I’ve thought a lot about morality in 2020. It’s been hard to be an American and not think about what we as human beings owe. But then it was also the year I converted to Judaism.
It was a long time coming, and my motivations were broader than a simple search for morality. At that time, I had been with my Jewish husband for almost 15 years, slowly getting sucked into the culture. I am a bookish person who likes to learn, which fits well with the importance that Judaism places on study. Judaism allows a little pushback against God himself, which appeals to my annoying and skeptical side. And it’s full of messages about uplifting the oppressed, seeking justice, and healing the world, that resonate with me after 18 years of professional legal writing.
But you don’t just sign up to become a member of the chosen people. There is a process that requires a lot of study. I also started to attend services regularly in order to learn the prayers. Doing these things exposed me to a lot of ideas about moral behavior – how we should treat each other and what we can learn from the people described in the Torah and the books of the prophets.
During this process in the summer of 2020, I realized that I crave moral behavior. The pandemic had pitted individual rights against the collective good, and heated debates were everywhere. A police officer had killed a black man in Minnesota for no clear reason, on video, and people who took to the streets to protest were beaten or herded into unmarked vans by their own government. A depressing number of Americans felt this was appropriate behavior – and a few used guns to make their case.
I believe we can be better than that, because I’m a fan of star trek, full of moral questions. As Harry Kim once observed in Traveler‘s “Prime Factors”, there’s a reason the prime directive is Starfleet’s number one general order. Prime Directive tells Starfleet officers not to interfere with the natural development of other cultures, and a ton of episodes revolve around the struggle of whether and how to enforce it. Moral ideals make great television when they clash with different ideals and the characters have to work to agree on something like unjust execution, or an android’s rights versus a human’s.
It’s not just the first directive. When I first looked The next generation in adolescence, it seemed that each week brought a new planet accompanied by a moral dilemma. The whole premise of Traveler (which I first watched this spring) is that Captain Janeway doesn’t want to let the Kazon destroy the Ocampa in order to preserve his crew’s chances of returning to the Alpha Quadrant. At Deep Space NineIn the two-part “Past Tense,” Commander Sisko rages through the sanctuary neighborhoods of 21st-century Earth, where the homeless are left to fend for themselves, and throughout the series, Major Kira faces off against repeatedly the moral fallout from the Cardassian occupation of Bajor.
In nearly every one of these situations, the characters do what they think is right, even when it conflicts with what others want, their emotional desires, or their other values. A world run by dedicated, sincere people who try to do the right thing even when it’s hard? Sign me up. But it doesn’t exist. I can’t fly to San Francisco and enlist in Starfleet.
Instead, I joined the Jews. Judaism imagines this kind of ideal future, in which the righteous enjoy a world of peace and prosperity, calling it olam ha-ba – “the world to come”. It won’t happen until the Messiah comes, so it’s our job to work on it by healing the broken world we live in (tikkun olam).
Another important parallel between star trek and Judaism is that they see smart people as heroes who solve problems with their minds. The Jews are the original people of the book, and we have a rich tradition of studying, analyzing and debating our religious texts. Understanding all of this gives you a certain social status; “rabbi” literally means “teacher”. Likewise, while Trek equips its characters with photon torpedoes, its engineers and scientists save the day much more often, figuring out a problem just in time.
These are values that I want to live by. I’m not saying that I always succeed, by the way. Being Jewish doesn’t make me a better person; it gives me a framework to think about why and how to be a better person. And it gives me access to a rich history of people who thought long and hard about it, then debated it so they could think about it more.
The arc of the moral universe is long – very long, if you’re stuck in the Delta Quadrant – but we can bend it toward justice. For me, being Jewish is part of that process.
Lorelei Laird (her) is a freelance writer specializing in law and other difficult topics that require clear explanations. She lives in Los Angeles with her family, and you can find her at www.wordofthelaird.com.