The God Complex: Writing Genre Fiction as a Religious Jew

I make no secret of the fact that I am a religious Jew, and have been for my entire life. It’s also not something I talk about a lot on here or online, as it’s usually not relevant to writing, my main focus, and seeing as religious Jews are a tiny, tiny minority, bringing it up would either lead to most people not understanding my reference or I would feel the need to provide some sort of context. However, there is a time and a place for everything, and this happens to be one where it makes sense for me to talk about how my religious view inform and impact my writing philosophy.

The ideas I’m going to briefly go over here have been floating around my head for some time now, but I was never sure how exactly I could best express them. Fortunately, an ideal opportunity arose recently, upon the publication of my first book, A Greater Duty. The idea of doing some sort of book event, a talk/signing, at my family shul (synagogue), while I was still in New York made sense for numerous reasons, but it would be a good idea for any talk I would give to be Jewish themed. So, I wrote myself a rough outline in one night, brought a book with me, and did it. I’d planned to speak for 10-15 minutes, but ended up going for a full half hour, as there was what to say, and no one seemed inclined to stop me. The talk was recorded, and you can view the two parts on my YouTube channel, here and here (for all that a channel I’ve never uploaded anything to until now deserves to be termed as such.) I hope the quality is alright; I hate listening to myself speak (as many do), so I haven’t actually watched the recording myself as of yet.

However, I will briefly summarize the gist of it here, as free of religious jargon as can be.

To put it simply, I attempt to, as much as I am capable, emulate G-d Himself in my approach to the worlds and peoples of my own design. The concept of striving to be closer to him, to emulate him as best as we mortals can, is actually a Jewish concept that I have heard about before, and like many things Judaism related, there are many differing thoughts about what the best way to do that is. The approach that has the most meaning for me, and one that I wish to promote to more religious Jews (for context, I know of many Jewish science fiction and fantasy authors, but as of now, I do not know any that are religious), is for us to become creators of worlds ourselves.

The concept of G-d as a writer first came to me from a very basic place, the start of the Torah. Beresishit (Genesis) opens with Him saying/writing “veyhi ohr,” let there be light. Especially given the opinions that the Torah was written, in a sense, before the world’s creation and served as it’s blueprint, the creation is being done with words. Just as G-d wrote (or dictated, if you want to look at it that way), that lights should exist, and thus it exists, similarly when I or any other author writes in a story that something, or someone, exists, it exists in the world they create.

It wasn’t until I read a short book (almost more of an essay, really), but Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s, If You were God, however, that this became more fleshed out and my overall approach to the creation of my universes coalesced.

First, we have a hypothetical scenario that Rabbi Kaplan lays out.

There is an island, inhabited by several tribes. These tribes are naturally exploitative an belligerent, and because of this, there is suffering on said island, and the situation has largely not changed over centuries.

For my purposes, instead of an island, I have a world, a galaxy, or galaxies. Like any people on our own world the species on these hypothetical worlds, and Kaplan’s island, they are imperfect, and there is what to improve. The last part is not as relevant, though, as I’m not literally starting from scratch with my worlds, as in there are always established peoples and civilizations, it fits well enough.

Then, the assignments, as Kaplan terms it. We want to improve the society, to teach its members to live in harmony, reduce suffering, and create a healthier society. This doesn’t work quite as well with the analogy, as a writer’s main goal is, in truth, to tell a good story for our enjoyment, though I personally to have this idea in the back of my mind as part of the grand scheme. The peoples in my stories are my creations, after all, and I want the best for them, inasmuch as the story/grand plan allows it.

Things get more interesting when we get to his list of the resources that you as creator have access to. They’re basically unlimited, from control of the weather, environment, ways to subliminally make suggestions to individuals or groups, to “guide” them on the right path, though there are limitations. You also have the capability to see what is happening at any place at any time.

The limitations, however, are, in many ways, the best part, and reminds me of something one of my favorite writers and inspirations, Brandon Sanderson, has said about creating magic systems in fantasy stories. The limitations of it, and how the characters deal with them to solve problems and be creative, is what makes it more interesting. That is just as true with our situation here, and its comparison to how G-d runs our own world. The primary limitation that Kaplan gives is that under no circumstances can the people on this island become aware of your presence, because, as we understand it in our world, if G-d openly revealed himself to us, it would remove our free will. People would either become essentially robots or violently rebel and undo everything you’ve tried to accomplish. Another limitation related to this, that is more specifically related to writing, is that your worlds must make sense.

That isn’t to say you can’t have fantastical things. Far from it! In the science fiction I write, and especially in fantasy, fantastical things are a part of the genre, and much of the fun for me. What “makes sense” means is that the world, as it were, has to be internally consistent. You can’t just change the laws of physics, or magic, on a whim because it suits your needs. In writing, such things are lazy writing, and when conflicts resolved this way, a deus ex machina, which, for those unfamiliar, is a Greek term from plays in which, at the end, one of the gods would literally come down and solve the problems.

Without getting too in depth, I want to touch on what Rabbi Kaplan gives as the reason for the world’s creation. This gets a bit deeper into Jewish philosophy, but I think I can get it across simply enough. He writes that he created the universe as an act of love, upon which he could bestow his good. What precisely does this mean? It’s hard to say, given that we all are mere mortals, but I’ll give a bit of what Kaplan writes and how I have taken inspiration from it. “The ultimate Good is none other than G-d himself.” Again, what exactly that means is somewhat beyond us, but a way to look at it is that the greatest good is to strive to “achieve some level of unity with the Creator Himself”, and to make this at all possible, G-d allowed us to resemble himself, in a sense. Just as He is a Free Being and acts without prior restraint, so d owe. Just as He can do good of his own accord, so can we. This, incidentally, is what many Jewish scholars see as the meaning of man being “created in the image of G-d.” Ultimately, it comes down to freedom. Free will and freedom of action. This also is why “evil” must exist in the world, since if we were only able to choose good, it’s not much of a choice.

The classic question of “why bad things happen to good people” is something that I have different perspective on now, as I’ve taken on the role of Creator of a universe. Being beyond time myself, in my worlds, I can see how this one horrible event was in truth necessary in order to lead to a greater evil being avoided, and to bring my creations closer to the ultimate ideal. As in the real world, if only good things happened, there would be no challenges, and limited choice. What I need in order to tell a compelling story, G-d “needs” in order to allow us to reach the desired state on our own. Of course, it’s a slow process, one that is not necessarily always a forward motion. A new generation can fall to a state lower than the previous one, because free will. As Kaplan writes, one way to approach it is like a giant chess game, with moves and counter-moves, with the creator trying to maneuver the creations into the right position.

Another key tool that the Creator has at his disposal is what Kaplan calls infiltrators. It would also need to be subtle. These infiltrators can be used as an example to the others on the island, or in the world, and can also gradually disseminate their ideas—which are closer to the desired state—to the others. Of course, even though these infiltrators would be your agents, they might not by fully aware, and, by their nature, they will often be seen as outsiders and possibly hated for it. Kaplan doesn’t state this explicitly, but from this description I infer that in this world, G-d “infiltrators” are the Jewish people, who, according to many great Jewish scholars, are meant to be an example to the rest of the world, (to inspire others to be good and moral through being a good example of that, as opposed to the perverted version of this mission that too many Jews have taken up, in which they attempt to make changes that they deem good via concepts like social justice–but this is not the place to rail against the failings of many of my fellow Jews; that will come at a later date). In fiction, this can be extrapolated to the story’s protagonists, though in my own work, trying to emulate G-d, I go further, and do have people and societies who can serve in that role, to help forward my ultimate plan.

We can go from here into an interesting discussion of what is means for characters in books to have free will; while it could be a whole, lengthy post on its own, I will touch on it here. I’ve often heard writers talk about how their characters “rebelled, refused to follow the script, or simply ended up not fitting in with what the original plan was. In my personal opinion, if this does happen, to that extent, then the writer has failed as a creator, because he or she did not truly know the beings he or she created. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, one cannot force a character to do something against their nature simply because the story demands it (again, that shows an author that fundamentally did not understand something about their creation), so there is a fine line to walk. Personally, only once has a character ever deviated somewhat from an earlier plan, and that was in a book that I did not fully plan out from the beginning, and it revolved around her relationship to another character, the nature of which I honestly had not decided on until I was writing, saw how the characters interacted, and where it was leading. It didn’t derail any of my plans, as I had not really made a specific plan regarding that plot point, but it did make it clear to me that to be the creator I wish to be, I need to d oat least some measure of outlining and preparation before writing–most of the time. I do feel, however, that this issue of characters “taking on minds of their own,” or “going off plan,” is much more common with writers that free-write as opposed to outlining.

But returning to me approach to writing, I, personally, also try and emulate G-d as much as possible via having a sweeping, grand plan for the greater universe most of my books will be taking place in, with it all building to the ending state that I desire, but through the actions of the people in the universe. There is an ultimate truth in my universe, and it is one that I hope my characters, my creations, will aspire to reach.

I should make it clear, before we conclude, that despite my personally having a bit better of an understanding of certain things in our world, ultimately, we still do not know, in most cases, why a specific negative-perceived event takes place, because G-d is still beyond us. Also, we must acknowledge that even though in my created worlds I fill the place of G-d, I am still, in reality, a normal person, which means that I cannot manage and link things in the same perfect way that we understand G-d does in reality. And, as  I think recent history has made clear, reality is stranger than fiction, restating the fact that even the most imaginative writers cannot outdo the true Creator. If I tried to write the current reality as a story, people would term it too unrealistic. However, this doesn’t change the fact that by writing, and specifically by creating fictional worlds, as science fiction and fantasy often do, we can gain a better understanding of how He runs our own world, and I think it’s something that should be promoted in the Jewish world—as I mentioned above, there are plenty of Jewish writers of genre fiction in the world, but I don’t know of any others who are observant, which is a shame, because fiction is a great medium through which to disseminate ideas, so long as it doesn’t devolve into pure message fiction. If we truly mean to emulate G-d, and truly be an example, then doing this, putting ourselves in the position of Creator, is a very valid and useful way to do so.

While, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t believe in hammering messages home, I do believe that, naturally, one’s own views and beliefs comes through in their writing, and there is what of this to be found in my debut novel, A Greater Duty, which is the first step you will take into not just a world, not just a galaxy, but a universe that I intend to craft to the best of my ability, to bring myself closer in understanding to how the Almighty runs our own world, and I hope that anyone reading this found my little exploration through my writing philosophy interesting, if not somewhat inspirational. I hope to expound on, and better structure this in the future, so expect some sort of follow-up eventually. Until then, go out and forge your own creations!

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