Star Trek: Jewish Thought and Social Revolution

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

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Still, personally, I was more taken by the perpetually calm, thoughtful, and withdrawn rabbi, who would be (of course) Mr.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.

Forming the Future

Trek and Roddenberry both came to prominence in the mid-1960s, a decade where the rules–social, philosophical, and religious–were being rewritten. When Star Trek started, it was popularly labeled as an escapist fantasy, though it quickly developed a cult following. Roddenberry and its stars molded the show, in both subtle and explicit ways, with their beliefs.

Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock, hailed from a religious Jewish background. His parents, first-generation immigrants from Ukraine, moved to Boston and continued following their Orthodox traditions. Nimoy based several aspects of his character on his Jewish upbringing. Most notably is the Vulcan finger-salute, which Nimoy adapted from the blessing of the High Priests or kohanim. In the second volume of his memoirs, I Am Spock, Nimoy recalls when he first discovered the gesture:

“The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality… I had heard that this indwelling Spirit of God was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, and so I obediently covered my face with my hands. But of course, I had to peek.”

William Shatner, who portrayed Kirk, was also the child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up as a Conservative Jew, going to Hebrew School, and attending Jewish summer camps, although he told the New York Jewish Week in a 2008 interview: “Leonard was much richer in that regard than I was.”

Still Trekkin’

Both Shatner and Nimoy went on to formidable acting careers, although neither has been able to shed their Star Trek persona completely. Notably, both Shatner and Nimoy’s post-Trek work has involved significant contributions to Jewish culture. Nimoy, now a photographer, took a series of photographs in 2002 called “Shekhina” (Jewish mysticism’s word for God’s feminine manifestation) that featured otherwise naked women wearing tefillin and other Jewish ritual objects. He also recorded narration for several Jewish programs, including the Hanukkah special “Lights.”

Since the mid-1990s, Shatner has served as an active proponent of Israel-related charities such as Jewish National Fund, and proudly proclaims in interviews that he has Shabbat dinner with his family. His artistic religious journey has been neither as intense nor as strange as Nimoy’s, but it still exists: In 2007, he recorded an orchestral version of the story of Exodus accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

For years, Roddenberry continued to piece together his vision of the future, starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and branching into both Trek– and non-Trek related television ventures. He remained a member of the Secular Humanist movement–although, perhaps, spending so much time in the stars encouraged him to see something beyond them. In a 1994 interview, he said, “I’ve elected to believe in a God which is so far beyond our conception and real understanding that it would be nonsense to do anything in its name other than perhaps to revere all life as being part of that unfathomable greatness.”

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