A new series of Star Trek premieres this weekend. To many of the franchise’s ardent fans, this is an event of quasi-religious significance. For me, it’s a reminder of an actual religious awakening that happened long ago, when I was a child and the U.S.S. Enterprise was embarking on its very first voyage.
One of the things that enabled the original and short-lived Star Trek series to exert such a hold on America was the ingenious character of Spock, played of course by Leonard Nimoy. Even with those ridiculous pointy ears, Spock had that sense of seriousness that one looks for in a priest (if not in a rabbi) and perhaps this is what made the show so penetrating, but Spock and Kirk and company also would to take us to “the final frontier—to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
My brother and I watched the show avidly, and knew this was camp, but we couldn’t help but to make certain religious associations. For one thing, Spock had that Vulcan salute, which he appropriated from the hand signs that the Cohanim make when they recite the priestly blessings in synagogue. Then there were the various “civilizations” and societies they encountered and destroyed like “Vaal”—a getchke tyrant that sounded like one of the Canaanite nation-gods. There was a sense that the show grappled with grand spiritual themes. Others might scoff at this idea, but they were just blind to the truth, we thought.
I remember one particular episode on Star Trek where Spock and Kirk met up with some kind of monster. It was a monster capable of great destruction but also love and tenderness. He could not kill it, nor could he control it. Kirk wanted to pull away from it, but Spock felt he must communicate with the monster even if doing so could kill him.
Spock used a technique called the Vulcan mind-meld to connect with this creature. Though it caused him terrible pain, he was able to communicate with its mind and form some kind of bond. Spock came into painful touch with the monster, but only by going into a mild trance for a few minutes, then screaming pain, pain followed by an uncontrollable pseudo-religious rant.
Aha, I thought. This “proved” that Spock had a transcendent side. He was trying bravely to make contact with a being he could not understand. Were we not also trying in shul to communicate with God, despite the terror involved—a being we were deeply scared of, could kill us at any instant yet with whom we also was supposed to identify with and even feel love?
Yet the actual goings-on in the synagogue couldn’t be more different. Shul, unlike the Enterprise, was formulaic and predictable. A man named Roth, a survivor, read the Torah with the precision of a WWI artillery gunner. The rabbi spoke with the rigid solemnity of a teller issuing a bank check. These wonderful Jews were doing their best, but there was no direct G-d engagement, or if there was, it was “God” at a safe distance. Of course, you had to have a Jewish soul to forgive this kind of soul-lessness, which was saturated with the rectitude of real piety. These were men from the war with not much taste for spiritual jazz. Shul for them was like trying to say a spirited “I love you” to someone with whom you have a very long and complicated history.
Still, that episode took hold of my imagination. I started to feel that the show had set up an ideal for how one might try to “touch the mind of G-d” if one dared.
Around the time I became bar mitzvah I went to study in yeshiva full time. Here davening also was scheduled, but in yeshiva people had tasted the rich mad milk of religion. People prayed as if they meant it. The shemoneh esreh, the silent devotion was long, very long. People, young old, moved and prayed as if their lives depended on it, gesticulating wildly and silently—sometimes painfully—and they revealed their hearts to the Creator. The Sabbath service was sublime and late in the day in the summer, as the room darkened, the Rosh Hayeshiva together with a hundred young men would sing low deep songs that seemed to draw strength from the mighty currents of underground rivers. And everyone felt the soft nature of man, his wishes, his frailties, our temporariness in this world and we became melded and merged as if one. What is the hope of man? What will be his end? And when the Sabbath departed we were heavy but also light with the feeling of clean one gets after a funeral. And so we began the evening prayer—the very first of the week—in a kind of merged state with the Holy One and with each other
Here too, God was not so much engaged with as we were his faithful, who toiled in the wide world of his words. What does this verse mean or that one? What defines kosher and treyf? We would courageously use heart and intellect to try and divine His will.
In contrast to the men at shul, we were young, born into a materially blessed generation of America, post-Vietnam. We wore the white snow of virtue because we had not yet encountered the sexual and social perplexities that can wear down a man’s faith. Neither was our relationship with God tested by war and betrayal. This was our way and it was a good one.
The kind of davening in yeshiva stayed with me my whole life and inspired me, even as it wasn’t a daring “confrontation” such as I had fantasized about.
Nevertheless, it was in yeshiva that I learned of the midrash that relates that the first two of the ten commandments were heard directly from God. But the people became terrified of Him—the thunder, the lightning, the greatness of His presence. They ran for their lives. Moses then had to calm them down and personally transmitted the rest. They had wanted to be close, then they needed to be far—apparently, a direct engagement with the Creator could kill. This felt very real and sensible to me, and perhaps Leonard Nimoy had thought about this as well.
In some of his later interviews, the venerable actor revealed that he was inspired to create art and what he called “illumination” from his experiences in the synagogue. When he was eight years old, his family took him to shul on the high holidays, and he witnessed the priestly blessing. His father admonished him (as my father had done to me) not to look at the priests as they blessed the congregation. He was told that the shekhina, the presence and the light of G-d, shone through their hands and fingers. The holy light, even as it was an instrument of blessing, could fatally blind. Nimoy recalled the service as being theatrical, with chanting and shouting even as the men averted their eyes.
Maybe this is why he invented the character Spock—half Vulcan, which is to say, saturated with reason and logic, with demilitarized zones around anything emotionally difficult, and yet also human, filled with emotion and open to passion even at risk of death. Spock’s prudent self-preservation did not stop him from risking his life for the sake of principled adventure and this makes him a kind of ideal Jew.
I pray that the new series picks up on some of this and also takes on the old one’s creed: To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.