Sunday, June 14, 2009

Captain Kirk and Kashrut

New technologies frequently raise new questions for systems of law. In this regard, halachah, the system of Judaic law as used by Orthodox Judaism, is no exception. However, since halachah concerns itself with many ritualistic issues that would not be of concern to most other legal systems, questions related to new technologies arise more often in halachah than in most other systems.

The rapid growth of modern technology has left Orthodox Rabbis almost overwhelmed in dealing with new issues. It is therefore not surprising that they have had little time to address questions of predicted technologies and discoveries which do not yet exist. This has not stopped the laity from speculating about such issues, especially when prospective technologies are connected to popular culture such as Star Trek and Star Wars. This post will discuss two of the major halachic questions raised by Star Trek and outline their possible resolutions. First, is replicated food kosher? Second, can aliens or androids convert to Judaism?

The first thing that many people think about when they think about Orthodox restrictions is kashrut, the traditional dietary restrictions on religious Jews. Star Trek: The Next Generation and later shows have a technology called “replicators” which allow users to materialize practically any food from pure energy. This technology raises a variety of issues. First, can an Orthodox Jew replicate non-kosher food such as pork and then consume it? The answer appears to be yes. Kashrut does not depend so much on the chemical composition of a food, but its history. For example, gelatin made from a ritually slaughtered animal is kosher while gelatin made from an improperly slaughtered kosher animal might be chemically identical and yet not be kosher.

However, there is an halachahic question whether food that looks non-kosher can be consumed. For example, many will not consume fake bacon made from beef or cheeseburgers which use soy meat. If one believes that such foods are unacceptable, then replicated pork would be likewise unacceptable.

There are however, other problems raised by replicators that only become obvious if one has spent far too much time with Star Trek. In particular, the Enterprise 1701-D has a hydroponics garden. Fans traditionally explain this garden by pointing out that in Star Trek canon certain molecules cannot be replicated and others are very difficult to replicate. Thus, when called to replicate food that contains those molecules, the replicators transport the molecules from stored material, in some cases, material harvested from the hydroponics garden. While for most purposes plant matter is always kosher, there are two circumstances where this is not the case: First, grape products have their own rules of kashrut for historical reasons. Second, during Passover, leavened products are not kosher. Thus, it is possible that material in the Enterprise’s garden could result in the replicators making unkosher food. This is a serious issue, since tools used to prepare non-kosher food can under many circumstances become not kosher themselves and transmit their kashrut status to any new food subsequently made with them. It is not clear from the description of how replicators function to decide whether or not replicators have this problem.

One general question that is raised by many science fiction shows is whether aliens can convert to Judaism. This question is difficult in that there’s no clear halachic definition of what constitutes a person. If one is a Young Earth Creationist, then this shouldn’t be a hard question to answer: people are those beings descended from Adam and Eve. However, Star Trek is explicitly not YEC, so that answer is out. Moreover, in the Star Trek universe it is possible for humans to interbreed with certain types of aliens (Spock of course is only half-Vulcan). Thus, an interfertility test as favored in the biological species definition may not work.

Moreover, it isn’t clear that a nonhuman being could not still be subject to halachah if that being was sufficiently sentient. This is connected to the more realistic question of whether an African Grey Parrot can convert. I have been told but not seen in any source that the test for whether someone is too mentally challenged to be able to understand enough to convert is whether they can recite and explain the Shemai. It isn’t clear to me that a Grey Parrot would not be able to do so (although whether you could convince an African Grey that this vaguely defined, amorphous, unobservable “God” entity existed is not at all obvious to me).

A question related to that of aliens converting is that of robots. In this case, there is a more direct precedent, in that this question has been asked previously about golems. A golem in Jewish folklore is a large creature made of clay which is animated by mystical rituals. (Under no circumstances should one confuse a golem with a small creature with a magical ring that it calls its Precious. That would be confusing fact with fiction) Golems cannot convert and cannot take part in any mitzvah since they have no souls. Presumably, the same result would apply to robots and androids. So if anyone of you wanted to see Data as a cantor, you are out of luck.

So the food on the Enterprise is kosher, but you can’t form a minyan with Data.


Gadfly said...

Joshua, you missed the most basic issue, I think.

You have to have two food replicators, one for dairy and one for non-dairy.

Joshua said...

No. For the same reason that replicated pork isn't treif. The halachic standards of dairy and meat are defined by coming from specific animals, not the chemical equivalents. There's no problem for example replicating a cheese burger.

Gadfly said...

Ahh, but could you not have some rabbi, in the spirit of Shia jurists disputing hadith, etc., find differently? To riff on the Xn New Testament... a ruling on the spirit of the law? A ultra-Reconstructionist-type angle?

And, you noted in the main post, that on chemical equivalents vs. animal sources, the answer "appears to be yes."

If it's not, no cheezburger for Star Trek LOLCats, and definitely no bacon cheezburger.

Ed Greenberg said...

It should also be noted that, if you accept the Pocket Books series of paperback books as Star Trek Canon, you can prove that Spock is Jewish, by birth. IIRC, tn the story Ishmael, by Barbara Hambley, it's established that Amanda Greyson has a matriarchal ancestry to a Jewish mother, by way of Aaron Stempel.