Star Trek: Jewish Thought and Social Revolution

The famous science fiction franchise explores distant galaxies with religious verve.

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When I was young, I used to imagine a dream-team synagogue made up of my heroes from movies, books, and TV shows. There would still be the rabbi, the cantor, the sisterhood president; only, in my head, they were all either famous or fictional people. Most of the minyan was taken from Star Trek.

In my Hebrew school class, the model hazzan who led the day’s prayers was always, without doubt, the most popular kid in class. So my imaginary synagogue would have a ribald, take-charge cantor, with a deep booming voice and a gung-ho manner: Captain James Tiberius Kirk, the ladies’ man of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Captain Kirk and Spock are both Jewish
Still, personally, I was more taken by the perpetually calm, thoughtful, and withdrawn rabbi, who would be (of course) Mr. Spock, the starship’s first officer. He hailed from the planet Vulcan, and came from a race of people whose philosophy, lifestyle, and very essence of being demanded logic. This, to me, seemed like the essence of Jewish thought–or, at least, my eight-year-old representation of Jewish (or, at least, Maimonidean) thought: that logic was the backbone to the universe, a clean, crisp and ordered hierarchy through which problems would be solved, differences mended, and harmony achieved.

The Philosophy of Star Trek

The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was not Jewish–though his two initial co-writers, Bob Justman and Herb Solow, were. Several episodes were influenced by the specter of the Holocaust, which, in the mid-1960s, was still relatively recent: In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy travel back in time to the first days of World War II. “The Conscience of the King” can easily be read as an allegory for Nazi hunting: on a distant planet, a former tyrant who personally planned the execution of thousands of innocents seems to have run away and reinvented himself as a Shakespearean actor.

Born to Southern Baptists in Texas, Roddenberry became very involved in the Secular Humanist community. Many aspects of Secular Humanist philosophy are manifested in Trek, from the show’s views on community and religion (the United Federation of Planets is the governing body of the organized galaxy, and religion, as a phenomenon, seems to have died out on Earth, and to never have existed in the first place in higher civilizations such as Vulcan) to its portrayals of “God” in various episodes as powerful–but ultimately fallible–alien life forms.

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Matthue Roth's newest book is Automatic. He is also the author of three novels and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go, and is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com. His screenplay 1/20 is currently in production as a feature film.

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