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.

The Wolf

* 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.

The Wolf


PsychoToddler said...

I vehemently disagree with this post.

The Original Series was the best written, and still holds up to any subsequent Star Trek.

Kirk Roolz!

Now that I've confirmed my credentials, I will compliment you on a very well-done analogy. However I'm pretty sure the creators of the Ferengi (or what they turned into--the very original episodes in TNG portrayed them quite differently) knew precious little about what goes on in Orthodox Jewish circles, and other than the obvious greedy nature of the species, I doubt there was really much intention on making them Jewish (although I wonder if Armin Shimmerman, the actor who played Quark, may be Jewish).

Still, your points are valid. It was part of the mission of Star Trek to use weird aliens to help us notice what's wrong with human society.

Larry Lennhoff said...

In the secular Jewish circles I was running in at the time of the original broadcast episodes, the popular conspiracy theory was that the Bajorans were the Palestinians and the Cardassians were the Israelis.

I never went for it myself - you could equally or better say the Bajorans were the Israelis and the Cardassians were the Brits.

I find it interesting you think money grubbing might be meant as an allegory for Torah study, while the classic anti-semitic portrait of the Jew has being money grubbing as a primary characteristic.

mlevin said...

I never saw star trek.

This post reminded me of high school. A new teacher was hired to teach us (both girls and boys) talmud. He was a rabbi (or claimed to be). The first thing he started to teach us was about zman. When it's begining of the day, middle of the day, end of the day and etc.

He went through a whole complicated meathod of how to find noon. So, I asked him a question, of why we need to go through such a complicated meathod, if we could look at our watch find 12 o'clock and get noon.

At this point this rabbi went besirk. He started screaming and shouting how girls are not smart enough to learn talmud and should not even be in the class. But if principal insisted on such travesty, then all girls should just sit quetly till the end of the period.

Needless to say, he got fired after 3 weeks.

Walter said...

If the Palestinians as a whole had gone to make Jordan and then been chased off by the Israelis and a demilitarized zone set up in between by the Brits, that would be closer to the Cardassians and Bajorans. Neither side really evil and having good secular claims to the land historically and neither side willing to budge and both being willing to bring in proxy forces to advance their cause.

Also, if Israel and Jordan were light years apart and hundreds of light years from Earth.

Other than that, I'm not seeing it.

As far as Ferengi and OJ go, no. The Ferengi were designed withe exaggerated features to drive home the differences between them and many of the other humanoids who were basically variations on humans with bumpy foreheads. Their ways were more like that of some of the more backwards Arab tribes combined with fundamentalist Islam... If Islam revolved around acquiring wealth which obviously it can't or the entire middle east would be gentrified and it would be a matter of throwing a rock at random to hit a Pottery Barn or Starbucks in Amman and really, finding good cheap and really pretentiously cheesy dark stained cherry tables and wall length mirrors is not that easy in Jordan.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Okay, hang on, hang on, hang on. Expeert in the house. Thank you.

Now, the tradition of Star Trek utilizing alien races as metaphors for contemporary nationalities is well established. In the original series (the best one, sorry Deep Space Nine is a glamourized bus terminal) the Federation were clearly the Americans, the Klingons were the Russians and the Romulans were the Chinese, who at the time were a relative but powerful mystery to Americans.
Ah, but who were the Vulcans? Well, imagine a stoic culture guides by rules just like logic, constantly quoting aphorisms and principles by heart, valuing the learning of knowledge. Add to that a certain hand gesture used to say hello and you must conclude the Vulcans represented the Jews. In other words, good Christian American Captain Kirk led the charge against the evil Klingons and myseterious (and also evil) Romulans with a Jewish advisor by his side in the best tradition of many Christian leaders.

By the time NextGen came along, this all got muddled. For example, the Klingons changed from malicious and powerful enemies into "honourable" dumb allies incapable of fighting a good civil war amongst themselves. The Romulans shed all the mystery but then, China was more open to contact with the US so there was less mystery in that relationship too.

As for the Feregi, remember that in their first appearance ("The Last Outpost) they walk bent over, talk in a broken fashion, wear rough fur overgarments and use an phaser-whip as a weapon. It was only with their repeated appearances that they were toned down.

If anything, Ferengi are the ultimate American male capitalists who see everything and everyone in terms of personal use and value. Thus they treat women as sex objects until they realize there's a commercial benefit to their emancipation.

In this they are far different from Orthodox Jews. You could try to explain to the Gedolim the advantages of letting women study until you're blue in the face. They ain't gonna change their minds.


Moshe Klass said...

Good post, 3 strips of latinum for you.

moshe klass said...

I just stumbled on this post again. I wanted to point out that at the time people were saying that the Maki (mostly in TNG and STV), were the settlers in Israel being kicked out and the federation was the Israeli Gov.

Anonymous said...

In one episode, Quark's brother Rom comments, "I've discovered bacon doesn't agree with me".