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Is Foundation Jewish?

 

When I was in yeshiva, Isaac Asimov once facilitated a bonding moment between me and a senior kollel fellow. In the course of making a socio-religious point, the scholar cited a minor Asimov plot line. Forgetting myself for a moment, I immediately blurted out the precise book (if I recall correctly, A Pebble in the Sky) and character details. The rabbi looked at me knowingly, nodding and smiling at the fellow Asimov fan.

Clearly, I had been a nerdy teenager, spending most of my free time reading Asimov books over and over. However, I somehow avoided any obsession with comics even though some of friends were thoroughly hooked on the genre. To me, comics were too few words for a book but not as visual as a movie. My fascination lay in science fiction, specifically Asimov.

When I received Harry Brod’s Superman Is Jewish?, I flipped through it and saw a lot of discussion about–no surprise–comics. The subject is only mildly interesting to a non-enthusiast like me. At least to my cursory read, Brod seems to designate vague, very general and common attitudes as inherently Jewish. It seem like too much of a stretch for me but I haven’t devoted enough time or thought to the subject to afford any value to my opinion (see here for a real review: link). I was just going to put the book away when something caught my eye… a discussion of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

Originally a trilogy, the Foundation series was among the most famous science fiction books of the twentieth century. Decades later, Asimov added more books to the series that, in my opinion, did not live up to the originals. The story revolves around a colony started by a scientist–part actuary, part sociologist–who mathematically predicts the decline of the Galactic Empire into barbarism. The Foundation, on the outskirts of the galaxy, is intended to preserve culture and eventually, based on mathematical predictions, restore a Galactic Empire after a thousand years. It was a bastion of truth in a topsy turvy universe, quietly maintaining sanity despite the majority, outside culture.

Brod suggests that Asimov’s cultural (albeit Atheist) Judaism seeped into this story (p. 51):

As for the Jewish themes of the work, many of the different elements of Jewish thought we’ve discussed are seamlessly merged in Foundation. The story hinges on the intelligibility of history, on the discovery that behind seeming chaos and unpredictability there lies the unfolding of a discernable trajectory where the uninformed would see only disconnected and perhaps meaningless events. The reader’s engagement with the story requires only faith in reason, not the suspension of disbelief required by fantasy. The combination of Jewish commitment to rationality, embodied for modern consciousness in science, the Jewish idea of meaning unfolding in history, and Judaism’s messianism make futuristic science fiction a natural avenue of exploration for the Jewish imagination.

Given my background and interests, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Jewishness of Foundation. I don’t consider most of the themes Brod enumerates as particularly Jewish but I think his final theme–messianism–is worthy of consideration. What follows is my somewhat different Jewish interpretation of Foundation.

The Foundation is an outpost of culture, an oasis of right-thinking in a barbaric world. I always saw this as a rough metaphor for the Jewish people in exile. Over the centuries of widespread pagan and barbaric beliefs and practices, we Jews kept to ourselves as much as possible and maintained our ancient truths and attitudes. We served as outposts of culture and literacy throughout the Dark Ages, maintaining God’s truths despite the widespread decadence. Even today, in a technologically advanced world, we maintain morality and belief while society descends into hedonism. We are a light among the nations, even when they choose to live in the dark and even when they try to extinguish our flame.

I find it hard to believe that Asimov the Atheist planted this metaphor. But it still strikes me as a viable, if unintended, interpretation.

 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

33 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    Egad-you are a closet Asimovphile and I never knew it! The key points to me iirc (50 years is a long time)were that an unpredictable individual threw off all the actuarial calculations and that the farthest away place is really right next door (maybe that also solves spooky action at a distance?)
    KT

  2. Larry Lennhoff says:

    The major place I see potentially intentional references to Jewish attitudes in Foundation is right at the start.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “Is Foundation Jewish?”

    Is this a Torah Musing? I was not expecting to read this kind of thing on this site. I am totally uninterested in this post.

  4. ACB says:

    Great post!

    I do not remember the details of Foundation well enough to comment specifically, but some points about Asimov’s writing:

    - The generally positive attitude of people, and their inherent “goodness” seem (to me) to be Jewish

    - The general value and positive attitude towards robots man me think of the Golem

    - In Asimov’s fantasy/mysteries he had a character Azazel

    - Regarding the short story “The Last Question” – To what extent is the ending avoda zara or, very broadly, does it accept the existence of Hashem?

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    If I wanted to, I could write a book about Jewish elements in:
    The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, the Twilight Zone and Sherlock Holmes novels. But would that be the best use of my time?

  6. Baruch says:

    Interesting idea. Although, was there widespread decadence in Medieval times?

    In general, I agree with your critique of “Jewish” themes in comics and elsewhere. It’s a huge stretch. Most of the themes are human rather than specifically Jewish. And even the ones that are Jewish are usually Christian (which of course was influenced by Judaism 2,000 years ago).

  7. Kevin says:

    Mr. Cohen, only Hashem, you, and possibly your wife (if you have one)know what the best use of your time might be. But if none of the foregoing object, why not write it?

  8. Moshe Shoshan says:

    The was an article in one of the early issue of JRB about how Sci fi is Jewish and Fantasy Goyish. it was very interesting.
    Think Foundation is Jewish like Communism is Jewish.

  9. Avrohom says:

    Mr Cohen,

    Maybe if you write it, you can be mechaper on the time you spent reading them :) because then at least your reading them will have been the cause of you doing some Jewish learning.

  10. Jon Baker says:

    For overarching theme, your source seems reasonable

    For a specific story element, this theory is due to Dr Richard Friedman: Consider the first story, where Hari Seldon (and his assistant Gaal Dornick, both Jewish-sounding names) arranges with the rulers of the Empire to allow him to set up the Foundation in a remote location, to preserve Galactic culture and knowledge during the thousand-year interregnum. Richard speculated that this episode (written for the novelization) was based on the story of Rabban Gamliel sneaking out of Jerusalem, going to Caesar, and asking for “Yavneh and its sages” where Torah could continue in a remote location.

    Richard asked Asimov about this, shortly before Asimov died, and he responded that it wasn’t conscious influence, but that he might have heard the story as a child growing up, and it would have become a plot point that way.

    So yes, others have noticed Jewish elements (beyond the occasional character name) in Foundation specifically.

  11. Isaacson says:

    Rav Matis Weinberg once articulated a parallel between the theme of Foundation and setting up yeshivot in Mitzrayim. The idea being that the caste of Levi in general was there to serve as a corrective measure for the Jewish people who descended into the kivshan ha’aish and tumah of Egypt.

  12. Jon Baker says:

    Isaacson:
    >yeshivot in Mitzrayim

    Which sounds like a Midrashic (hence contemporary with Yavneh or later) recasting of Yavneh back into history. Granting legitimacy to current institutions by showing how they already existed in previous eras.

  13. Jeff says:

    I was always struck by the similarity between Ralbag’s notion of predestination as set in the stars and the Selden Plan; especially the idea that one could, through nevuah (or the Mule) do an end-run around destiny.

  14. Shlomo says:

    I would think that the decline and fall of the Roman empire, and the preservation of Classical texts in monasteries throughout the Middle Ages until the Renaissance, are much bigger influences on Foundation’s plot…

  15. Shlomo says:

    “The Last Question” is definitely worth being discussed on this forum.
    For those who haven’t read it: http://filer.case.edu/dts8/thelastq.htm

  16. Philo says:

    Jon – I think you’re right. That’s quite a parallel. But I think it was R Yochanan b. Zakkai, not Rabban Gamliel.

  17. Philo says:

    I think the biggest overarching Jewish theme in Foundation is scholarship. The empire has might, but the foundation is established and maintained through scholarship and intellectual prowess.

    However, a place where Asimov’s atheism comes through loud & clear is in the threat from Anacreon. The Foundation, by establishing a religion around the nuclear power they provide, yet don’t practice themselves, defends themselves against the Anacreonian threat by manipulating the deluded masses.

  18. Hirhurim says:

    Comment from Facebook:

    Yitzchak Friedman
    My father once asked Asimov if Foundation was supposed to be about the story of “ten li Yavneh vechachameha” Asimov said he didn’t think of it at the time but it could be.

  19. Sholom says:

    I think it is possible that Asimov injected these Jewish themes into things, but I have always read Foundation as a kind of literary replacement theology: Harry Seldon, through the power of mathematics and reason, becomes a prophet, albeit via rational means, rather than via a mystical/transcendental experience. The goal is to achieve a messianic era when the dark ages will have receded and intellectual enlightenment again reigns supreme.

  20. Jon Baker says:

    Yitzchak Friedman is the (post-college, learning in J’lem) son of the aforementioned Richard Friedman.

    Philo: you’re right, it was RYbZ.

  21. MJ says:

    Messianic and apocalyptic elements are pretty pervasive in SF, So that can’t be a distinguishing “Jewish” feature of Foundation. I loved Asimov’s stuff growing up it was very idea driven and I was thrilled how he tied the Robot, Empire, and Foundation series together. But as I got older I began to appreciate the writers who could write compelling characters. Asimov’s were uniformly flat. After reading one of his autobiographies I chalked it up to his unrepentant narcissism.

  22. Mr. Cohen says:

    PS: I only read The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek novels, and Sherlock Holmes novels when I am in the bathroom.

  23. Jon Baker says:

    Sholom: I guess it’s like Tanur shel Achnai, which is read by each movement in Judaism to support its ideology: Orthodoxy – the supremacy of the Sanhedrin; Conservative – the supremacy of contemporary rabbis; Reform: the supremacy of the individual Jew.

  24. avi says:

    I know more Jews interested in fantasy novels than sci-fi ones.
    They are both equally Jewish.

  25. Jon Baker says:

    Avi: Fantasy novels are more escapist, so since we’re a religion/culture that looks to a brighter Messianic future, or a more whole past, it resonates better with us. SF of the 40s-60s was more positive in outlook. Today, we get lots of dystopias, worlds ruined and turned oppressive through politics, economics and biology.

    But why should this surprise anyone? SF fundamentally takes contemporary social, cultural and technological trends, and projects them into the future.

    America in the 40s-60s was a can-do place, Americans can do anything, “we did it before and we can do it again (beat Germany)”, live in a postwar boom, live under a Cold War regime that funded American excellence (college scholarships, the Space Program and its technology-transfer spinoffs), strong unions protecting a labor force that had not yet been outmoded by automation and offshoring.

    America today is one of economic collapse, recessions interspersed with “jobless recoveries”, declining position on the world stage, vulnerable to terrorists who increasingly hate and envy us for our open society, an open society becoming more and more closed due to fear of aforementioned terrorists. Who’s big now? China Mieville – economically and socially depressed worlds. A huge amount of Lovecraft-style horror – I count at least three major anthologies in the last two years. A series I just started by two Israeli brothers where every person becomes a corporation, with shares owned by others – everyone is a chatzi eved – huh, I wonder if they have some religious background, to even come up with such an idea. Zombies and werewolves and (sparkly) vampires have been big in American TV and movies for 15 years – creations of death-oriented christianity, I think.

  26. Nachum says:

    The one time I met Asimov, my mother spoke Yiddish to him. I blogged about it once, and Gil commented.

    http://lammpost.blogspot.co.il/2006/09/premature-treppenwitz.html

    As I write there, I never really got into the Foundation series proper, although I do like a lot of his other writing. And speaking of Jewish topics, I remember that Jewish sci-fi analogy he contributed to and introduced. His story was about assimilation.

    I guess Jon Baker is right- I’ve always liked the more upbeat sci-fi. I guess that’s why I’m such a big Star Trek fan. (Asimov, by the way, worked on Star Trek, and was a fan of Star Wars as well.) With that threat of doom looming, Asimov’s stuff isn’t as cheery.

  27. YB says:

    About as jewish as Lewis Carol if compared to (rabbi) Dr. Abraham Ettelson’s “Through the Looking Glass Decoded.”

  28. Jon Baker says:

    Well, if you do skip-letter on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, searching for the word “Jew”, it appears exactly twice, at distances of 7 and 70 letters, starting from the same letter J. 770 – was Lewis Carroll a secret Lubavitcher?

  29. DF says:

    I read Foundation a long time ago too, and also instinctively thought at the time it might be a metaphor for the Jewish experience and mission. But as I read much more about Asimov, including his biography, I realized that by his own admission he knew nothing about Judaism. That means to say, he related to Judaism the exact same way he related to every other religion or area of knowledge in the world. He would read broad outlines of topics in Encyclopedias, and would then, in one of his innumerable books, would repackage the information in easier to read terms, plus adding an occasional “heorah” of his own. Thus, he certainly knew something about Judaism, but not enough that he would consciously intend Foundation to be about it. For Asimov, Judaism was simply not a part of his life, except to the degree that he was born Jewish, was proud of his Jewish first name, and never denied it. He writes at length about this in I, Asimov, as indeed he writes at length about anything having to do with himself.

    In general also, I grew to dislike Asimov. Partly because he was, as Nachum Lamm wrote in the blog he linked to, he was such an unreconstructed leftist, and hypocrite too. He was also monumentally self-absorbed and egotistical, well beyond even celebrity ego. Plus I discovered better SF writers, like Robert Scheckly or Mike Reznik, to name just a few of many.

    No doubt he did more to popularize the field than any other man, though. He had a tremednous work ethic. And though wrong on so many things, he was a certifed genius.

  30. Raphael Davidovich says:

    Quick answer: No, Foundation is not Jewish.

    Longer answer: While Foundation is not intentionally Jewish, it does contain many themes and plot-points that resonate with people familiar with Jewish themes and ideas. This is true for many books, but it is much truer of Foundation, likely because of the novel’s intellectual bent and Golus theme. As such, much value (intellectual ‘nerd’ fun) can come from analyzing the work.

  31. avi says:

    “Avi: Fantasy novels are more escapist, so since we’re a religion/culture that looks to a brighter Messianic future, or a more whole past, it resonates better with us.”

    I’m guessing you don’t read much fantasy. Fatansy is just as escapist as Sci-fi literature.

    The last 3 major fantasy series that I remember all had very strong Messianic tones. The Wheel of Time series is about a farmyard boy who becomes the center of world politics as he grows up to destroy the dark one forever. During which, he is promised to bring back a lost kingdom and restore peace in the world.
    The Song of Ice and fire series, which is written by a mostly sci-fi author, is also about lost kingdoms coming back and bringing order and redemption back to the world.
    Then there is the most famous Lord of the Rings. About a humble person who is given the great task of saving the world from the greatest evil.
    The D&D books, and again Dragonlance books, are almost always about some individual person who saves the world from some impending evil. Often, the greatest weapon the characters have that enable them to defeat the stronger enemy is “hope” or “faith”.

  32. Jon Baker says:

    Avi, I think you missed the word “more” in my post. Maybe you misread it as “less”?

  33. Jon Baker says:

    >Often, the greatest weapon the characters have that enable them to defeat the stronger enemy is “hope” or “faith”.

    Never charity? Goyim!

    Actually, interesting to see the parallel in our own early-medieval literature:

    Teshuvah (hope for the future), tefillah (faith), utzedaka (charity, loosely) save one from the stern decree.

 
 

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