Rabbi Takes Unorthodox Trek
Elisha Sauers | Fri. Apr 20, 2007
Rabbi Yonassan Gershom’s continuing mission: to find a publisher for “Jewish Themes in ‘Star Trek’ (Where No Rabbi Has Gone Before!)” His goal: to use the mother of all sci-fi franchises to teach people about Judaism.
“As an intellectual, I related with a person like Spock,” Gershom told The Shmooze. “I was what they called an egghead. So I was a Trekkie from very early on.”
When the series first aired, Gershom realized right away that actor Leonard Nimoy’s inspiration for the Vulcans’ signature split-fingered salute was the blessing of the ancient Israelite priests.
Warp speed ahead about 20 years in the future, and so began Gershom’s voyage to merge Jewish and Trek culture. Gershom was an instructor at the Minneapolis Talmud Torah school, and during one of his semiweekly classes he received the inspiration.
Gershom began telling the Hasidic tale of “the jumping of the road,” in which a person could jump over a road and instantly travel from Warsaw to Berlin, but his apathetic audience of pre-teens was less than enthusiastic.
He almost lost all hope of capturing their attention, until one student proclaimed, “Well, maybe they just ‘beamed’ them there.” The student’s reference to the “transporter” used on the Enterprise prompted Gershom to incorporate “Star Trek” into his lessons.
“They could relate to the [material] better that way, because it was put to them in terms of a modern idiom,” he said.
One lesson drew heavily on an episode from the original program, in which the transporter malfunctions and Captain Kirk is accidentally split into two versions of himself — one of them being perfectly good and the other perfectly evil. Gershom used the episode to explain the talmudic concepts of yetzer ha’rah and yetzer ha’tov, the evil and good inclinations guiding every person.
“It’s very Jewish in its perception that one cannot function without both of these two impulses, and that, when combined, when channeled in the right way, it is a creative driver,” he said.
Though Gershom continued being an avid Trekkie long after he was through with teaching — attending conventions and sometimes sitting on panels to discuss religious themes in “Star Trek” — the book idea was put on the backburner while he published another, called “From Ashes to Healing: Mystical Encounters With the Holocaust.”
Gershom finished his manuscript three years ago, but his quest for a publisher has been stuck in Warp One. The problem, he thinks, is that “Star Trek” may be currently experiencing a lull in interest.
“It’s been rough,” Gershom said. “You know they took the new Enterprise program” — the fifth ‘Star Trek’ television series — “off the air because it flopped.”
In time, the rabbi hopes his work will end up on bookshelves, even if that means taking the self-publishing route.
“I would hope that Jews would see how science fiction is a kind of midrash, a modern midrash,” he said. “You create a world in which you can examine yourself. You know, ‘Once upon a time, there was this faraway planet….’ And then we are able to look at ourselves.”
Q: I heard that the Star Trek "Vulcan salute" is based on something from Orthodox Judaism. Can you explain this?Rabbi Gershom: Yes, I can explain it -- and I already have on a different page. Go to The Jewish Origin of the Vulcan Salute, an excerpt from TrekJews.com, for everything you always wanted to know about this important Jewish influence on Star Trek (with photos).
Briefly here: The Vulcan Salute is based on the Blessing Hands gesture used by the kohanim (descendants of the Temple priesthood) when they bless the congregation on certain Jewish holy days. In Jewish ritual, both hands are held out horizontally, side-by-side. Nimoy adapted this to one hand held upright, to make it more like a salute.
I suppose this is also the place to say that, although Leonard Nimoy (who played Spock) drew a lot of his inspiration for the Vulcan culture from Judaism, he is not himself an Orthodox Jew. His grandfather was Orthodox and took him to the synagogue when he was young. That's where he saw the Blessing Hands gesture that later inspired the Vulcan Salute.
Nimoy has a strong connection with his Jewish identity and has done a lot of Jewish theater projects. However, his own lifestyle is not Orthodox, even though quite a few Star Trek sites mis-identify him as such. The Leonard Nimoy page on the free encyclopedia site, wikipedia.org, says that he is "an adherant of Reform Judaism."
Be that as it may, his recent photography exhibit, featuring semi-nude photos of women wearing Jewish ritual objects, is not something that I or any other Hasid would have in our homes. Orthodox Jews (and many others) were deeply offended by this misuse of sacred objects in what, in my opinion, is a form of pornography.
A far cry from the very modest Vulcan culture that he helped create on Star Trek (sad sigh).
The eppylover has since discovered that the presence of Rabbi Gershom can be felt on eBay, Amazon.com, and many forums and websites throughout the internet.
Shalom for now!