"Reinterpreting Torah, Reimagining the Future"

Avi Brooks's Adult Bar Mitzvah Talk • June 23, 2018

 
 
 

Avi Brooks

 

Avi grew up going to the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. He remembers Shabbat there reflecting the convergence of popular culture with Jewish traditions.

 

Becoming a bar mitzvah as an adult, he appreciates so much more the group study experience, the support and insight into Torah and prayer.

 

Now he is looking to Judaism as a source for his creative writing in science fiction and his work in futures forecasting.

When I was 13, I started writing down at least one hundred points in a flip notebook for creating a utopian society. It included samples from dozens of science fiction books, from Robert Heinlein to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, and all the works on fascism, anarchism, communism, and socialism I could get my hands on.

 

What I ended up with, if one were to read it back to back, is a fascinating journey from authoritarianism to the counterculture. In the first dozen points, I remember recoiling in horror from the dystopian society espoused by books like This Perfect Day by Ben Bova. He imagines domination by a ubiquitous computer called Unicomp (I think we call it Google or Facebook now). I finally ended my hundred points with a mix of anarchistic self-governing collectives and a hippie New Age homage to reincarnation.

 

In reading the Torah I found similar examples of a people in search of justice, sudden returns to strict obedience, and radical breakthroughs in governance for the time, such as a society ruled by collective moral laws rather than arbitrary laws from a single king.

 

What I discovered in the Torah was also similar to what I do and find in Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism combines science fiction and fantasy to reexamine how the future is currently imagined and to envision alternative futures based on the experience of Black people and people of color (Wakanda Forever!).

 

I found my own Jewish renewal in the ability to reinterpret the Torah as inspiring and poetic science fiction, as a path to reignite my and others’ imagination about the spirit of this text.

 

The idea of Shabbat is still a radical concept, a day that you are unplugged from our overworked American economy. Today's Shabbat morning service we are leading together reflects a microcosm of a radically transformed society: gathering and convening a community, acknowledging its challenges, and envisioning its future.

 

Here is one of my favorite quotes from our siddur, or prayer book: “For the expanding grandeur of the [Universe], worlds known and unknown, galaxies upon galaxies, filling us with awe and challenging our imaginations.” Imagine a starship with a Jewish community, how they might encounter new worlds, and how they might reinterpret the Torah once they encountered other civilizations. In the Torah our spiritual ancestor Jacob became Israel in wrestling with the angel. How might the Jewish people retell their stories as they meet another intelligent species? Or maybe they already did (smile).

 

The ritual described in this week's Torah portion, using ashes created from a red cow to purify the priest who touched death and cannot rejoin the community for a period of time, speaks to me about how to handle the power of death. I gather inspiration from this approach in grappling with the power and gifts of inhabiting multiple identities as a man who is Jewish and Black and a feminist supporter of LGBTQIA and pansexual rights. This power requires its own elixir, a potion that, through my study of the Torah, shapes a Jewish approach to my work as an Afrofuturist and futurist, inspiring me to create my next manifesto for shaping the coming 50 years for ourselves and our global society and life among new worlds in 2068.

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