K.D. and Mr. Spock

When I was about 9 or 10, my sister woke me up one morning to tell me that our brother had brought home a little black puppy. I didn’t believe her because it was April Fool’s Day. Yeah, right. I wasn’t born yesterday. But she wasn’t fooling. Our brother had really brought home a little black puppy. He raised homing pigeons that he raced, and apparently someone at a race had had a champion schnauzer that had had puppies with a traveling poodle (stray). The guy was so disgusted that he gave away the puppies, and my brother brought one home.

We settled on the name K.D. (pronounced Kay-dee) for the puppy, which was my brother’s initials. I always loved animals and K.D. and I fell in love with each other. We belonged to each other in spirit, but not officially, and I remember the day I asked my brother if K.D. could be mine: “I’ll take care of her, and brush her, and feed her, and take her for walks…” I pleaded. I was thrilled when he actually gave her to me. I adored K.D., and every cliché about a boy and his dog applied to me and my K.D. I walked K.D. every day–sun, rain, snow, and icy sleet. She slept on my bed. She understood when I was sad. I could tell story after story of my beloved dog. I don’t have a digital picture of K.D. that I can post, but she sort of looked like the dog I found in a picture on the Internet. It was a sad day when K.D. died when I was in my early-20s.

Whenever K.D. and I walked, I always pondered and talked to God. It wasn’t long before I could not walk without also pondering and praying. I still love animals, and I still walk my dog every day through sun, rain, snow, and icy sleet, and I still ponder and pray as I walk. Today as I walked my dog Danny, I was pondering and praying, and found myself asking God that He would make His thoughts be my thoughts, and His heart be my heart, and His spirit be my spirit…

That made me think of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek. I love Star Trek. In the series, sometimes Spock would meld his mind with another’s mind, becoming “one” with them. He’d say  “Your mind to my mindyour thoughts to my thoughts….” Yup. That’s what I want with God: a divine mind, heart, and spirit meld!

Thinking of Spock made me think about Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock. Leonard Nimoy is Jewish and his Jewish background influenced Vulcan culture in many ways, including through the “live long and prosper” hand gesture. This “Vulcan salute, ” as it has come to be called, was invented on the set by Leonard Nimoy during the filming of the second-season opener, “Amok Time.” In this episode, Spock goes into something like a male estrus cycle, called pon farr in the Vulcan language. Comparing himself to a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Spock tells Kirk that he must return to Vulcan to mate with his betrothed bride, T’Pring, or die trying. The wedding ceremony would be the first glimpse of Spock’s homeworld in the series.

[Spock giving the Vulcan Salute]Nimoy felt that there should be some kind of distinctive greeting among Vulcans, analogous to a handshake or a bow. Alan Dean Foster’s novelization, based on an early script, has Spock kneeling before the Vulcan matriarch, T’Pau, who places her hands on his shoulders, like royalty dubbing a knight. But Nimoy didn’t care for this. Previous episodes had already established that Vulcans are touch telepaths. Therefore, a touch on the shoulders would be an invasion of privacy. Instead, Nimoy drew upon his own Jewish background to suggest the now-familiar salute. Back in the 1960s, hippies who watched “Amok Time” thought the salute was a variation of the two-fingered peace sign. But the Jews knew better. The Vulcan salute came not from protest marches, but from the pulpit of Nimoy’s childhood synagogue.

The Vulcan greeting is based upon a blessing gesture used by the kohanim (koe-hah-NEEM), during the worship service. The kohanim were the Jewish priests who served in the Jerusalem Temple. Modern Jews no longer have priests leading services as in ancient times, nor do they have animal sacrifices anymore. (Yes, people really do ask about that!) The sacrificial system ended with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70. C.E. However, a remnant of the Temple service lives on in the “kohane blessing” ritual (duchenen in Yiddish) that is performed on certain holy days.

[Hebrew letter SHIN][hand and SHIN letter]The actual blessing is done with both arms held horizontally in front, at shoulder level, with hands touching, to form the Hebrew letter “shin.” This stands for the Hebrew word for “Shaddai”, meaning “Almighty [God].” Nimoy modified this gesture into one hand held upright, making it more like a salute. So, technically, the Vulcan greeting is not the same thing as the ceremonial Jewish blessing. Still, the resemblance is close enough to evoke instant recognition among knowledgeable Jews.

During the synagogue service, the worshippers are not supposed to look at the kohanim while the blessing is being given. The reason for this is to focus our attention on the words of the prayer itself, rather than on the personalities of the kohanim. The kohanim are merely the channels, not the source, of the blessing, which comes from God. Unfortunately, all sorts of silly superstitions have arisen about this ritual, such as “Don’t look at the kohanim, or you’ll go blind!” and other nonsense. The real reason is simply to focus on receiving blessings directly from God, not from human beings.

[position of the hands for the blessing]Like most Jewish children, young Leonard Nimoy could not contain his curiosity about what the kohanim were really doing up there in front of the congregation. He writes:

“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.” (From his autobiography, I am Spock.)

Leonard survived his peeking unscathed, and saw the kohanim extending their fingers in the mystical “shin” gesture. That magical moment remained with him for life, and was there to draw upon years later, when he invented the Vulcan salute.

Did Gene Roddenberry know, at the time of filming, that the Vulcan salute was based on a Jewish ritual? That question remains unanswered. My sense is that he probably didn’t, or he would have objected to it, on the grounds of its being too “Judeo-Christian.” More likely, he thought it was a weird variation of the peace sign. Certainly, that’s how gentile Trekkers saw it for many years. Only much later did Nimoy publicly explain the source of his inspiration.

We should also note that the prohibition against peeking only applies during the actual blessing ritual. The gesture itself is nothing secret. You can see it openly displayed in books and on amulets, jewelry, wall decorations, and gravestones. Contrary to urban legend, Nimoy was not violating any Jewish taboos by using this gesture on Star Trek, especially since he modified it from the original version. I, for one, think it’s absolutely wonderful that something so authentically Jewish has become universally recognized as a greeting of peace. More than anything else in Trekdom, the Vulcan salute says to me, “Here there be Jews.”

On the practical end, the ability to make the salute is a bit tricky. Some say it’s hereditary, like double-jointedness. (I myself can do it easily.) According to Nimoy’s own account, He spent hours practicing it after he saw it in the synagogue. When the time came to use the Vulcan salute on the studio set, there it was, perfectly executed without a hitch. But actress Celia Lovsky, who played T’Pau, had difficulty making the sign. She had to set her fingers in place first, before the cameras rolled, and could only hold it briefly. In later episodes and movies, the irascible Doctor McCoy makes numerous wisecracks about “breaking his fingers” trying give the Vulcan greeting.

In addition to the salute itself, the ceremonial use of “Live long and prosper” and it’s lesser-known reply, “Peace and long life,” also show a strong Jewish influence. The format is similar to a traditional greeting in Hebrew: “Shalom aleichem” (peace be upon you) and the answer, “Aleichem shalom” (upon you be peace.)

(excepted from  Jewish Themes in Star Trek by Rabbi Yonassan Gershom. (c) Copyright 2004, 2009 by Yonassan Gershom.

May you live long and prosper….

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