Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Orthodox Jews and Ferengi: Two Of A Kind?
Eeees and I have spent the last two years or so watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (IMHO, by far the best-written of the five Star Trek incarnations) on our Netflilx subscription. We started with the beginning of the series and have now finished season six. If you get a chance to watch the series from start to finish, I highly recommend it.
In the series, there is an alien race known as the Ferengi (Quark, the most well-known Ferengi to Star Trek fans, is pictured at right). The Ferengi are a race that are pretty much interested in one thing and one thing only -- making profit. Their entire culture is built around it. Their "bible" is called the Rules of Acquisition. (Rule #1: Once you have their money, you never give it back.) The favorite game of Ferengis is Tongo, a game where you try to financially outmaneuver the other players. The Ferengi ruler lives in the Tower of Commerce, which is a part of the Sacred Marketplace. If one has been a good Ferengi in life, then you go to the Divine Treasury in the afterlife.
There is, however, another side to Ferengi culture - the complete disenfranchisement of females (Ferengis are always referred to as "males" and "females;" never as "men" or "women."). Females are not allowed to wear clothes, are required to stay at home, are forbidden to work, enter business or earn profit, and are expected to be the servants of the house. In fact, they are expected to pre-chew the tube grubs (a common Ferengi food) for the males in the household. Needless to say, no females are ever involved in Ferengi government.
Over the course of the series, this slowly begins to change, when the Ferengi leader is influenced by a female who actually has a brain and business acumen (Quark's mother, incidentally). He begins to realize that the Ferengi are completely failing to utilize half of their potential workforce and human capital. Females, he discovers, can sometimes be just as capable as males of making good business deals, earning profit and running a household. Influenced by Quark's mother, he begins making reforms in the Ferengi government.
Some have tried to point out that the portrayal of the Ferengi in Star Trek is antisemitic. In his book, The Religions of Star Trek, Ross S. Kramer writes that the Ferengi "almost seem a parody of traditional Judaism." He argues that the emphasis on greed and the oversized facial features (ears for Ferengi) are negative stereotypes for Jews. While I don't think that the Star Trek creators were being antisemitic with the portrayal of Jews, I do think that there is something to be said about some of the commonalities between the Ferengi and some segments of Orthodox Judaism.
I think you can easily equate the Ferengi obsession with profit and business with the the obsession in some Orthodox communities with learning Torah*. The Ferengi's entire existence is built around commerce and profit. It occupies their every waking moment. Earning as much profit as possible is the ultimate goal in life. It's what a proper Ferengi male should be doing with his time. Any activity that does not earn profit is considered a waste of time.
The same could be said for some communities in the Orthodox Jewish world. Their entire existence is built around learning Torah. It occupies their every waking moment. Learning as much Torah as possible is the ultimate goal in life. It's what the proper Jewish male should be doing with his time. Any activity that does not involve learning Torah is considered a waste of time.
Another interesting correlation between the two cultures is the exclusion of females from the very activity that is considered the most important and vital in the community. Ferengi females are forbidden to earn profit under any circumstances. They cannot participate in business, they cannot talk to strange males, and are relegated to being the caregivers to children. A female who earns profit is subject to extensive penalties from the ruling authorities.
Interestingly, similar things happen with women in some Orthodox Jewish communities. They are excluded from learning Torah, the one thing that matters most in the community. They are strictly limited in which books they can learn, and, in some cases, cannot learn from books at all. In conversing with a woman online once, I found out that when she went to a Satmar school as a child, they were forbidden to use any sefarim (books) to learn from. Not even a chumash (Bible) was allowed. When I asked her if this was still the situation in her school today, she affirmed that it was**. The girls learn from photocopied sheets that the teachers and/or administrators create. The result was that when I was discussing a point with her, she made an assertion that I didn't agree with. When I asked her to back up her assertion with some proof text, she quoted an Avraham Fried song as her proof. When I pointed out to her that Avraham Fried lyrics can hardly be shown to be a proof of anything, she responded that it was all she had, because Satmar girls are forbidden to learn from texts. Any educational system that results in a person being unable to come up with a better proof text than an Avraham Fried lyric is just utterly sad.
Even among those communities that do allow girls to learn from books, there are very few that allow girls to learn Torah SheB'Al Peh (defined as Mishnah, Gemara and their commentaries). In most schools they are limited to Chumash, Navi (with the result being that they know Navi far better than most yeshiva boys), basic hashkafah and halacha (I don't know if they learn halacha from standard texts or in the "recycled" form of summary sheets and the like). However, for the most part, they never learn the reasoning behind the halachos that govern their lives and how they evolved to their modern form. Very often it becomes just a set of dry instructions (do this, don't do that, do this...). The classic arguments that are behind those dry lists, however, are closed off to them. In short, they can't participate in what is the very raison d'etre of the community.
Hmmm... kind of makes me wonder if some of the creators of the Ferengi were Orthodox Jews after all.
* I am not condemning this obsession.
** I don't know if this applied only to her school or to all Satmar schools. However, considering the fact that she told me that this rule (of girls being forbidden to learn from sefarim) came from the Satmar Rebbe, I'd guess that it applied to the majority, if not all Satmar girls' schools.
UPDATE (5/12/2009): I just came across a web page that links to this post. On the page, the author makes the claim that I am stating that the creators of the Ferengi in Star Trek meant the race as a "slam" against Orthodox Jews. That is not the case. I am merely pointing out some commonalities between the two cultures. My apologies if that is not clear.