Doctor Who and the Mesorah
Rabbi Andrew Shaw
Chief Executive, Mizrachi UK
Surprisingly, there has never been an episode in Doctor Who’s 57 year history with this title. However, the most recent show last Sunday, which was the series finale, made me reflect on this in a very different way.
I appreciate that many of the people reading this are not Doctor Who fans, so a little bit of background is needed to allow you to understand the point I am going to make.
Wikipedia has the following entry about the show. ‘Doctor Who is a British science fiction television programme produced by the BBC since 1963. The programme depicts the adventures of a Time Lord called “the Doctor”, an extra-terrestrial being, to all appearances human, from the planet Gallifrey. The Doctor explores the universe in a time-travelling space ship called the TARDIS. Its exterior appears as a blue British police box, which was a common sight in Britain in 1963 when the series first aired. Accompanied by a number of companions, the Doctor combats a variety of foes while working to save civilisations and help people in need.’
As someone who has watched the show since the Tom Baker years in the late 70’s, the paragraph above sums up perfectly what the show was about.
I say ‘was about’ since on Sunday, it completely changed.
The new showrunner – Chris Chibnall decided to change 57 years of history – basically he told us that the Doctor was actually not from Gallifrey, that there were many incarnations of the Doctor before the ‘1st Doctor’ played by William Hartnell, and that basically the Doctor was immortal.
This sent the internet into meltdown – furious fans wrote in with comments such as:
‘When you destroy 57 YEARS of legendary television in an HOUR you have achieved something phenomenal…I am genuinely really, really upset… they took the historic roots and burnt them into ashes.’
‘This was in my opinion the worst story in the history of Doctor Who. The changed to established cannon. The changes to the main character and her own species. It was an insult to everyone who has watched the show, to everyone who has ever been in the show and most importantly any actor who has played the doctor!’
I read these comments and many more and basically summed up their anger in one phrase.
‘Chris Chibnall changed the mesorah of Doctor Who’.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor where we are commanded to wipe out the nation of Amalek.
Yet the reading for Parshat Zachor seems to be repetitive. It begins with Zachor et asher assah lecha Amalek – Remember what Amalek did to you. The Torah then lists what Amalek did to us when we came out of Egypt – how they attacked the women and children when we were weak. It ends off two verses later with the famous line ‘Timche et Zecher amalek mitachat Hashamayim. – You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.
But that is not the end of the pasuk, the trop, the tune under Hashamayim is an et nachta, a comma or a semi colon, a pause but not the end. The last two words are seemingly a clarion call to our people – loh tishkach, don’t forget!
Don’t forget what?
Obviously, it is referring to Amalek and what they did to us. However, the Maftir began with Zachor – remember what Amalek did. It seems strange, remember what they did and do not forget, a bit repetitive!
Traditionally, we understand the verses as two separate commandments. Remember Amalek’s treachery orally and don’t forget in your heart their hatred and enmity.
I would like to offer another explanation which I have shared with you before but want to take the answer in a different way this year.
Yes, remember what Amalek did, what Amalek are, what they wish to do to you. But never forget who you are, never forget your identity, never forget your covenant with God and the Torah, never forget the mesorah – lo tishkach – never forget.
When we see the anger and dismay from Doctor Who fans about a TV show that breaks away from the ‘mesorah’, we can surely understand the passion and feeling about the dilution or abandonment of large parts of the mesorah by progressive movements both during the 2nd temple time with the Saducees and Essenes or in modern times with the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements.
I am sure that those who created these movements genuinely believed in what they were doing and wanted the best for the Jewish people. Certainly as the ghetto walls came down there was a need for a change in our approach to Judaism in the new realities of the 19th century and we saw three very different suggestions from the Chatam Sofer – Charedi (1762 – 1839 ), Shimshon Rafael Hirsch – Centrist Orthodox (1808 – 1888) and Abraham Geiger – Reform (1810 – 1874 ). Ironically Hirsch initially formed a friendship with Geiger, and with him organized a society of Jewish students for the stated purpose of practicing homiletics, but with the deeper intention of bringing them closer to Jewish values. In later years, he and Hirsch became bitter opponents as the leaders of two opposing Jewish movements.
Another nail in the coffin of Doctor Who is the ratings and viewing figures. Before this radical change, Doctor Who was enjoying high ratings and large viewing figures, recently this has fallen dramatically, as fans loyal to the ‘mesorah’ vote with their feet.
Similarly, all breakaway movements of antiquity faded very quickly as the Pharisitical tradition became the norm for the Jewish people, which was loyal to both the Written and Oral Law.
Today, as we know, progressive movements, especially in America, are struggling to retain their adherents.
There was a groundbreaking study last year from Dr. Edieal Pinker, a professor at Yale University’s School of Management, and Dr. Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. They show using the data from the large scale Pew report that the Orthodox community is indeed growing rapidly while the Reform and Conservative movements are shrinking.
Remarkably they say that there will be more Orthodox than Reform and Conservative combined within about 40 years. And before the end of this century the Orthodox will outnumber all other American Jews combined, including those who belong to no denomination. This is incredible considering in the 1960’s Orthodoxy made up about 5% and was expected to disappear!
The study shows that due to their high fertility rate and relatively low rate of assimilation, Orthodox Jews will likely shift from a small minority to the dominant majority of American Jews, growing from less than 1 million to a high of 3.5 million adherents. This will propel a net growth in the American Jewish population by the end of the century, from about 6.5 million Jews now to 7.2 million in 2093. Before then, however, the data suggests that the Jewish population will dip slightly, starting in about 2030 until around 2050. This is primarily due to the significant decline in the size of the Reform/Conservative community, which will likely drop from around 3.5 million adherents to a low of 1.5 million adherents over the next eight decades.
We should be both inspired and heartbroken by these figures. Inspired by the growth of Orthodoxy and heartbroken by the loss of so many Jews. On a Shabbat where we are commanded to ‘not forget’ it is tragic to see how many have or are forgetting who they are. It is no coincidence that a break from the mesorah has led to an exodus from our people.
Our battle today is the same as Rav Hirsch’s in the 19th century. We must provide a vibrant 21st century Judaism, engaged with the world yet loyal to our mesorah to demonstrate to the vast majority of the Jewish world outside of Israel that without a connection to that Mesorah that has kept us connected for millennia, there will be no future for the Jewish people.
As the Doctor Who leadership learn that moving away from the ‘mesorah’ will damage, anger and potentially destroy the show. We must also realise that unless we are loyal to our Mesorah, Judaism will gradually disappear. Where we have realised – we are thriving, where we haven’t – we are disappearing.
To conclude, let us reflect on the Megillah which we will read on Monday night. In discussing the famous climax to the Purim story, ‘kimu v’kiblu’ – “[The Jews] fulfilled and accepted” (Esther 9:26). The Gemarah in Megillah explains that that pasuk alludes to the fact that following the miracle of Purim, the Jews re-affirmed [the Torah] they had accepted at Har Sinai.
The impact of the miracle of Purim was that it inspired the Jewish people to re-embrace their religious obligations. It rejuvenated their Torah study, observance and their devotion to Hashem and the Mesorah.
May that happen speedily and soon!
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach