Steven Bayar

Of Star Trek and Jewish identity

I use one episode to teach denominational differences, another to assess Cain and Abel's brotherly love, one more on the temptation to sin, and another about God
Leonard Nimoy, as Star Trek's Dr. Spock, making the traditional Vulcan greeting sign, which originates in Judaism's priestly blessing. (Twitter).
Leonard Nimoy, as Star Trek's Dr. Spock, making the traditional Vulcan greeting sign, which originates in Judaism's priestly blessing. (Twitter).

William Shatner’s recent ascent to space brought a flood of memories to those of us who endured Jewish adolescence in the ’60s. I can’t stop smiling.

I just really wish he had been allowed to wear his Federation uniform instead of that innocuous blue jump suit, because the costumes of the future were a vital part of the message of Star Trek: inclusion of all races and peoples. No matter how funny you looked, you were part of the community.

What we wear makes a statement that sometimes is greater than how we wear it. On this, I’ll come back.

It’s hard to describe the feelings birthed by the original Star Trek (OST). Looking at the bridge crew of the Starship Enterprise, we saw three Jews (can you guess who they were?), who didn’t change their names to blend into acceptability. We felt a sense of pride watching the world flash the “Vulcan sign of peace” (live long and prosper), which was copied from the priestly blessing of the Kohanim in services: May the Lord bless and keep you.

Truth in advertising: I’m really a fan of Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) – and while there was only one Jew on that bridge, it no longer mattered. By the 1990s our Jewish consciousness was no longer subject to the insecurities OST helped heal.

As a sci-fi fan, and as a Jewish educator, I find joy and meaning when I can teach Judaism through the lens of Star Trek. Do you want to know the difference between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform? Watch TNG episode “Pen Pals.” Do you want to understand the dynamics between Cain and Abel? Watch the TNG episode “Family.”

And I have my personal favorites. Do you want to know about the good and evil inclinations? Watch the TNG episode “Tapestry.” Do you want to understand the difference between God and Humanity? Watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — the “Emissary ” episode — and learn how baseball can teach us about the nature of God.

Star Trek was developed in part as a way to present social commentary in non-threatening ways. It’s hard to ignore the lesson on racism in the OST “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode.

So I’m thrilled that Captain Kirk has finally experienced space. We are all the richer for it, because William Shatner has become a symbol of what we aspire to achieve.

It may be coincidence that this all took place, and that I make these observations, near Halloween, a time of year dominated by costume and symbol.

Clothing and costume have been a consistent concern in our Jewish lives. We’ve used dress for identification (head coverings) and had dress imposed on us for similar reasons — from medieval Jewish dress mandated by Christian authorities, to yellow stars in our own time.

What will the costumes worn on Halloween this week tell us? For one thing, they will show that we’ve succeeded in being accepted as part of the landscape. This is all the more ironic as the history of All Hallows Eve has its origins in pagan and later Christian custom: a day of fear of persecution and pogrom. The centuries have passed and days of religious persecution have become secular holidays. Halloween (along with Christmas) lost its “bite” and became a source of candy and costume.

The first week in my congregation, a veteran member took me to lunch at the local country club. I had not worn a jacket, so I was “fitted” with one five sizes too big and loudly plaid. He could not stop laughing, and neither could I.

He apologized and said something like, “I’m not laughing at you, Rabbi. You see, until about 10 years ago, Jews and Italians were not allowed in the club. Knowing that my rabbi is here at lunch and is wearing their jacket — well, the founders are probably turning in their graves.”

In a way, that was my Federation uniform, outrageous as it was. And so I smile, because for the times we see the glass half empty, it is also half full.

By the way — Kirk, Spock, and Chekov (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Walter Koenig) were the three Jews on the bridge of OST. Data (Brent Spiner) is the Jew in TNG.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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