Monday, January 14, 2008

Spock, ש (Shin), and Shekhinah

Star Trek lovers know that Leonard Nimoy based the Vulcan salute on the hand posture ancient Jewish priests used to approximate the shape of the Hebrew letter ש (shin).

When I studied the Hebrew language briefly, the candle-flame shape of shin shimmered amidst its blocky neighbors and caught my attention. I looked more closely into its spiritual and mystical meanings, which are many.

(I have studied and practiced Catholicism fairly deeply. I have only brushed the surface of Judaism.)

ש is a super letter.
It signifies the divine, being the first letter in Shaddai, one of the names of God.

Shin also kicks off "shalom" (peace)and "Shekhinah," the living presence of God in creation (sort of like the Holy Spirit in Catholicism).
Some say Shekinah, a feminine word, is the female face of God (like the Christian Sophia, Greek for wisdom).

ש also appears on tefillin.
Tefillin, or phylacteries, are little black leather boxes that house Biblical verses handwritten on parchment.
The boxes are "laid," one on the head and one on an arm, with black leather straps, according to Jewish law that literally follows the Torah command:

Deuteronomy 6.5:
"And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.

6.8 Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes."
(Hebrew: וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיך)

A shin for G-d is embossed on the head-tefillin box.
In some branches of Judaism, the arm box's strap is wrapped three times around the hand to form a ש across the back of the hand.

Orthodox Jewish males begin to don tefillin as a religious duty at bar mitzah age.

So, getting back to Star Trek.
In the thrall of my recently discovered love for Capt. Kirk, I made the mistake (mild) of googling William Shatner.
I should know better.
It's rare that a creator of a character, book, painting, etc. that you love is anywhere near as fabulous as their creation, and Bill Shatner is no Capt. Kirk. (Meaning no disrespect.)

Nonetheless I pressed on and googled Leonard Nimoy.
What a surprise! The man is kinda fascinating.
Among his interesting work is a book of his B&W photographs called Shekhina [one possible transliteration of the Hebrew].
The book's stunning cover photograph depicts a naked woman wearing a Jewish prayer shawl. The black leather straps of a tefillin bind her arm.

I gather Nimoy's images offend some of his fellow Jews.
To me, they are a welcome expansion of the limited conceptions of God in our culture.

They remind me of a B&W photo I had up on my wall for a long time. It showed a nude woman, performance artist Diamonda Galas, as Christ crucified. It remains one of the most powerful images I have ever seen of the crucifixion.

St. Anselm defined God as "that than which no greater can be conceived."
In other words, if we can think of it, name it, picture it, that ain't it.

If we want to go where we haven't gone before, we need help stretching what we can even conceive of.
Images such as Nimoy's are all about that.

Nimoy's work can be seen on his official photography site:
Nimoy's Shekhina

1 comment:

barrett said...

Francesca, I really enjoyed reading this and I know I want to read it again. I remember in NYC seeing men in the garment district make that gesture with their hands. And Spock! what a surprise. I see why this article/essay took you a long time, it is chock full of interesting facts. It reads very well. I am continually impressed with your knowledge and ability.