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July 12, 2013

Isaac Asimov, Two Foundations and the Jews

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The Foundation Trilogy - Boxed Set

   Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned 20th century philosopher, understood that gaining “control of the world of space” is one of the main tasks of humankind.  The result of the conquest of space is “technical civilization.” But, Heschel argued, “(l)ife goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” For Heschel, time, not space, “is the heart of existence.” (See Heschel, The SabbathIts Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Young 1951) at 3.)

   Judaism, according to Heschel, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” (Id. at 8.)  Recognizing that a different sensitivity is involved in creating holiness in time, rather than space, he urged that we cultivate that sensitivity in order to achieve the goal of being, rather than having.

   If Abraham saw Judaism as a religion of time, Isaac did not. Isaac Asimov, the renowned 20th century writer, had a rather cramped view of religion. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Russia, he came to America in 1923 as a young child. As he related in his third autobiography (no misprint), however, his parents never made “any effort” to teach any religion to him, even to have him participate in a bar mitzvah ceremony. (Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir (Doubleday 1994) at 12.) Not surprisingly, throughout his adult life, Asimov was strictly non-observant with respect to any known religious practice. At the same time, Isaac Asimov never changed his name as did others to hide his Jewishness, always acknowledged that he was Jewish and seems to have absorbed some Jewish values if not Jewish practices or sense of peoplehood. (See Id. at 13, 15-18, 322.)

   Philosophically Asimov considered himself a rationalist and an atheist. Echoing George Bernard Shaw (see I. Asimov, above, at 333), he reportedly once said, “I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” From 1985 to his death in 1992, Asimov served as the president of the American Humanist Association

   Best known for his science fiction and fantasy writings, Asimov authored or edited about 200 works of fiction, including a smattering of mysteries. But as a chemist by training and a general scientist at heart he wrote or edited even more non-fiction, including over 60 books on astronomy, over 30 on chemistry, bio-chemistry and biology, and over 20 on physics.  All in all, he authored or edited over 500 works , mostly for adults, including a two volume guide to Shakespeare, annotated versions of Lord Byron’s Don Juan and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, six volumes of limericks and six books on the Hebrew Bible, a subject to which he came relatively late in life.

   By the time he reviewed the Bible seriously, Asimov was well familiar with ancient mythologies of all stripes. That, and his scientific orientation, naturally led him to a conclusion that the Hebrew Bible was not supernaturally guided, but written by men in particular contexts over time. He accepted, for instance, and without critical commentary, the Documentary Hypothesis of the formulation of the Biblical text. (See Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (Doubleday 1968) Vol. 1, at 19-21.)

   Asimov’s recognition that the Bible was not a “history book in [the] modern sense” (Id. at 9) did not lead him, as it has for more recent militant atheists, to denigrate the text. To the contrary, he praised the biblical writers and editors for succeeding “wonderfully” at producing a text both “reasonable” and “useful.” He continued: “There is no version of primeval history, preceding the discoveries of modern science, that is as rational and as inspiring as that of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis. . . . If the primeval history of the Book of Genesis falls short of what science now believes to be the truth, the fault cannot lie with the Biblical writers, who did the best they could with the material available to them.” (Asimov, In the Beginning . . . (Crown 1981), at 3.) 

   Despite his immense range and prodigious work ethic, with rare exceptions, Asimov never consciously wrote about Jews or Jewish themes. It wasn’t that he denied his Jewishness. As he explained in his introduction to Wandering Stars (Pocket Book 1975), a small but worthy anthology of Jewish fantasy and science fiction, while many great American novels dealt with Jewish themes, science fiction was different. “(B)attles with space pirates, outer-world monsters and evil wizards . . . . What kind of place was that for Jewish boys?” (Id. at 16.) He said that he just “didn’t think of Jews, particularly, in connection with robots, wrecked spaceships, strange worlds with six suns, and Galactic Empires.” (Id. at 17.) Asimov’s own contribution to Wandering Stars, a short essay titled “Unto the Fourth Generation,” addressed assimilation.

   Asimov claimed genuine surprise when he learned that Jack Dann was putting together that anthology, and once more when Dann followed the first volume with a second, More Wandering Stars (Doubleday 1981), for which Asimov again wrote an introduction. With the publication of that second volume, Asimov had reached the conclusion that “the Holy Writings lead the way to science fiction.” He finally saw “why there are so many Jewish writers of science fiction and fantasy, and why so many Jewish themes are used.” (Id., at  viii, x.)

   His original protestations notwithstanding, Asimov conceded that even in his writings sometimes Jewish references “popped up.” (Wandering Stars, at 17.) For instance, Asimov’s first novel, Pebble in the Sky (Robert Bentley 1950) is about one Joseph Schwartz, a retired tailor, whose home planet (Earth), eleven thousand years into the future, is populated by “an obstinate and stiff-necked race” who are despised by the 500 quadrillion people living on some 200 million inhabited planets in the Galactic Empire. Sound familiar--name, occupation, group stereotype and predicament? If these clues were not enough, Asimov makes clear that the future Earthlings were facing “the nearly insoluble problem of anti-Terrestrianism” in significant part because of their “blasted customs and traditions.” (Id. at 155, 198.) Similarly, as Asimov acknowledged in his introduction to Wandering Stars (at 18), he had some characters use a Yiddish dialect in the first volumes of his early and award winning Foundation Series

   The intriguing question is whether the Jewishness of the Foundation Series runs deeper than familiar references and the occasional usage of Yiddish. The Series was formed from stories published in the 1940s, initially fashioned into a trilogy published in the 1950s and later expanded to include two prequels and two sequels.

   The core trilogy is set another eleven thousand years beyond Pebble in the Sky.  At the outer edge of the galaxy, a social scientist named Hari Seldon, having applied mathematical equations to behavioral patterns of large groups (over 75 billion!), has developed psychohistory, a model which can predict aggregate group behavior over extended periods.  (Here Asimov seems to have anticipated the work of Professor Peter Turchin who promotes “cliodynamics,” the statistical analysis of huge amounts of historical data aimed at discovering social patterns or cycles and predicting future events.)

   Seldon’s grand scale, no, galactic scale exercise predicts the decline of the Empire into an extended thirty thousand year period of barbarism, but also sees a way to limit the dark times to a single millennium. Under Seldon’s leadership, a group of Encyclopedists (the Foundation) seeks both to preserve human knowledge and cultural values and covertly guide the Empire through its difficult future. As matters unfold –spoiler alert—the Foundation’s plans are disrupted and we learn of the existence of a previously hidden Second Foundation, located “at the other end of the Galaxy” which Seldon has also created as a contingency plan.

  The Foundation Series has enchanted and challenged generations of readers, each with his or her own understanding of the real meaning of the collection. Various readers will find within the Series somewhat disparate themes such as the importance of intellectualism and scholarship, the triumph of rationalism over mysticism and emotion, the challenges to and value of individuals acting within the framework of historical currents, and the notion that our destiny is not predetermined by the stars, but by ourselves.

  Nobel award winning economist and political columnist Paul Krugman, for instance, in an introduction to a new edition of the Foundation Series, has written rapturously about what was for him life shaping fiction, characterizing the trilogy as a “unique masterpiece.” He sees in it a “thrilling tale” about how “self-knowledge –an understanding of how our own society works – can change history for the better.” (At ix, xvi.)

  Asimov intended to use Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a model for his commentary on the evolution of society (Asimov, Gold  (HarperPrism 1995) at 186.) Still, some have wondered whether the Foundation Series has a Jewish core.

  In his book Superman is Jewish?, Harry Brod digresses for a bit to discuss the Foundation Series. He finds what he considers Jewish themes permeating the works: the notion that history is intelligible, with a trajectory discernible amidst the “seeming chaos and unpredictability,” the “commitment to rationality, embodied for modern consciousness in science” and the idea of messianism.  (See Brod, Superman is Jewish? (Free Press 2012) at 51.)

  Without accepting most of these themes as “particularly Jewish,” Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student  offers his own view.  He sees the Foundation, the cultural outpost in an otherwise barbaric community, 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 live in the dark and even when they try to extinguish our flame.

Rabbi Student wisely does not believe that Asimov consciously used that purported metaphor, but he considers it viable, even if unintended. The greater problems with the metaphor are not Asimov’s conscious or subconscious usage, however. They are that the metaphor is overly romanticized in the claim of Jewish moral superiority and not necessarily applicable today in any event when half of the world’s Jews are not in geographic exile.

   Besides, both Brod and Student miss a key factor in Hari Seldon’s plan: the necessity of two Foundations. Seldon realized that for all the sophistication of his psychohistorical equations, and the probability that history writ large would unfold as predicted, there was always the possibility for interference, for error, for disruption. Consequently, as a precaution, as a safeguard, Seldon made sure that a Second Foundation would be placed “at the other end of the Galaxy,” available to fulfill the mission should something adverse happen to the First Foundation.

   Perhaps here, and perhaps unconsciously, Asimov had Jewish history rather than Jewish ethics and beliefs in mind. The Kingdom of Israel could fall, but there was a Kingdom in Judah to absorb the immigrants and maintain the culture. Jerusalem could fall, but the prophets and priests, if not the royal family, in exile in Babylon would be instrumental in the restoration. The Second Temple could be destroyed, but Yavneh would live and then creatively change the very structure and thought of the Jewish world. Parallel communities would develop in the Iberian Peninsula and in northwest Europe, and if Sepharad were to be destroyed, yet Ashkenaz could flower. Later, America would be established as a homeland for Jews, among others, before European Jewry was decimated.  And, after the devastation of World War II, a State of Israel would be born.

   It would be way too much to argue that Jewish history was the product of two foundations changing over time, and changing pursuant to some master plan, whether supernatural or human design. And yet, today there are essentially two foundations of Jewish life. Today, the Jewish population of the world is just under 14,000,000, largely, but not entirely, concentrated in two centers, Israel with just over and the United States with just under six million Jews. France, Canada, United Kingdom and Russia collectively do not quite account for another ten percent of world Jewry.

   These two current foundations of Jewish life are not like Hari Seldon’s Foundations. They are not hidden from view, and do not appear to function in any coordinated way. Yet one does not have to be either very frum or a psychohistorian to see that the fate of the entire Jewish People seems to be linked inextricably with the survival and of its two current foundational communities.

   When he wrote the Foundation Series, was Asimov (even subconsciously) thinking descriptively about the pendulum swings in Jewish history or perhaps prescriptively about a Jewish future? Could Asimov have stumbled inadvertently on the previously secret model of Jewish survival? Or, writing around the time of the decimation of European Jewry, could Asimov have been warning about the need for a secretive guiding organization?

   There are clues about an undercurrent of Jewishness in the Foundation Series, and they extend beyond the use of Yiddishisms noted above. Consider the title of the first book in the original trilogy: The Foundation. One Hebrew word for foundation is mossad, which happens to be the name of Israel’s national intelligence agency, HaMossad or the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Talk about hiding in plain sight. And what about Hari Seldon’s name?  Perhaps we should ask using the barely concealed Hebrew version, Ari Elyon, Lion Most High.                                            

   For some, these may be slim reeds upon which to build a case, much less a Foundation or two. And, if we are to dig a bit deeper, we must ask whether the Jewish People, during  the present period of significant transition, really needs a Seldon-like Foundation. Would it be sufficient if a modern day Hilkiah were to find a hidden scroll with revelations and guidelines sufficient to revitalize Jewish life here and now?  (See II Kings 22:8.)

   Asimov can tantalize us with stories about strange civilizations in the heavens above.  Heschel can inspire us with lessons about holiness in time, visions of heaven on Earth. But long ago the authors of D’varim (Deuteronomy), writing in an age of wrenching change, taught in the name of Moses himself that the answers to the challenges face were not in heaven. (See Deut. 30:12.) Centuries later, the Sages reinforced the point in their now famous story of Rabbi Eliezer and the carob tree. So it is today. If we are to meet current challenges, among which are science, technology, disbelief, demographics, economics, freedom, diluted ethnicity, illiteracy, assimilation, isolation and communal polarization, we must do so, not with our heads in the clouds, but with our feet planted firmly on the ground.  A good place to start would be with Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Sidney Schwarz (Jewish Lights 2013)).


Another version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

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