I used to teach a course on The Twilight Zone in a religious school program at the local synagogue. A science fiction television series that premiered a half-century ago this month, it ran from 1959 to 1964. Even today the anthology series is shown worldwide, sometimes in day-long marathons.
It is a show I watched as a child but it is only now that I have begun to realize how meaningful a program it really was. The show was preoccupied with man's place in the universe, with threats to freedom and individuality, and with man's inhumanity to
man. With such preoccupations, I figured there must be a lot of grist there for the religious school mill.
When I started re-viewing early episodes with an eye to determining what can be used in the classroom, I noticed things that must have escaped my attention as a child.
One episode was called "The Obsolete Man". It tells the story of a librarian condemned to death for being obsolete in some future world where books have ceased to exist. (Apparently,they tended to stimulate too much independent thought). The librarian (or former librarian) responds to the prosecutor's case by insisting that "I am not obsolete. I am a human being. I have dignity."
In his final moments of life, the librarian reads from the Bible (a book long banned by the State, for the State had proved that G-d does not exist). The book lover takes comfort specifically in King David's 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my Shepherd . . ."), a prayer that Jews and Christians recite to help them find solace at times of tragedy.
While watching this episode I was reminded that if the Bible stands for anything, it underscores the view that no human being is ever obsolete -- no matter how diminished physically, mentally, or financially. This means the aged, the terminally ill, or anyone who cannot fend for him or herself (including in my mind, but more controversially, the fetus in the womb).
Speaking of obsolescence, an episode called "The Trade-Ins" depicts an elderly couple who visit the New Life Corporation and find that they can have their old and infirm bodies replaced with new vigorous (and good-looking) versions while retaining their memories and identities. The one catch is that each body costs $5,000 and must be
paid with cash in advance. The couple only has $5,000 and can, therefore, afford only one new body rather than two. The man has been in excruciating pain for some years, so the couple agree that he will replace his body while the woman retains hers. After the operation, they quickly realize that with only one of them so artificially revitalized, they would no longer be able to share the opportunity to finish out their lives together, and so the man has the operation reversed. They walk out of the New Life Corporation reciting Robert Browning's famous lines "Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made."
These famous lines begin beautiful poem entitled, astonishingly, "Rabbi Ben Ezra." But who is Rabbi Ben Ezra? He was an 11th century Spanish rabbi, poet, and mathematician who even has a lunar crater named in his memory. And why is a 19th century English poet, who vacillated between Christianity and atheism, writing these lines in the voice of an ancient rabbi? It turns out that the rabbi's wife died at a young age, as did two of their
children. He must have been so deeply embittered by life's tragedies. Not so, according to Browning:
"Our times are in His hand
Who saith A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust G-d: see all, nor be afraid!
. . . .
Then, welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joys three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!"
As for Rabbi Ben Ezra, he helped bring the news of Indian numerals (numbers 1 through 10) to Spain and then to the rest of Europe, which is why he is one of 300 mathematicians for whom a lunar crater is named! We call Indian numerals Arabic numerals because
Spain, Europe, and the world got hold of them by way of the Arab world!
All this information I relayed to my students because of one verse in a poem by Robert Browning recited in an episode of The Twilight Zone!
The Twilight Zone had a very dark side. In "The Obsolete Man," the State prosecutor cites ominously but with admiration the efforts of previous leaders to rid the world of obsolescent human beings; he refers by name to Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin. My eighth grade students knew the name of Hitler but they seemed unfamiliar with Stalin. I decided to do something about this later on.
The Twilight Zone series began only 14 years after the Holocaust ended, and so it is not surprising that the subject surfaces more than once. In an episode entitled "Deaths-Head Revisited," a former SS colonel returns 17 years later to the concentration camp at Dachau. He appears to take joy in his memories of the camp until he becomes
haunted by the specter of the prisoners once living there who, in his mind, place him on trial for crimes against humanity.
Now, here we are more than 60 years after the liberation from the Holocaust's death camps. Yet judging by the news, we are still embroiled in that heinous event even in debates over whether this most documented event in history actually took place.
And, in irony of ironies, the very leader who denies the extermination of nearly 6 million Jewish people now threatens to erase from the map the state of nearly 6 million Jews. That the leader of such a country should be allowed to address the United Nations is itself a crime against humanity.
I thought I was revisiting the Twilight Zone but I find that the Twilight Zone is revisiting me.
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Alan Luxenberg teaches at two religious schools in suburban Philadelphia and directs the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Wachman Center.