Concluding the semester with the readings by Jonathan Sacks and William Tenn is a great way to not only wrap up the course, but also to allow us to contemplate the future of Jews and Judaism.
Throughout history, Jews have suffered hatred, persecution, and death (Crusades, Pogroms, the Holocaust, Pittsburg’s Tree of Life Synagogue) simply because they identified as Jews. Yet, they have somehow managed to survive and thrive. Perhaps, shockingly, even now, in a modern, highly educated, sophisticated technologically driven world, antisemitism remains strong and seems to be on the rise. Jews are still attacked and persecuted for being Jews all around the world. Israel, the Jewish state, is seemingly under constant siege, surrounded by enemies (Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas) who call for its destruction. In Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty First Century, Jonathan Sacks acknowledges the somber current reality facing Jews and Israel but delivers a positive “road map” for the contribution of Jews and Judaism for the betterment of the world. Judaism’s inherent belief in faith, renewal (“Tikkun Olam” – repairing the world) and hope are central to his theme and the basis for his being optimistic about the future.
Sacks suggests that rather than shy away and retrench in the face of Jew-hatred, Judaism’s past and future contributions to humanity are essential elements for the future well-being of humanity. Sacks posits that “Jews must take a stand, not motivated by fear, not driven by paranoia or a sense of victimhood, but a positive stand on the basis of the values by which our ancestors lived and for which they were prepared to die: justice, equity, compassion, love of the stranger, the sanctity of life and dignity of the human person without regard to colour, culture or creed. Now is not the time to retreat into the ghetto of the mind. It is the time to renew that most ancient of Biblical institutions, the covenant of human solidarity made in the days of Noah after the Flood. Without compromising one iota of Jewish faith or identity, Jews must stand alongside their friends, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh or secular humanist, in defense of freedom against the enemies of freedom, in the affirmation of life against those that Sacks argues that faith “is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty…The Jewish people are ancient but still young; a suffering people still suffused with moral energy; a people who have know the worst fate can throw at them, and can still rejoice. They remain a living symbol of hope.”
The book sends a powerful message, that faith, renewal, and hope, which are the prime tenets of Judaism, can elevate mankind. The faith that is so embedded in Jewish survival according to Sacks, “inspired not only Jews but also Christian’s and Muslims, whose religion grew in Jewish soil, as well as others who respected the Jewish love of family, community, education, tradition, the pursuit of justice, the passion for argument and the Jewish sense of humor that can laugh in the face of tragedy. I believe that’s this is not accidental. Judaism was never meant for Jews alone. It contains a message for all humanity…” The message is one of love, peace, and equality. The late artist, John Denver’s lyrics (from Season Suite: Spring – a song my father played frequently), “rejoicing in the differences, there’s no one just like me, yet as different as we are, we’re still the same.” Indeed, this inspiring message is steeped in the very essence of Judaism. As a result, according to Sack’s narrative, Jews should not hide in the shadows, and isolate, but rather, motivate and inspire and be part of the contemporary conversation. That of course, requires Jews to be free to say what they believe and not fearful.
Sacks suggests that much of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s inspirational message for freedom emanates from Judaism (the Old Testament and prophets). In Dr. King’s extraordinary “I have a Dream” speech, “he quoted at length from Isaiah, 40:4-5, the passage Jews read on the ‘Sabbath of Consolation’: ‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together….With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’ At the time, Dr. King knew his life was in danger and “reminded his audience of the last day of Moses’ life. Moses knew that he would not himself be able to cross the Jordan, to which he had led the people forty years…. We’ve got some difficult times ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain-top…And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.’ King’s “prophesy” of faith, renewal and hope were drawn from Judaism and central not only to its past but as Sacks suggests, its future as well. Like the title of Dr. King’s famous book, “The Audacity of Hope” the Jewish narrative is one of hope.
Sacks reasons that to understand how Judaism is foundational as a faith (a faith which Sacks contends belongs not to Jews alone but to be shared by everyone) to shape a better future, it is necessary to understand how Judaism differs from other faiths. He points to “four strange, highly distinctive features of Judaism as a faith.”
The first he describes, is based on the Biblical story of Moses encountering God at the burning bush. When Moses asks God how he can describe God to the Israelites, according to many translations, the response is effectively, “I am who I am, I am what I am or I am- that is who I am.” Sacks points out that these are mistranslations. The correct translation should be “I will be what I will be,” which suggests that “God cannot be predicted or controlled.” This implies that the future will be different than the present or past and God will adapt accordingly – and so too, will the Jewish people. In essence, the true concept of God is not connected solely to the past (as in many religions) but the future as well. This in turn enables the concept of faith, e.g., God will be with me always.
The second element particular to Judaism, according to Sacks, is a sense of time. The ancients’ concept of time dealt with things cyclical such as the seasons (for planting, for harvesting, etc.). The Jewish sense of time is unique in that it applies to “change, progress, development, advance and originality.” In other words, Judaism is not a static religion, but one that puts an emphasis on the future. It is the embodiment of a better world to come.
Sacks’ third point of differentiation deals with the “nature of Jewish narrative.” Judaism, as Sacks suggests, starts with a compilation of stories. The Bible begins with the creation, morphs into Abraham and his story of faith, and the myriad of parables from Abraham and his children through Moses and the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. It continues with the stories of Prophets and Kings. One can glean from these stories that the Jews were seemingly always on the move, through the history of the diaspora, reclamation of a Jewish State and surviving and thriving through time, notwithstanding all the potholes along the way. The Hebrew Bible, like life, “is a story without an ending.” Sacks says, “in Judaism, we are always in the middle of a story whose ending lies in the future.” That narrative is what lies at the heart of the Jewish condition. The narrative is one of survival and it contains everything from tear jerking stories to humor even in the face of horror.
Finally, Sacks’ fourth of Judaism’s unique ideas is that “it is the only civilization whose golden age is in the future.” Judaism, according to Sacks, “invented the messianic idea.” To that end, he says that what differentiates Judaism from Christianity is that Judaism does not believe that the messiah has yet come. He summarizes that Judaism has four remarkable, related ideas that differentiate it from others and provide the basis for: a God whose name is in the future tense, a future-oriented concept of time, a literature whose stories always end in a future-not-yet-reached, and a golden age which belongs to the future.
Rabbi Sacks acknowledges that “Jews today face clear and present dangers. Antisemitism has returned in a fourth mutation (Sacks classifies four specific historical events or periods as stimulating antisemitism, e.g., 1) as Christianity evolved, Jews did not recognize it, thus becoming a source of hatred, 2) Massacres of Jews during the first Crusades in and around the year 1096, 3) The so-called period of Enlightenment in Europe in the nineteenth century and 4) the current antisemitism which is a mutant form of anti-Zionism), using the new media to globalize hate. The State of Israel faces relentless hostility on the part of its enemies, not to this policy of that but to its very existence as a non-Islamic, liberal Democratic state. Neither of these phenomena is as yet a mass movement; they are confined to small groups of extremists. But the extremists have learned how to use the new media to inspire widespread fear, and that is what Jews feel today.” In addition, “the Jewish people are internally weakened, by assimilation and out marriage on the one hand, divisions and factionalism on the other…. Antisemitism has been a recurring feature of Jewish history. Jews are no strangers to the danger.”
Sacks implies that Jews will have to find a way to live and thrive within the present world despite these impediments. Antisemitism is not going away. But for Jews to thrive and not just survive, Sacks argues that “something must change in Jewish hearts and minds: the sense of isolation, sometimes proud, sometimes fearful, that comes from seeing yourself as “the people that dwells alone ‘’. If Jews allow themselves to become complacent or become isolated, he reasons, “it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jews will find themselves alone.” Combatting this will require an internal change (Jews will have to learn to have pride in themselves and not permit those who hate Jews, Israel, or Judaism, to bring them down) but also an ability to continue to inspire others to live a life based on the formational tenets of Judaism.
Again, faith, renewal (Tikkun Olam) and hope for a better future are, as Sacks asserts, for everyone, not just the Jews or Israel. These are the central tenets that Judaism has contributed to the world in the past and the same values that Jews and Judaism must contribute to the world in the future.
Meanwhile, William Tenn’s “On Venus, have we got a rabbi!” is a satirical story about Jews in the future. Accordingly, TV repairman, Sholom Aleichem Milchik tells an interviewer from Earth about Jewish life on Venus. Throughout the interview, Milchik makes jokes, talks about his wife’s complaints over their children not being married, mentions instances of antisemitism, touches on the status of Israel and the Neozionist movement, and speaks about religion and struggles within the Jewish community. The main focus of the story revolves around what it means to be a Jew.
One day, Milchik goes to the bathroom and sees three creatures in the bathtub, which he describes as “brown pillows, all wrinkled and twisted, with some big gray spots on this side and on that side, and out of each gray spot there is growing a short gray tentacle” (24). Milchik’s son, Aaron David, comes into the bathroom and tells his father that the creatures are the “Bulbas,” who are the Jewish “delegates from the fourth planet of the star Rigel” (25). In a state of disbelief, Milchik claims that they cannot be Jews since they do not “look Jewish,” and decides to attend the Interstellar Neozionist Conference along with the Jewish representatives across the galaxy (25). Undoubtedly, the question of whether the Bulbas are Jews was the main topic of debate at the Conference. First, the Committee Chairman asserts that the Bulbas cannot be Jews because they are not human. In response, Aaron David (who acts as the interpreter for the Bulbas) points out that there is nowhere in the Jewish texts where it is written that Jews need to be human. The Deputy Chairman responds with the argument, according to the “most fundamental definition of a Jew” is someone who is a “child of a Jewish mother” (27). Subsequently, the Bulbas insist that their mothers are in fact Jewish and propose that they can provide their birth certificates. As a result, arguments – both verbal and physical – erupt throughout the hall. In the midst of the chaos, one Bulbas climbs to the platform and recites the line from a Jewish prayer, “Modeh ani l’fonecha” (28). From this statement, the Bulbas mean to declare that they are Jews and demand from the other representatives whether they are accepted as Jews. In an attempt to answer the question of “what is a Space Age Jew,” the Congress turns to the High Rabbinical Court (29). Among the appointed members of the Court is the “Great Rabbi” of Venus, Rabbi Joseph Smallman.
During the trial, the Bulbas shared their story of how they ended up becoming Bulbas. According to their history, the Bulbas had been part of the Jewish community in Paramus, New Jersey and were “expelled to make way for a new approach to the George Washington Bridge” around seven or eight hundred years ago (31). This Jewish community fled to the fourth planet of the star Rigel, where the native Bulbas were already living. The Bulbas welcomed the Jews, and both communities flourished for a period of time. However, as the nation grew, the Bulbas began to blame the Jews for the wars, depressions, and dictatorships that ensued. As a result, the Bulbas persecuted the Jews throughout the years, and eventually stopped apologizing. Despite the years of pogroms and oppression, Jews remained and “continued their religious studies” (33). Finally, the current Rigel government “restored citizenship to the Jews and allowed them to send a delegation to the Neozionist Congress” (33). After all of this time, the Jewish community looked the same as the lowest class of Bulbas. Yet, the Bulba discovered that Jews throughout the galaxy blended into their environments as well (the black Jews in Ethiopia, blonde Jews in Germany, blue Jews, etc.) (33). Despite various interruptions, the Bulbas demonstrated that they were Jews through the evidence of their genealogical charts. Still, members of the Court did not believe that this was possible due to their understanding of biology. In a discussion about the case, Milchik’s brother argued that the Bulbas should convert to Judaism if they want to be Jews, but Milchik protested that it would be a “shameful mockery” to convert individuals who are already Jews (35). As he thought about it, Milchik’s brother questioned how Bulbas practice circumcision, to which Aaron David responds that the Bulbas “cut off a very little bit from the tip of their shortest tentacle” (35). After further discussion and debate about who is a Jew, Rabbi Smallman reached a final judgment. From the evaluation of instances throughout Jewish history, the court determined that the Vegans (aliens that persecute Jews and do not allow Jews into Israel) belong in the category of “goyische” aliens, or gentile aliens (39). Following that logic, if there can be goyische aliens, then there can be Jewish aliens. Since there are in fact aliens who live like Jews, face the same problems as Jews, and practice the same religion as Jews, there can be alien Jews. Therefore, the Bulbas are considered Jews, but they are placed in a separate category. Like most decisions, there were both positive and negative reactions on all sides. However, before they could begin their work, the Viceroy of Venus terminated the Congress for taking “too long” and “stirring up bad feelings” (39).
Ultimately, Rabbi Smallman becomes a celebrity of Venus and Milchik’s son, Aaron David, is able to attend a yeshiva under the funding of the Bulbas. With his son’s plans to move to become a rabbi in Rigel and the lack of plans for a wife, Milchik suggests that perhaps his future grandchild may be a Bulbas. In accord with the satirical tone throughout the story, Milchik concludes the interview with: “Let’s talk about something cheerful. How many people would you say were killed in that earthquake on Castillo?” (40).
Evidently, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty First Century and “On Venus, have we got a rabbi!” highlight many of the key themes we have studied throughout the semester. For example, both of these stories tell the Jewish story (including the covenant with God) and delve into the hardships and instances of antisemitism that Jews have faced – and continue to face – since the beginning of Jewish existence. Whether by humans or aliens, both Sacks and Tenn agree that antisemitism has always been present and is not going away. Yet, Sacks claims that instead of isolating themselves, Jews must have faith (in God and themselves) and engage in Tikkun Olam in order to thrive and make the world a better place. Tenn, on the other hand, appears to be more skeptical about the ability of Jews to be involved in the world. Even on another planet, Jews experience persecution and the history of pogroms and concentration camps continue. Perhaps, Tenn would suggest that Jews would be better off on their own planet far away from the rest of the universe. While I understand Tenn’s skepticism, I would like to believe that Sacks’ hopeful vision for the future is possible.
While the tension between the racial, ethnic, or national and the theological aspects of a Jewish identity is not new to modern or postmodern times, the rift between the two certainly has increased. Tenn’s story about the Bulbas may seem extreme, but it exemplifies the issues that Jews face in modern times and in the near future. As the world advances, we will need to consider the question of what it means to be a Jew even more than we do today. Hopefully, we can incorporate Sacks’ hopeful vision about the Jewish future and approach the upcoming struggles with kindness and understanding.