Leonard Nimoy is not surprised that the "Star Trek" television series and movies that made him an icon of popular U.S. culture are now the basis of religious studies, especially in his own faith, Judaism.
"There are strong Jewish concepts in 'Star Trek,'" Nimoy, 70, says. "Social justice, meritocracy and the idea of tikkun olam, the healing of the universe it's a 'Star Trek' argument."
Nimoy played the ultrarational Mr. Spock, with trademark pointed ears, the child of one of popular culture's best-known mixed marriages. His character's father was a Vulcan and his mother was from Earth.
In real life, both of Nimoy's parents were Jewish, and he was raised in a traditional Jewish home.
Nimoy says that his personal and professional journeys are intertwined. More than half a dozen books have been written about the religion and theology portrayed in the five television series and nine feature films since the show premiered 1966.
Nimoy, who was with the show since the television premiere and directed two of the feature films, says this was ironic, because "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry "forbid any reference to God or religion" in the series. That stricture did not keep the show's writers from raising spiritual and ethical issues in the plots, or actors like Nimoy from sneaking in some religious symbolism.
"My own contribution was the Vulcan hand salute," Nimoy says, a reference to the traditional, spread-fingered gesture used by the Jewish priestly caste to bless the congregation.
William Shatner, Nimoy's longtime co-star, complained earlier that he was blocked by producers when he tried to make the quest for God a central element in the 1989 movie "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," which he directed.
Nonetheless, over the years the spiritual messages apparently got through.
Lessons in pop culture
Last summer, Rabbi Daniel Wolpe, president of the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis, led a six-week course on "Star Trek and Judaism." Wolpe is a longtime fan of the show. A shelf in his office at Congregation Ohalei Rivka in Orlando is lined with lunch boxes and a commemorative plate featuring images of Nimoy and Shatner who is also Jewish.
The rabbi observes ruefully that when he gives a study course on the Bible's Five Books of Moses, only a few people show up; for last summer's "Star Trek" class the fourth time he has taught the course he had 45.
Some people might see the use of popular culture as a teaching tool as a depressing development, Wolpe acknowledges, more evidence of America's evaporating attention span. But he views it differently.
"I see it as a good sign that 45 people showed up to learn," he says.
Churches throughout the country have capitalized on this same phenomenon, using other long-running series like "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Brady Bunch" as the basis for Sunday school curricula and study Bibles.
Wolpe's course began with an introductory session on the series, followed by five television episodes. After each screening, he asked those in attendance whether they thought the show "echoes or contrasts with what Judaism has to say."
Much of the time, he says, the conclusion was that "Jewish thoughts and Jewish ideas infiltrated 'Star Trek,' either consciously or subconsciously."
Coming full circle
Nimoy has long been active in Jewish affairs and interested in Jewish subjects. He has starred in stage productions of "Fiddler on the Roof" and several television movies, including "A Woman Called Golda," about Israel's former prime minister, Golda Meir.
He co-produced "Never Forget" for the TNT network, in which he also starred as a concentration camp survivor who won a court battle against a group that denied that the Holocaust took place.
A poet and author, Nimoy says his career in show business has brought his family full circle. His parents were aliens who emigrated from Russia to Boston. "Then I went to Hollywood and became an alien," he says with a laugh.