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What does science fiction tell us about the future of organized religion?

by Rabbi Rami ShapiroSeptember 12, 2019
Columnists
Futuristic corridor SCIFI - stock photo

mik38/Gettty Images

“Can it be that Judaism will cease to evolve? Yes. The same is true of Christianity and Islam and any other religion that imagines a golden age that privileges the past over the present and the future.”

The future does not bode well for Jews.

I was channel surfing on my outmoded 1080p 30-something inch television the other day and landed on an episode of “Babylon 5.” The story was about Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova who happens to be Jewish. Her father had died on Earth and her rabbi, Yosel Koslov, came from Earth to assist her in sitting shiva, the traditional Jewish period of mourning. Rabbi Koslov, played by Theodore Bikel, looks like he just stepped out of central casting for Fiddler on the Roof (and indeed, he played Tevye, the lead character, on Broadway). Babylon 5 takes place in the mid 23rd century and yet the only rabbi the writers could imagine was a Russian, Yiddis- speaking Orthodox rabbi who looked just like my Orthodox rabbi back in the 50s and 60s.

Seeing Theodore Bikel on Babylon 5 reminded me that he also played Sergey Rozhenko, Lieutenant Commander Worf’s foster dad in an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” That one takes place on a Star Ship commissioned on October 4, 2363 or Star Date 40759.5. Clearly Judaism in the 24th century is no more creative than Judaism in the 23rd century, and both are imitations of Judaism in the 20th century.

I’m not upset that the writers of both series were fixated on a 1950s image of the rabbi; I’m upset because I fear they are right: Judaism in the future will look like Judaism in the past and the innovations of the present which are largely about style rather than substance will fade away as progressive Jews become progressive Buddhists and then (when they realize Buddhism is no less vulnerable to misogyny, xenophobia, and hate than any other patriarchal religion) abandon both Judaism and Buddhism to be become progressive secularists, leaving Judaism to the Rabbi Koslovs of the world for the next hundreds of years.

Can it be that Judaism will cease to evolve? Yes. The same is true of Christianity and Islam and any other religion that imagines a golden age that privileges the past over the present and the future.

When I started to write this essay, I wanted to be upset about this. I tried my best to be irate about the lack of imagination of the respective show writers. I tried to convince myself that they were wrong, that Jews would create a new Judaism that would be post halachic (editor’s note: That's the idea of a Jewish state governed by Halakha, or Jewish religious law), post supernatural, post patriarchal, post dualistic and no longer dominated by 

ill-fitting 1950 style dark suit wearing rabbis. But I failed. I think Judaism will survive into the 24th century, but only as a stale copy of the mid-20th century Judaism I grew up with in the 1950s and then grew out of by the end of the 1960s. 

Most Jews now and then will be like Susan Ivanova and Worf: ethnics (can a Klingon be an ethnic Jew? Jews will no doubt be arguing this in the 24th century) with no real attachment to Judaism. That is sad. And perhaps inevitable. At least inevitable if rabbis now and then continue to focus on how Judaism is delivered rather than what the Judaism is they are delivering.

If you think this essay is just for Jews, it isn’t. No progressive religion will survive the future with its head stuck firmly in the past. Jews are television’s canary in the mine.

Want more? Check out Rabbi Rami’s story on 21st century spirituality.

 


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. His spiritual advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addresses reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality.

He has this to say about religion: “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the mindset of the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”

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