Deuteronomy as Science Fiction

Jewish writers have always been disproportionately involved in science fiction. Whether Isaac Asimov or Gene Roddenberry, such authors and world creators would imagine a possible future and then set up moral dilemmas based on that imaginative possibility. Much of Jewish science fiction is hopeful. Jews aren’t so much writers of dystopian fiction. Rather, they tend to imagine how the future could become better.

This quality of imagination has deep roots in Jewish history. Whether the stories of the golem dating back to the 4th century CE, or the Prophetic imagination itself, Judaism is deeply rooted in hopeful imagination. Indeed, from this perspective, Deuteronomy is one of the oldest books of science fiction.

Moses stands outside the land looking in. He gives this last speech to the people in which he describes the perfect society. Mitzvot, God’s commandments, become the advanced technology that will enable the Israelites to build a just society in the service of the God. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the environment of observance and law that will create a space within which community and love can thrive.

Even for the biblical critic, who suggests Deuteronomy was written sometime in the 6th or 7th century BCE, well after the Israelites are in the land, Deuteronomy remains hopeful fiction. The writers at that time look at the reality of their community. They see division and civil war. They see idolatry and murder. And it creates a moral divide in their hearts. They see the world as it is and have the courage to imagine it as it should be. This hopeful imagination prompts them to write a story about Moses in which he calls the people back to the promise of the Book of Exodus while also building on and deepening those laws and stories to suggest a framework for a perfected society.

Deuteronomy inspires King Josiah for a period of righteous reform. It has influenced Western legal concepts of property rights, torts and judicial process. Even though it describes a society that only ever existed in its writer’s imagination, the book creates an aspiration that has advanced justice throughout the world.

We are now a month away from Rosh Hashanah. I invite you to harness your imagination in hopeful ways to picture what could be in our society. How can we advance the cause of justice? How can the advanced moral and spiritual technology of the mitzvot become a bigger part of our lives to give us the tools to effect the changes we want in ourselves and the world? In what ways might YOU use the 10 commandments to save the world?

The first step towards change is hopeful imagination. Even in the darkest moments, it is the leap of hope that enables the leap of faith. Now is the time for imagination, so that a month from now we can be ready for the embrace of hope and a move from imagination to action.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi David Booth

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