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Jun
7
2024

Daniel May (publisher): I first watched an episode or two of Severance when it came out in 2022, but it didn’t do it for me. At the time I found it too weird, too unsettling. I was looking for the comforts of a conventional television show, and this was something else. Based on a friend’s recommendation I recently came back to it, and found myself engrossed rather than repelled by its relentless weirdness.

The show follows Mark Scott—a recent widower going through the motions in the long shadow of grief—but its main character is actually his workplace, Lumon Industries. The company has developed a novel technology for the workplace in which employees undergo a procedure to “sever” them from their daily lives, producing a worker that has no knowledge of the self outside the workplace (known as an “innie”) and a person who has no knowledge of their lives as a worker (an “outie”). For Mark, this arrangement allows him eight hours of the day in which he is freed from sorrow. In between mornings and evenings beset by depression, he spends his days happily leading the four-person “macrodata refinement” (MDR) team, identifying scary-looking digits on a screen of swirling numbers, and dragging them into a digital trash can (yep, that’s it). The world of Lumon is shaped by a corporate “culture” that is its own religion, complete with memorized doctrine, totemic worship, and punitive practices of forced confession.

The plot is put in motion by the sudden disappearance in the work world of Mark’s closest friend, Petey, and his appearance in the outer world to a Mark who has no idea who he is. Petey’s sudden and unexplained departure at work prompts Mark, as an innie, to reconsider that his workplace may not be all it seems, which sets Mark as outie on a quest to discover what it is that he actually does all day at Lumon. Over the nine episodes of its first season, we watch as Mark the outie crawls himself out of his sadness to try and unravel the mystery, while the band of innies at MDR transform their workplace banter of grudging affection into the conspiratorial plotting of revolutionaries that together set out to uncover the truth of both what they do and who they are.

For all of its immediate pleasures of fantastic acting and immaculate aesthetics, the show is more ideologically ambitious than any I’ve seen in years. The central theme of Severance is the alienation of labor. In his classic reflection on the subject, Karl Marx argued that modern labor has become increasingly alienating due to the isolation of work into discrete and repetitive tasks, disconnected from both a finished product and the market in which that product might be sold. Alienation from the product that one produces soon leads to an alienation from oneself as a worker, and culminates in an alienation from oneself as a human being in community with other human beings. The scandal of alienation, then, is that what we produce out of our own power acquires such power over us that we disappear under it. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it in his reading of Marx, the alienated person is “a stranger in the world that he himself has made.”

Severance pushes this idea to its limits. The workers at Lumon are ignorant both of what they produce and of the selves that exist outside of their workplace. Meanwhile, the outies that send their innies to work each day are ignorant both of what it is they do and of the “severed” self that does the production. Both are doubly alienated, strangers to one another and therefore to themselves. But it is the show’s portrayal of the quest out of estrangement–out of grief, loneliness, confusion–and into a world of community forged through collective struggle, that makes it so rousing and, ultimately, so moving.

Solomon Brager (director of community engagement): Last summer, when I started listening to the audiobook of Stephen Markley’s 880-page climate apocalypse epic, The Deluge, the skies over New York were red with forest fire smoke and choked with hazardous particulates. Then again, the weather in New York these days is always weird, foreboding, unseasonal, disconcerting, often inconvenient and occasionally deadly.

The Deluge starts off in a near-future that is very much like our present: The weather is growing increasingly deadly, people are getting poorer, the government is getting more authoritarian, and there are more “natural” disasters and mass casualty events. Climate catastrophe is exacerbating conflicts and driving desperate migrations. Obvious solutions to world-ending problems are deferred, stonewalled, declared impossible. Even as people are dying in ever-greater numbers in ever-worsening weather events, people maintain that climate change is a hoax. Over the course of his hyper-realistic novel, Markley unfolds the bleak futures we might expect if things continue in this direction.

The scariest thing about the end-of-days scenario in The Deluge is how mundane it all is. We are in the room for the ignored climate science, the failed policy proposals, the creeping starvation, the slowly rising waters. This isn’t the spectacular, ridiculous end of the world of The Day After Tomorrow. Instead, The Deluge is about the unremarkable and astounding choices people might make under the most appalling conditions, both to survive and to try and pull the world back from the brink. Mild-mannered scientists become terrorists, teenagers self-immolate, cops mow down peaceful protestors, desperate people do terrible and brave things. I couldn’t stop listening. I occasionally burst into tears. It kept me up at night. A year on, as we slowly crawl toward climate catastrophe, I’m still thinking about it.


One of my favorite genres to read and to teach is the obsolete dystopia, like Katharine Burdekin’s 1937 novel Swastika Night, a nightmare warning of a Nazi empire that never came to be. I hope that one day people revisit The Deluge as a near-miss: we almost fell into the abyss, we lost a lot of people and habitats and species of animals, but we somehow came back from it. Even Markley, not to spoil the ending, gives us a taste of hope at the end of the book. It’s not an easy hope, but it’s better than nothing.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): June 3rd marked the hundredth anniversary of the death of Franz Kafka. That century was Kafkaesque (when it wasn’t Orwellian), and he’s long been treated as a seer. When we search for meanings in his works, we must bear in mind that he was first of all a frail Jew from Prague, many of whose personal problems—with his father, with women, with Judaism—were transmogrified into literature. All of this made him an extraordinarily difficult person. Kafka—a new, six-part German miniseries, now streaming on Chai Flicks—gives us a far from hagiographic portrait of the man, one that’s refreshing precisely for that reason.

Star Joel Basman bears a remarkable resemblance to Kafka, and one cringes at his performance of the writer’s neurotic habits. He was full of crackpot ideas, among them an attachment to “fletcherizing,” the act of chewing every mouthful of food until it becomes liquid in order to extract all possible nutritional value. This proclivity is described in every book about Kafka, but to read about it is one thing; actually watching him do this at the dinner table, one almost sympathizes with his father’s annoyance at his eccentric son. The show prominently features Kafka’s indecisiveness with women—his inability to make decisions about marriage—which has made many theorize about the role this part of his life played in his writing (on this matter, read Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial). But in the series, Kafka’s actions are all too human, clearly the behavior of a confused young man more than anything else.

German writer Daniel Kehlmann’s script, based on Reiner Stach’s definitive three-volume biography, skillfully integrates excerpts from Kafka’s own writing without drawing attention to this fact. His dreadful relationship with his father, so brilliantly dissected in his famous letter to the man—my particular favorite among his writings—is correctly placed at the center of his life and its woes. But why oh why did he not just leave his family behind? In remaining so close to his father he added to his own misery to such an extent that we can only conclude it was essential to him. The show portrays the women in his life as likewise mostly rather unpleasant—except for Milena Jesenská (played by Liv Lisa Fries), his Czech translator, with whom he had an affair. The episode focusing on their relationship is shot and acted unlike any other in the series, with the atmosphere of a love story. Fries plays Milena as relaxed, open, and clearly attracted to her writer, with no complexes about the matter. (Among the women he knew, only the prostitutes he frequented were so at ease with their bodies.) Kafka, for his part, is overcome with doubts and fears.

The hero of the series, aside from Kafka, is of course Max Brod, the mediocre but prolific writer who was Kafka’s closest friend, and who refused to burn his manuscripts after he died, ignoring the writer’s request. Had Brod listened to his friend, he would have left an unimaginable hole in world literature. Though Brod’s own books are largely out of print and forgotten, a case can be made that he thus remains one of history’s most important literary figures.

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Weekly Parshah Commentary

Over the course of each year, Jews read the Five Books of Moses in their entirety—covering one parshah, or section, every week on Shabbat morning. In this moment when many in our community have expressed an unprecedented alienation from most Jewish institutions, alongside an urgent need for spiritual fortification, we’ve begun a series of brief commentaries on the weekly parshah, written by a rotating group of Jewish Currents contributors and appearing here in the Shabbat Reading List. The Hebrew word “lidrosh” means both “to interpret” and “to demand,” suggesting that by interpreting a text, we stake a claim to it, and ultimately assert that the text’s meaning is not nearly as fixed as we may have thought—and the world around us not nearly as static as we’ve been taught to believe.

As this experiment unfolds, please reply to this email to let us know what you think.

Parshat Bamidbar

This week’s parshah, which opens the fourth of the Torah’s five books, begins with a new command to Moses: to count the Israelites. This explains the book’s English name, Numbers, related to the rabbis’ title, Sefer HaPikudim (the Book of Counting). In fact, the book is bracketed by censuses—one in our parshah, in the second year after leaving Egypt as the Israelites prepare to enter the land, and one 39 years later, as their children finally reach it. But in Hebrew, the book has a different name, drawn from its first significant word, Bamidbar, meaning “in the wilderness.”

These two names represent two opposing relational paradigms. With Bamidbar, the rabbinic understanding of the wilderness emphasizes its vastness, linking this desolate open space with the boundlessness of selfhood and of interpersonal devotion. A midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah notices that the Torah’s frequent formulation of “God spoke to Moses saying” is altered in the opening verse of our parshah, which adds an extra detail: “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.” The midrash suggests that the verse specifically references the location in which these commandments were given in order to teach us that Torah is only acquired by one who renders themselves hefker, ownerless, like the wilderness. In the Peri HaAretz, R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk says this indicates a need for the Torah learner “to be completely nullified before their friend, and it is through this that they become united and bound up one with the other.” Another midrash proposes that the specific place is mentioned as a gesture of intimacy: Detailing time and location is a halachic requirement of a ketubah, and so these details are included in our verse to constitute a marriage contract with God. The imagery linking the wilderness and belovedness is also invoked by God in the book of Jeremiah, when recalling “the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.”

A census, on the other hand, is about the quantifiable and the delineated; it is a precise, logistical undertaking, typically associated with military endeavors or taxation. Indeed, the counting that takes place in our parshah is specifically of men over the age of 20 who would be capable of bearing arms in the impending conquest of the land of Israel. The 600,000 Israelites so often cited as wandering through the desert is in fact less than half of the population.

The rabbis, perhaps in an attempt to harmonize these two approaches, suggest that God so frequently counts us because we are so beloved. The censuses are like a shepherd counting his flock, or a jeweler counting her pearls. While there’s a tenderness to these images, they can also feel lacking: If counting is an act of love, what does it mean that only the portion of the population deemed useful is counted? What does it mean that we, as human beings, are compared to mere sheep or jewels—prized possessions rather than partners?

Over the past months, we’ve seen people use numbers both to track the devastation in Gaza and, cynically and cruelly, to question or minimize it. We’ve seen people ask how many deaths are “acceptable.” The answer, of course, is none. Such arguments rely upon notions of people as quantifiable data, as calculable value and calculable loss. The gemara in Bava Metzia, building off a verse in Devarim, suggests that blessing is found only in that which is not measured or counted, because as soon as something has been precisely calculated, it’s related to not as abundant bountifulness but as an asset to be had or lost. (Notably, the census of men in our parshah is the very metric used to determine those who will die in the desert following the sin of the spies.) This means that even counting something infinitely valuable makes its loss explicable, a mere number to be grasped.

In describing a redeemed future in the haftarah for this week’s parshah, the prophet Hosea declares, “The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, ‘You are Not-My-People,’ they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God.” Our uncountability goes hand-in-hand with a relational orientation to God, rather than an objectification. For all the fondness reflected in the midrashim about God counting us as precious items, they feel insufficient for modeling a mutual relationship. But in the matching of our parshah with its haftarah, the God of pearls is purposefully wed to the God of Hosea, the precision of numbering to the immeasurability of devotion. Perhaps the pairing invites us to hold the affectionate exactitude of enumeration, with its regard for the particularity of each individual, and to pursue the mundane but necessary work of evaluating our own capacity, all while cultivating a world in which neither life nor loss are quantifiable—where intimacy and sanctity emerge from our boundless, intertwined selves.

Rabbi Lexie Botzum is a Torah learner, teacher, and anti-occupation activist based in Jerusalem.