Rabbi Takes Unorthodox Trek

By Elisha Sauers

Published April 20, 2007, issue of April 20, 2007.
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Rabbi Yonassan Gershom’s continuing mission: to find a publisher for “Jewish Themes in ‘Star Trek’ (Where No Rabbi Has Gone Before!)” His goal: to use the mother of all sci-fi franchises to teach people about Judaism.

“As an intellectual, I related with a person like Spock,” Gershom told The Shmooze. “I was what they called an egghead. So I was a Trekkie from very early on.”

When the series first aired, Gershom realized right away that actor Leonard Nimoy’s inspiration for the Vulcans’ signature split-fingered salute was the blessing of the ancient Israelite priests.

Warp speed ahead about 20 years in the future, and so began Gershom’s voyage to merge Jewish and Trek culture. Gershom was an instructor at the Minneapolis Talmud Torah school, and during one of his semiweekly classes he received the inspiration.

Gershom began telling the Hasidic tale of “the jumping of the road,” in which a person could jump over a road and instantly travel from Warsaw to Berlin, but his apathetic audience of pre-teens was less than enthusiastic.

He almost lost all hope of capturing their attention, until one student proclaimed, “Well, maybe they just ‘beamed’ them there.” The student’s reference to the “transporter” used on the Enterprise prompted Gershom to incorporate “Star Trek” into his lessons.

“They could relate to the [material] better that way, because it was put to them in terms of a modern idiom,” he said.

One lesson drew heavily on an episode from the original program, in which the transporter malfunctions and Captain Kirk is accidentally split into two versions of himself — one of them being perfectly good and the other perfectly evil. Gershom used the episode to explain the talmudic concepts of yetzer ha’rah and yetzer ha’tov, the evil and good inclinations guiding every person.

“It’s very Jewish in its perception that one cannot function without both of these two impulses, and that, when combined, when channeled in the right way, it is a creative driver,” he said.

Though Gershom continued being an avid Trekkie long after he was through with teaching — attending conventions and sometimes sitting on panels to discuss religious themes in “Star Trek” — the book idea was put on the backburner while he published another, called “From Ashes to Healing: Mystical Encounters With the Holocaust.”

Gershom finished his manuscript three years ago, but his quest for a publisher has been stuck in Warp One. The problem, he thinks, is that “Star Trek” may be currently experiencing a lull in interest.

“It’s been rough,” Gershom said. “You know they took the new Enterprise program” — the fifth ‘Star Trek’ television series — “off the air because it flopped.”

In time, the rabbi hopes his work will end up on bookshelves, even if that means taking the self-publishing route.

“I would hope that Jews would see how science fiction is a kind of midrash, a modern midrash,” he said. “You create a world in which you can examine yourself. You know, ‘Once upon a time, there was this faraway planet….’ And then we are able to look at ourselves.”


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