Christians for two thousand years after that, and not bending from the belief that God is one, there is no way a bunch of Orthodox Jews in a space ship are going to change all that to suddenly believe in a Holy Trinity just because their computer says so. Rather, if the computer started spouting religious nonsense at them, they would quickly recognize a flaw in the computer and immediately set their programmers to the task of fixing it.

It strikes me that the author must know very little about Jews. Perhaps he is unaware that every day, when we lie down and when we rise up, we say the Sh’ma, confirming that God is one. Perhaps he doesn’t know that throughout the space ship, on nearly every doorway (save the ones leading to the lavatories), there would be a mezuzah, and in each mezuzah would be a scroll with the Sh’ma, confirming that God is one. Perhaps he does not know that the Sh’ma is called “the watchword of our faith.” The last thing an Orthodox Jew would ever abandon is the understanding that God is one. This understanding was our greatest gift to the world.

According to the story, this complete change in religion took only seven generations, and then “the brain that was the ship rested.” Really? So a religion that has lasted thousands of years, through pograms, the Crusades and the diaspora, surrounded by other religions and by enemies sworn to wipe it out, suddenly crumbles, in less than seven generations, in a completely closed environment where everyone except the computer starts out as a “strictly Orthodox” Jew? I don’t think so.

Which leaves me wondering, why did the author chose to say the ship was paid for and populated with Orthodox Jews? His tale of the ship creating a religion for the people would have been much more plausible if the original ship inhabitants had been secular scientists without any strong religious beliefs to hold onto. Or even a bunch of people from a host of different religions who would undermine each other’s beliefs.

Why pick a homogenous group of people with the longest running, most resilient, most time-tested belief system? It seems like an incredible blunder, one that renders his story completely unbelievable before it even gets past page four. This is not the kind of mistake I’m used to seeing in Analog. The only explanation I have is that the author and the editor know so little about Jews that they don’t even start to have a clue about us.

Which leads me to suggest to them the oldest rule in the book for authors: Please stick to writing about what you know. And if you have to write about something else, please at least do some basic research first. Otherwise, you blow your credibility out of the water, and it’s hard for those of us in the know to take your writing seriously, no matter how good the rest of the story might be.


  1. You might really like some of the works of Avraham Davidson, if you can find them. There are a (very) few good sci-fi or fantasy works out there that somehow relate to Jewish history, or Judaism.

  2. lol susan this was an excellent synopsis, lesson *and* embedded words of wisdom all rolled into one tidy post! love. it! and point well taken, lady! :)

  3. Mordechai - Thanks! I'll have to look for some.

    Galit - Thanks, as always, for your encouragement.

  4. Zeesh, where's a good editor when you need one. :(

    Mordechai, thanks for the tip. My son's a sci fi fan (not to mention a Physics PhD candidate), and might enjoy it. But he'll get it second-hand, because his dear old mom will read it first!

  5. The sad thing is that the guy who did the translation is the editor of the magazine, so it didn't get that second check it might have otherwise received before it was published.

    Oh well, I guess we all don't know what we don't know.

  6. Susan Esther, great review. There were many other problems in that story. One thing I wanted to point out was the author's statement that they were Orthodox and that the menorah was the centerpiece of their dining rooms (I'm working from memory here). I'm pretty sure that in most Orthodox homes the Chanukah Menorah is not a year-round centerpiece. Also, the author uses the term "strictly Orthodox." What does that mean (as Susan Esther asks)? And what Orthodox Jew actually uses that term? I have been Charedi all my life, and I don't recall ever encountering an Orthodox Jew who has used the term "strictly Orthodox."