AMC series as morality play

AMC series as morality play

Emanuel panel to discuss 'Walking Dead' issues

“The Walking Dead,” for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a popular AMC show, based on a comic book series, that shows the adventures of a group of human beings as they try to survive a post-apocalyptic world filled with flesh-eating zombies.

Whether or not that appeals to you as a premise that will lure you to sitting slack-jawed in front of your television set (or your computer, or your iPad, or your tiny little cellphone), clearly the characters’ situation would lead them to have to make a number of moral decisions. Our world is rarely as stark as theirs, so our choices rarely are as black and white.

That is a great opportunity for a rabbi, so Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel in Franklin Lakes – whose children watch the show, and have lured him into its orbit, as well – decided to take it.

On November 10, a panel will meet at the shul to consider “‘The Walking Dead’ and Moral Absolutes.”

“I would say that there are moral dilemmas in every episode of the show,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It is a very violent show – it is about a zombie apocalypse – but every episode examines what the core group of characters is willing to do to survive and to protect each other, and how they relate to each other. The question is how we retain our humanity and our moral compass when we are in the most extreme possible positions, and our inner morality is challenged.

“This has implications for all of us; it certainly has Jewish implications, and moral implications for Jewish history.”

To make the discussion more complex, Rabbi Prouser invited a broad range of speakers to look at moral issues from many angles. The speakers are Archpriest Eric Tosi, who is both secretary of the Orthodox Church in America (Russian Orthodox, that is), and a former U.S. Army captain and tank platoon commander; Dr. Alyssa Gray, who was just named to a chair in rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and two lawyers, Moshe Horn, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney who specializes in criminal ethics, and Richard Altabef, who advises CBS News, “60 Minutes,” and Univision News.

“There certainly will be a Jewish perspective, but the program is not exclusively Jewish,” Rabbi Prouser said. “Father Tosi, I imagine, will imagine it from a theological perspective. Dr. Gray will give the rabbinic perspective, and draw from Jewish history, and extreme situations in which Jews have found themselves. Moshe Horn and Richard Altabef will bring the legal perspective – was this action defensive or criminal? As a lawyer, how would you defend it?”

“We are fascinated by zombies,” Dr. Gray said. “They are beings that clearly once were human – but are they still human? What is the difference between them and us?

According to legend, “They’re not like vampires; they were people just like you and me; they died and were reanimated,” she said.

But are they still human? “If I pick up a gun and shoot a zombie, have I committed murder?” she asked.

“There are some ideas in rabbinic and medieval Judaism about what makes a human being,” she continued. “One way of referring to a human being is as a medaber – a being that can speak.” It’s the ability to communicate, not necessarily through speech but in some way, that makes us human, in the view, she said, of Onkelos and Rashi, among other commentators. “But zombies have lost that ability.

“It is the presence of an intellect, a soul, that makes a difference. A zombie is essentially a walking robot with very, very bad programming.

“The panel will be a lot of fun,” Dr. Gray concluded.

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser, Archpriest Eric Tosi, Dr. Alyssa Gray, Moshe Horn, and Richard Altabef.

What: A panel discussion, “The Walking Dead” and Moral Absolutes.

Where: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes

When: Sunday, November 10, at 7 p.m.

Why: To discuss the real-world moral dilemmas that the TV show highlights, albeit unrealistically.

How: For more information and reservations – which are suggested – call 201-560-0200 or email

Caveat: The evening will include often-gory excerpts from the show; parents are warned.

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