An amusement that is occupying a growing portion of my time is finding Jewish thinking in the works of non-Jews, or, even more amusing, in the work of atheists.
Joss Whedon is a remarkable artist, and as a science fiction fan it is hard not to place him among the best directors of the genre. I loved Firefly, consider myself a Browncoat, and was sad to see such a smart series disappear before Fox gave it the chance it deserved.
I disagree with Whedon’s Humanism, but unlike many other Humanists, he does not arrive at a conclusion and say “okay, I have the truth, and my job is to rid the world of religion.” Instead, he makes the exploration of the meaning of life a core part of his work. I find his approach refreshing, even as I cheerfully disagree with his outlook.
He won me over with the way he had Ron Glass portray Shepherd Derrial Book, the itinerant preacher, in Firefly. It would have been too easy for Whedon to turn Book into a caricature: instead, Whedon gives honest voice to the “other side,” demonstrating in the portrayal a belief in the value of the dialogue between believers and non-believers. He apparently thinks, as do I, that there is value for both sides, and humanity as a whole, in that discussion.
But one moment in the Firefly film Serenity will always stand out and forever endear Whedon to me, because in its clarity Whedon (probably unintentionally) gave life to the Jewish understanding of the balance between good and evil.
The Firefly shipmates discover that the government’s secret introduction into the planet’s ecosystem of the drug “Pax,” a compound designed to remove the inclination for violence and evil, resulted in the vast majority of the population of the planet Miranda laying down and doing nothing, unto death. As the hologram of a government scientist explains:
“And you can see, it wasn’t what we thought. There’s been no war here and no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It’s the Pax. The G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well, it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There’s 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die.”
Almost all, anyway. She forgot to mention that a tiny percentage went the other way. Their reaction: to become super aggressive, to the point of cannibalism.
I remembered this moment on a flight across the Pacific while reading the first volume of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s magisterial A Code of Jewish Ethics. He encapsulated the Jewish idea of the roles of good and evil as such:
“Human nature, as the Talmud understands it, consists both of a yetzer hatov, a good inclination, and a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. However, the Rabbis did not believe that the goal of a good person should be to fully eradicate the ‘evil inclination,’ for within it resides the aggressive instincts that prompt so much creativity and achievement. The Rabbis speculate that without a yetzer hara, we would not engage in business, build homes, marry, or have children. (Genesis Rabbah 9:7).”
That’s provocative. But as R. Telushkin notes, the Rabbis took it further.
“The Talmud relates that Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly wanted to destroy the evil inclination but were warned that doing so would have catastrophic consequences. They therefore chose to experiment by imprisoning the yetzer hara for thee days; they then searched for a new-laid egg and could find none (Yoma 69b). In other words, all human and animal life will cease if the evil, i.e., aggressive, inclination is eliminated.”
For Judaism and for Whedon, the quandary is the same. Take away the evil inclination, and we die. Give into it, and we become less than human, lurching ourselves over a precipice into a bottomless abyss. The challenge we all face is the eternal battle to balance both within ourselves. And the subtext to Whedon’s story is that the balancing should be left to each of us, not to some outside force acting in loco parentis.