Saturday, July 24, 2010

Owning the implications

I just watched the last episode of the most recent season of Doctor Who. I won't reveal exactly what happened, or the climax of the episode, but some spoilers are inevitable, given that they're the jumping-off point for this post.

Is everyone who minds that gone? Good.

There's a scene in which we see the young Amelia Pond sitting in a parent-teacher conference. She's just painted a night sky with the moon and some stars and her teacher is very concerned. She takes her out to look at the sky and we see a crescent moon... and no stars. The adults tell her that everyone knows that stars are only a legend, and when she's left the room they worry about her joining a 'star cult' when she grows up.

Setting aside the sheer impossibility of this for a second (even in the show it's only possible because of a highly unusual set of circumstances) I think the writers fail to explore the implications of this setting. Besides the references to a legend of stars (somehow) and some distinct oddities in a museum, the world in which Amelia Pond lives seems very similar to our own.

But I suspect that without the stars to try to figure out, science and math would have suffered greatly. There wouldn't be as much impetus for research. And cults aside, mainstream religions would have developed very differently. Human cultures would be very different indeed, and the world would probably be largely unrecognizable.

Unfortunately for us science fiction fans, such speculation outstrips the time, and very likely the budget, available for a single hour-long episode. It's an interesting seed for a story, though.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Step, but in which direction?

On July 3rd I chanted a portion from the Torah. It was a short portion (Numbers 27:1-5) not following any of the usual schemes for breaking readings up, but it seemed like plenty to me. It went just fine, though -  I don't think I made any mistakes, or at least not any big enough to get corrected, and everyone thought I did well, including my teacher, who acted as gabbai (meaning that he would have been the one to correct me had I messed up).

The service itself was rather unusual. Once a month we have a contemplative service. I hadn't been before. Rather than going through most of the traditional liturgy with a few changes and additions to accommodate the congregation's progressive, egalitarian bent, which is what most services are like, the contemplative service focuses on a few lines from each section. The group repeats these lines several times, as a chant, which is more meditative than the regular service. Normally there wouldn't be a Torah reading, but this time there wasn't a regular service, because of the usual low attendance over the summer (this is a fairly young congregation, and many of the families are on vacation now that school's out). So I chanted for the contemplative group. This was a bit odd because I was the only reader and because we placed the scroll on a sort of over-sized cart they use to store the kids' books and games, which was in the middle of a circle of chairs, and everybody (about 20 people) gathered around to give the blessing. Perhaps if you haven't been to a Jewish service before you don't get how unusual that is, but normally it's a much more formal affair, and almost everybody would stay in their chairs. It was a warm group though, with a lot of humor.

The funniest bit was that normally there would be a section at the beginning of the service where we repeat the morning blessings, although in an egalitarian and more positive fashion (rather than giving thanks for 'not making me a slave' it's 'for making me free' and we omit the bit about not being a woman). But instead of that we said the beginning in Hebrew and added our own blessings. It started off with general stuff, but got silly pretty fast, as follows:
"...for Jewish humor."
"for amazing students." (my teacher)
"for teachers." (me)
"for subtlety."

The style of the Torah study that's part of the contemplative service is different as well. Each person speaks and everyone listens, but it's not supposed to be a dialog. And it comes from a more personal place, rather than the legalistic and technicalities of Hebrew that often are the focus in other groups.

It took me over a week to post this because I'm not quite sure I've fully processed this. My mother asked me if I felt more Jewish, and I said something like "more and less". I'm not sure if I'll chant again. But one thing's for sure, humor and religion go well together.