Jews, Otaku, and People of the Book

I’m Jewish. You could probably tell due to my penchant for using words like “shtick.” Even if I hadn’t mentioned it before on this blog, which I’m pretty sure I have, this would be one of those reveals that surprises no one.

What’s odd is, I don’t really believe in the Old Testament. I believe that parts of it are historical (or at least based on real historical events, the facts of which have become distorted through time); I believe that some Biblical stories have good morals, and I believe the entire thing has value as a piece of literature. But if you were to ask me, point-blank, “Do you believe in the Torah?” the answer would have to be no.

And yet, if I don’t believe the Torah, doesn’t that mean I’m not a Jew, pretty much by definition? If you want to be pedantic about it, I’m a Jewish-born person with non-Jewish beliefs, I think. However, many Jews, if not most, are like me: people who self-identify as Jews, but don’t take the Torah literally, or even think about the Torah much in particular. How does that work? How do you have a group of increasingly secular people who still cling to a religious label, and cling to it with no small amount of pride?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the base concept of Judaism is the idea of a People of the Book, and what that means when you really break it down. If you really love one Book, chances are you’re going to want more than one. You’re going to write books about the one Book, then commentaries on the books about the Book, then eventually other books entirely. And the more you get into all these different books, the less importance the original Book has to you.

Really, a religion of People of the Book is self-annihilating, because once they become People of BOOKS, PLURAL, they’re not the same people anymore. The irony of Jewish history is that people were trying so hard to kill a religion with built-in obsolescence. It’s like, guys, stop trying so hard to kill the Jews. You’re just expediting the production of stuff like Maus, where People of the Book become People of the Comic Book, and then the whole thing goes topsy-turvy and we don’t know who’s who anymore.

Wow, I may have reached a new level of twisted logic; asking the people of Earth stop killing Jews not because it’s wrong, but because it creates literary confusion.

Anyway, this has relevance to the sciences, where a lot of the people who came up with all the great stuff about physics that tells us about how the universe actually works were Jews. It’s primarily the people who are supposed to value the Book of Genesis most who have told us all the reasons why the Book of Genesis is a fairy tale that makes no sense.

Where am I going with this, other than Judaism is weird and I too am weird? Well, I think that the core idea of being a People of the Book is something that may have started with Judaism, but now extends far beyond. To me, the enthusiasm for the likes of Star Trek, X-Men, anime, etc. is the new version of being a Person of the Book; having tremendous enthusiasm for one text, a text that is parts fictive and parts real. Nerd arguments are the new Talmudic Commentary. They say that the great Rabbis go to the Academy on High after they die, where they can argue about Torah for all eternity in heaven; I wonder if the same thing is true of TV Tropes. Anyway, Jews could cease to exist tomorrow (don’t get too excited, alt-righters), and our culture would still be deeply embedded with the legacy of Judaism.

Now, I have a certain amount of respect for Orthodox Jews; I mean, if you’re going to live by the Bible, do it, don’t half-ass it because you want to go to the movies on Saturday and shrimp happen to be delicious. Commit to it, own it, the way the Orthodox have. However, I don’t feel much kinship with Orthodox Jews; we may have common ancestors, but that’s about the extent of the connection. I feel more of a connection with the people arguing about whether or not Avatar: The Last Airbender counts as an anime than I do with “my people.” In fact, anywhere people are arguing about the minutia of a book, or any piece of art really, that’s where I feel like I’ve found “my people.”

To bring this back to Otaku, I’m not saying that Otaku are Jews, really; more that they are a step on the same continuum. The Japanese are a different kind of People of the Book, starting with The Tale of Genji, the world’s first proper novel. After World War II, Japan reinvented itself partially based on manga, on a book of a different nature. For the Japanese, the key foundational document isn’t the Torah, but Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Oversimplification? Of course, but talking about any topic this huge is going to require that.

But think of Comic Market. Hundreds of thousands of people, sweltering in the summer and shivering in the winter, standing in line for hours because they want to get a book (doujin) that’s based on another book (manga) that’s all ultimately based on something Osamu Tezuka and his friends drew in the 1950s, after a cataclysm. If you don’t see a parallel with religion here, well, I don’t know quite how else to put it to you.

I guess all this is a roundabout way of saying that I feel close to Otaku because I recognize fellow People of the Book, which has long ceased being defined by religion; Most of the passionate People of the Book are not Jews, do not need to be Jews for any reason. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had to marry a Jew; I married someone who loved the same things I loved. I’m not religious, but I am in the sense that I am the natural evolution of a people who believed the things they believed very passionately, and maybe that makes the question of whether or not I’m religious a non-issue; I’m not religious, but religion created me. Maybe God did too, but I’m not talking about God right now.

This is why whenever your typical smug internet atheist talks about religion being stupid, or how it makes no sense that the Red Sea would actually split in two, blah blah blah, I have to file that under the category of “not even wrong.” Like sure, that whole part about stoning people to death for not following the Sabbath is pretty dumb and self-defeating and I think even the most Orthodox Jews can admit that now, but that’s not why religion is important in this day and age.  There’s a reason why, even though I believe in the Big Bang Theory (the actual theory, not the sitcom, although the sitcom is okay) and not the Garden of Eden that I still call myself a Jew instead of, say, a science-believing person. I don’t see a conflict there, because being a Person of the Book was always going to include science eventually.

I don’t know, maybe this post is just hilariously offensive not only to Jews, but to everyone who likes Star Trek and Yowamusha Pedal alike. I’m not a good judge of what’s offensive anymore, if I ever was. It’s just me trying to explain my world view, which is that while I feel my Otaku and more general geek interests are entirely consistent with my Jewish background, I don’t feel like these interests are in any way limited to people of Jewish lineage. The idea of a People of the Book may have started with Judaism…or maybe with some other people that history has forgotten, who knows (and I’ve heard some provocative things about the Zoroastrians.) But the concept has spread far beyond a small and insulated group of people, far beyond DNA, and now exists out in the wild.

Synagogues are nice, and the art is beautiful, but wherever people are arguing about anime or Battlestar Galactica on the internet, that’s where I feel “my people” truly are. Someday, I may succeed in getting this to make sense to someone other than myself; I sense that day is not today.

2 thoughts on “Jews, Otaku, and People of the Book”

  1. jew by birth too. aka when they giving out free train rides i get a ticket.

    but i don’t really feel much kindred with the jews. because the stuff you said. joshua living in the fish for three days and all that stuff.

    basically i do think there is a right way to think or the most right way to think so like i try to think like that as much as possible.

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