How Jewish is Dune?

(Hint: Very)

I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi. As the son of a Trekkie, I was brought up in a household rich in which the galaxy did not seem so far, far away. Instead, I was able to explore the outer reaches of the universe through shows like Star Trek and Farscape, and movies like Star Wars. Thus, in anticipation of this weekend’s release of the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 novel, Dune, I resolved to read this Sci-Fi classic to have a greater appreciation for its cinematic counterpart. To my surprise, I not only gained an appreciation for Dune, but I also noticed aspects of the book which reminded me of the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert.  Its setting, plot, and characters give the book a certain “Jewishness” that is impossible to ignore.

Let’s start with the setting: the novel primarily takes place on the planet Arrakis, a harsh desert world filled with giant space worms. The locals, who refer to Arrakis as Dune, wear special suits that conserve moisture. Without the suits, they will perish; the planet’s air is so dry that it sucks the water out of those who dare traverse it.

When I picture a desert landscape like Arrakis, I can’t help but picture another desert landscape. I think of the Israelites, wandering in a desert for four decades on their way to the Promised Land. While the Torah doesn’t mention any giant worms on their journey, it does convey plenty of other hazards, like how limited resources like food and water were for them. This is why the Israelites cried out to Moses: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grains or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers 20:5).[1]

This notion of scarcity, of not having enough of the resources necessary to survive, is a key element of the Exodus—and of Dune.

Which brings us to the plot. The Dune story revolves around Paul Atreidies, the son of a powerful Duke. When the Atreidies family falls victim to a scheme devised by their ancient nemeses, House Harkonnen, Paul and his mother are thrust into exile, condemned to wonder the desert like the Israelites did.  The reason for this cruelty? The Atreidies control Arrakis, the only planet in the universe which contains the spice mélange (or simply, spice). Spice is the glue which holds the galaxy together: it powers space travel, gives certain humans unique abilities, and is highly addictive. Just as a lack of fundamental necessities like food and water causes turmoil amongst the Israelites, so too does the scarce supply of spice generate conflict between the Atreidies and those who covet this rare and powerful substance.

Lastly, there are the characters. Early in Dune, it is revealed that the powerful Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, is working with the Harkonnens to destroy the Atreidies. The emperor is a paranoid man; he fears the growing popularity of Paul’s family and sees them as a threat to his power. This leads him to commit heinous acts, just as Pharoah’s paranoia led him to order the killing of all newborn Israelite boys. While Dune shows us the worst of humanity, it also reveals to us the best of our species. Paul, like Moses, becomes the leader of an oppressed people. Despite immense hardship, Paul eventually fulfills his destiny by becoming Muad’dib, the prophesized hero tasked with liberating the inhabitants of Dune from exploitation.

Dune’s characters are complex in that they are capable of both good and evil. When we analyze the lives of biblical figures like Moses, we get a glimpse of this same conception of what it means to be a human being: flawed yet made in the image of God – able to express the greatest kindness but also the cruelest perfidy. If the Torah is meant to provide us insight into what it means to be a Jew in a gentile world, Dune wrestles with the fundamental question of what it means to be a human being on a planet that is inhospitable to humans.

The setting, plot, and characters resemble the Israelites’ journey through the desert—perhaps indicating the staying power of this particular narrative. Dune’s themes of overcoming adversity and achieving one’s potential can also provide us with inspiration in our own lives. I hope you see or read Dune; even more so, I hope you live your life with the same courage that Paul does (and Moses, too!). As Paul says: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer…Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”[2]

[1] P. 241, JPS Tanakh

[2] Dune, p. 12

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