Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Parable of the Spaceship

I just had another conversation with a person who tried to convince me that Orthodox Judaism is "outdated" and we should get rid of those "antiquated" rules and traditions.  So I decided this would be a good time to post my "Parable of the Spaceship" that I began telling several years ago: 

A spaceship filled with colonists takes off from Earth to settle on a planet circling a distant star.  The people on board do not yet have “warp drive” like on Star Trek, so this journey is going to take several centuries.  Generations will be born, live, and die aboard the ship, knowing nothing else but its interior as their entire world.

On board the spaceship are all the things the colonists will need to survive when they get to their destination; seeds for planting; frozen embryos of animals to grow upon arrival, and the laboratory equipment to do it; shelters to erect; machines for mining and manufacturing; instructions stored in the computer for how to farm, how to build, etc.  In short, all that is necessary to make a home on their new world is right there on board their ship.  And along with these things are very strict rules about how to care for everything during the long journey.

But as the generations go by, the practical knowledge about what these things are for begins to get lost.  The people have the videos, the photos, the diagrams and instructions – but now it all seems like a fairy tale.  And it also seems like a big bother to go through all those time-consuming, detailed protocols necessary to keep these things in good condition.  The new generations begin to wonder why they are wasting time and valuable space.  Insects?  Birds?  Trees?  What are they?  And why would we need them anyway, they argue.  We have everything we need already, including replicators to manufacture food and other goods.   So let’s just throw this useless junk out the airlock, delete unused files from the computer, and free up more room for us in the here and now.

Upon arriving at their destination, the colonists soon discover that they are missing vital instructions and materials for building their community – the very stuff they had jettisoned along the way.  How then can they survive outside the ship?  Some people don’t even want to leave the ship for the planet below.  All their lives they have lived inside familiar steel walls.  Now the wide-open sky, fresh air, and endless horizons are just too big and frightening.   So they remain inside.

Like the space colonists, we Jews are also on a centuries long, intergenerational journey.  Our operation manual is the Torah.  Every mitzvah has a purpose in the end – if we are far-sighted enough not to throw it overboard because it does not seem to have any value in the here and now.

And that, my dear fellow Jews, is exactly what many of us have done with the Torah’s teachings.   Living for generations within the confines of urban ghettos – the “ships” of our centuries-long history – we have sometimes thrown away things that are now very important for our well-being.  

Consider, for example, the fact that -- get this! -- psychologists and others are now recommending that we should "unplug" one day a week, to re-connect with each other as face-to-face families and friends.  That's something that religious Jews do every Sabbath!  (In fact, When Dr. Richard Besser on Good Morning America suggested this as a New Year's resolution in 2015, here's what I tweeted:  "Congratulations!  you just rediscovered the Jewish Sabbath!"  And he thanked me back.)

 The Sages of Pirkei Avot spoke wisely: We should be careful of every mitzvah, major or minor, even those that we do not understand or see as relevant to our own lives.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Was Hanukkah celebrated aboard the Enterprise?

Is there any reference to Hanukkah in Star Trek?  Christmas is mentioned a couple times ("Dagger of the Mind" in TOS and the movie Generations), but was Hanukkah ever celebrated aboard the Enterprise?

For years there was a persistent rumor that Hanukkah was mentioned on The Next Generation series.  I heard it myself back in the 1990s.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be an urban legend -- although one that is based on an understandable mis-hearing of the script.  There is a reference to a "Festival of Lights," but it wasn't Hanukkah.  In my book Jewish Themes in Star Trek, I wrote:

Candles lit for the Jewish
Festival of Lights
"On several occasions, while writing this book, I was told that a Hanukkah party had indeed been mentioned in The Next Generation series.  Unfortunately, the story turned out to be nothing more
than another urban legend.  Its source was apparently the same 1991 Hadassah magazine article [see below] that I mentioned in Chapter 1, which stated: 'In a recent show, the ship's log recorded the celebration of -- among other esoteric and arcane observances, including a sort of Klingon bar mitzvah -- Hanukkah.'

Candles lit for the Hindu
Festival of Lights
"The 'recent episode' referenced in Teitelbaum's article was 'Data's Day' (TNG), which aired that same year.  But the festival recorded by Data in the ship's log was not Hanukkah.  It was Divali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, which celebrates the god Rama's return to his kingdom. Teitelbaum had apparently heard the phrase 'Festival of Lights' (another name for Hanukkah), but missed the Hindu reference.  Still, if Divali is celebrated aboard the Enterprise-D, then it's reasonable to assume that Hanukkah is, too." (Jewish Themes in Star Trek, p. 30)


Hadassah is a major Jewish women's magazine, read by Jews of all denominations or lack thereof.  Unfortunately, their online archives do not go back to 1991, but if you have access to old print copies, the article was called "Is Star Trek Jewish?" by Sheldon Teitelbaum, and appeared in the December 1991 issue.   At that time, the episode in question was not yet released on VHS or DVD, so it's easy to understand how this error happened.  Teitelbaum mis-heard the log and had no easy way to double check it.  Apparently so many people then read his article that the "fact" of a Hanukkah celebration aboard the Enterprise entered the popular culture.  A generation later, it's still circulating.

I must admit that I was disappointed to find out there is no such reference -- at least not in canonical Trek.  (Alan Dean Foster's novelization of "The Ambergris Element" features the animated character  M'ress playing dreidel with her Jewish roomate at Starfleet Academy, but this scene was not in the actual episode.)  Still, if Scotty can wear a kilt and Worf can wear a Klingon sash, then why can't a Jew wear a yarmulke and light a menorah?  For that matter, why couldn't Jews get together on the holodeck for a Hanukkah celebration?

That would raise an interesting question:  Can you fulfill the mitzvah with holographic candles?  Probably not.  But we have seen Spock light real candles in his quarters, so that should not be a problem.  As for availability of candles in space, they could be replicated.

In fact, the lights would not have to be candles at all.  Nor must the menorah be the usual semi-circular shape.  Originally, rows of oil lamps were used, and some people today still use olive oil.  You can use anything to light the menorah, as long as it uses real fire (not electric bulbs, although the can be used as decorations to proclaim the miracle.)  The lights must burn the requisite amount of time (minimum of half an hour after sunset) and must burn out on their own (not blown out or otherwise extinguished) before the next night.

Which brings up another problem.  When is sunset on a spaceship?  My guess would be for the crew to do what Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon did for calculating the Sabbath aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia:  use Jerusalem time!  Just sychronize a chronometer with Israel back on Earth.

A decorative Star Trek Menorah with LED 
lights mounted on Trek Pez dispensers!  
(Courtesy of "The Evil Mad Scientist" website)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Orion launch brings back childhood memories of space race and missions

This morning I woke up at 5:50 AM, just in time to tune in and watch the launch of the Orion spacecraft at 6:05 (Central time).  This was both a big moment for NASA and a nostagic one for me.  The newscaster said this was the farthest out in space that the USA had sent a spacecraft since the last Apollo mission in 1973.  The thing is, I'm old enough to remember those Apollo flights, as well as the earlier Mercury and Gemini programs.

I grew up in the space era.  The sound barrier was broken by Chuck Jaeger on October 17, 1947, just 13 days before I was born.  (That was also the year of the supposed alien landing at Roswell in July.  It has always been a family joke that I'm weird because I got zapped by an alien mind beam.  I was in my mother's womb in California at the time, so who knows?)

Ten years later, Sputnik orbited the earth.  I can still remember the day that my father showed me the story in the morning paper.  The same paper had times listed for when you could see the tiny satellite cross the sky.  That was a big deal back then, as we went into the backyard to look for that pinpoint of light.

Then the space race was on, and every kid I knew (and a lot of adults, too) were tuned in to the space program.  Like everyone else, I went through a phase of wanting to be an astronaut.  That never happened, but I still fulfill my love of outer space with Star Trek and movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.  (I've lost track of how many times I've watched that movie, but I will say that Gene Kranz's line, "Failure is not an option!" has become a watchword around our house.  It's my favorite movie for how a group of people working together can achieve the seemingly impossible.)

"Earthrise" by Frank Borman
One of the interesting things about space flight back then was that the famous picture of Earth rising over the moon wasn't even on the original agenda.  Until the Apollo 8 astronauts actually saw that from the lunar orbit, nobody had thought to include it in the list of photographic goals because nobody could picture it.  But Frank Borman knew a good picture when he saw one, so he pointed the camera and clicked.  That photo -- as well as many others of the "blue marble" -- has become a universal symbol of the unity we might one day have on our planet.  It was no accident that the first Earth Day happened in April 1970, less than a year after the Apollo moon landing.

I was 22 and living in South Dakota when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969.  People today who claim the moon landing was faked don't know what they are talking about.  Sure, the pix are fuzzy, but that's because the cameras and transmissions back then weren't a good as today.  But for those of us glued to our TV sets during the live transmission, there was no doubt it was real.  Cynics ask who was taking the photos of that first step, but the answer is simple:  The Eagle lander took them, the same as there was a camera on board Orion that took pix of the earth receding as the craft rose into the sky, etc.  No, my conspiracy theory friends, the Apollo moon walk was very real.

Photo of Mars showing a thin atmosphere.
What else will we discover there?
Today's Orion mission was a test flight for new equipment -- including a heat shield and a re-design of the Mercury-type capsule -- that may eventually be used for a trip to Mars.  A lot of people will ask, why go there?  It's so expensive, what do we get from it?

True, it is expensive.  But the technological  advances we got from previous space missions have long since paid for themselves.  One example being those thin, light, but very warm materials we now use for so many things.  (I've got a pair of winter boot liners made of the same stuff as astronaut space suits.)  Learning to put satellites in orbit has given us GPS, cell phones, global communications.  Etc.  And the quest for lighter payloads has given us smaller and smaller electronics.

So who knows what we will learn from the Mars mission?  I say, let's go!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Spock's Vegetarianism: A metaphor for keeping kosher?

The following is adapted from an article I wrote back in 2005 for Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), about how Spock's vegetarianism influenced my own evolution toward giving up meat:

As I have frequently stated, I strongly identify with the Vulcan culture, and Spock most definitely had an influence on my becoming a vegetarian.  Exactly how much influence is hard to say, because I gradually evolved into a vegetarian over many years. I certainly did not grow up that way.  Like most Americans, mine was a family of carnivores, with plenty of chicken soup, pastrami, roast beef, and other meats.  When I graduated from high school in 1965, vegetarianism was the farthest thing from my mind.

A year later, Star Trek appeared on TV and, well, you all know that story by heart.  My initial reaction to Mr. Spock was "Wow!  Here's an intellectual genius who is actually respected by his peers!" You see, I went to public school (my working-class parents could never have afforded a private Jewish school) where I was very much the class nerd (called an "egghead" in those days). I was also a total klutz when it came to sports, and even worse than a wallflower at parties.  My high school yearbook designated me as "an interesting and challenging debater."  Knowing the attitudes of the "popular" people on the yearbook committee, I was pretty sure they meant it sarcastically.  But, like Spock, I took the put-down as a compliment.

Prior to Star Trek, every show or movie I had ever seen portrayed the "eggheads" as a bunch of bumbling buffoons who never did anything heroic.  At best, they were comic sidekicks.  At worst,
they were negative stereotypes.  Spock was different.  He was someone I could relate to.  And I did.

No, I didn't run right out and become a vegetarian.  My commitment to vegetarianism came years later, when my wife and I asked each other, "Do we really want a turkey this Thanksgiving?"  In between were over two decades of gradually giving up various animal foods, one by one.  But it was indeed Spock who first introduced me to the idea that meat-eating is something to be shunned.

From the very beginning, Spock's culture was conceived as being vegetarian. As Stephen Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry wrote in The Making of Star Trek (1968):

"A basic tenet of the Vulcan philosophy is nonviolence.  Vulcans do not believe in killing in any form. They may hunt for the skill involved in tracking but aeons ago ceased to kill the animal they are tracking.  As a vegetarian, the mere idea of eating animal carcasses, cooked or not, is revolting to Spock.  Even his vegetable diet is limited to the simplest of vegetable life forms."  (Whitfield and Roddenberry, p. 225)

The fact that Spock eats only vegetable foods makes him not only a vegetarian, but a vegan as well. For those who are not familiar with the difference, I'll briefly explain.  All vegetarians abstain from eating mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, sea creatures, insects, or any other species of the animal kingdom. Beyond that, there are several types of vegetarianism:

1. An ovo-lacto vegetarian eats eggs and dairy products.
2. An ovo-vegetarian eats eggs but not dairy products.
3. A lacto-vegetarian eats dairy but not eggs.
4. A vegan eats only vegetable products.

Elsewhere in Trekdom it is stated that Vulcans have a more highly-evolved society than Earth people, and their vegetarianism is a part of this cultural evolution.  In the mundane world of today, many vegetarians also believe that meat-eating is a form of primitivism that humanity will eventually evolve out of.  (Yes, I know, I just ended a sentence with a preposition -- something we should not up with put.)

Jewish vegetarians also point out that, in the biblical version of human history, our species started out as vegetarians in the Garden of Eden.  We only ate meat after descending into the depravity of the pre-Flood generations.  In the Messianic Age, these vegetarian Jews believe, humankind will return to the higher consciousness of Eden and give up meat.

I myself am an ovo-lacto vegetarian.  So far, I cannot be such a purist as Spock.  (Read more about that on my other blog...)  But I will say that giving up meat has greatly simplified my kitchen.  Most people are aware that Jews do not eat pork, but a kosher kitchen is far more complicated than that.  One of the basic rules is that meat and dairy products are never, ever served at the same meal.  They may not even be cooked or served in the same dishes.  If one eats both meat and dairy products, then one must have two complete sets of kitchen utensils.  (I won't go into why, but if you are really curious, check out this page  in the Jewish Virtual Library.)
Having a set-up like this is called "keeping kosher."  Removing the meat from the menu immediately simplifies things.  Without meat, there is only one set of dishes, and everything goes with everything else. Vegetables are neutral [called parve] and go with either meat or dairy. (Replicated foods, by the way, would be permitted, even if made from recycled meat left-overs, because the ingredients would first be broken down into their basic molecular components.  The replicator is basically a speeded-up, high-tech compost pile.)

In addition to having kosher dishes at home, a Jew who keeps kosher must also eat only kosher foods wherever he or she may be.  This is not always easy to do, because, if foods are cooked in non-kosher dishes, then the food itself is rendered non-kosher and forbidden.  This means that observant Jews cannot eat foods cooked in the homes of gentiles, which is often socially offensive.  The sharing of food is so basic to many cultures, that refusal to eat in someone's home is taken as a serious insult.

Spock's vegetarianism, too, is sometimes a social barrier, if not an actual threat to his very survival. We see this most clearly in the episode "All Our Yesterdays," where Spock is trapped in the distant past on a harsh arctic planet. Meat is the only thing available to eat. Spock recoils at the very idea, but has no choice unless he wants to starve to death, heaven forbid. So he eats the meat.  This is in line with Jewish law.  If one is literally in danger of starvation, then one may eat non-kosher foods during the emergency. When Spock returns to his own timeline, he resumes his vegetarian diet. The same would be true of a Jew who ate non-kosher foods under duress.

Most of the time, however, the problem isn't survival.  It's how to remain kosher without offending one's non-kosher hosts. In the novel Vulcan's Heart, there is a scene (pp. 17-18) where Spock is opening negotiations with an alien species called the Oriki.  Prior to this meeting, the Oriki had proved to be wary of strangers.  Previous attempts to contact them on behalf of the Federation had failed. For some reason, they are now willing to talk to Spock -- and only Spock.  Clearly this is a very touchy situation that calls for the utmost care in diplomacy.

Negotiations open with a ceremonial meal.  The food arrives, and includes a ritual plate of "thranaki" meat. But they know that Vulcans eat no meat, Spock thinks to himself. He recognizes this as a test of honor -- but which way?  Should he be a "flexitarian" and eat the meat to avoid offending?  Is it a test to see if he will violate his own traditions to respect those of the Oriki?  Or is it a test to see if he will hold to his principles at the risk of causing a diplomatic disaster?

Spock makes his decision. "Customs," he tells the Oriki delegation, "are important to all sentient beings. Indeed customs can be said to be one of the unifying facts that define a people."

The Oriki chitter among themselves in their own language, then fall silent. Spock continues, "We are in agreement. Excellent. Then you will understand that I honor your customs even more when I show respect for my people's own."

More chittering -- in approval. The offensive platter of meat is removed, and the Oriki ambassador steps forward. "Now we talk," he says.  Spock has passed the test.

I myself have been in so many similar situations as a Hasidic Jew,  It would take a whole book to recount them all. And it took a pair of Jewish Trekkers -- Josepha Sherman and Susan Schwartz -- to write this scene with such sensitivity.  If Spock's vegetarianism is a metaphor for keeping kosher (and I believe it is), then this scene typifies what it means to be both a Jew and a Vulcan: To remain true to the Path of one's own culture, while respecting the paths of others.

Live long and prosper!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Greetings, fellow Trek fans!

Rabbi as  "Captain Gershom"
An old photo of me as
"Captain Gershom"

The old website that hosted TrekJews went down a while back and, although I saved the pages and claimed "TrekJews" as a blog here, I kept procrastinating about getting  anything done.  There were just too many other projects on my plate.

But then I had to get something up here, because a few days ago I was interviewed by a columnist from the Jewish Daily Forward, who is working on a piece about Judaism and Trek.  Plus the URL is in my book, and  old links to it still exist all over the Net.   It was time to get rid of that dreaded "404 Page Not Found" message and point the URL to someplace real.  (Or at least, some place that exists virtually -- whether this blog is "real" or not will be up to you to decide.)

I'm still tweaking the layout, so this blog may look different from day to day until I get it right.  (Pasting in the old material creates some weird effects here, which are tedious to track down and correct, but my geeky brain is up to the task.  It's time I'm short on, since we are now in the middle of the Jewish High Holy Days....)

For now, you can go to the link launcher page, which is from the old website, now under "pages" on the menu at left.  It has links to lots of interesting Jews&Trek-related articles around the Net.  As of this writing I have not re-tested them all yet, but I'll get around to that soon, as well as add new ones.

I'll be adding more pages and re-posting articles soon.  And of course, writing new material.

Please follow this blog to receive updates as I post them.

Live long and Prosper!

P. S. If you are wondering WHY the old site went down, read Oy Vey! I'm being cyber-bullied by IDIOTS!" on my other blog.  TrekJews was a subdomain of  rabbigershom-dot-com, which got  identity-stolen.  There were so many links to it all over the Net that my only choice was to completely shut down the whole site.