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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