Judaism, Star Trek, and Subversive Thinking
Here is part of an email I received this morning:
Torah is true, or if Torah is not true, Torah is merely a storybook, a fiction no different than Star Trek. If Torah is merely a storybook, Jews are like Trekkies, dressing up in costume (yarmulke, tallit, teffilin), attending conventions (holy days), and centering their lives on a reality that exists only in their imaginations (Judaism). Whatever happened to the search for wisdom you are always talking about?
And here is part of my response:
I like your Star Trek analogy. But I understand it a bit differently. Rather than disparage Judaism for being like Star Trek and Jews for being Trekkers (not Trekkies), I would say we need to be more of both.
Back in the early 70’s professor Darko Suvin defined science fiction as a way of challenging societal norms and testing alternatives to them. He called this “cognitive estrangement,” and saw it as a act of subversive thinking. Star Trek is a narrative device for presenting just such ideas, and Star Trek gatherings can be a place for exploring and testing them. If we read Torah and Judaism as subversive philosophical critiques of contemporary society I think we would be getting back to the prophetic and iconoclastic core of what Judaism was and should be all about.
Sadly most Jews follow Samuel Taylor Coleridge rather than Darko. Coleridge argued that if a fantasy tale were compelling enough readers would suspend judgment and engage with the story on its own terms. He called this the “willing suspension of disbelief.” This is what happens at many Shabbat morning Torah study groups where students enthusiastically dive into the story but don’t stick around for Shabbat morning worship. While willing to suspend disbelief regarding Torah, they are not willing to do so regarding the siddur (prayer book). Torah study ala Coleridge demands that we accept Torah is true in its own universe, prayer demands that we do so in ours as well, and that requires a suspension of disbelief most Jews can’t make.
Judaism contains both approaches. Rashi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Gunther Plaut follow Coleridge’s approach by taking Torah at face value and elucidating the story within its own universe, while Maimonides, Moses de Leon, and Edmond Jabes follow Darko Suvin’s cognitive estrangement and use the trope of Torah to present ideas they believe relevant to our universe.
I think we need more Darko and less Coleridge. Live long and prosper.