| Leonard Nimoy: Photographer |
Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2002; 11:30 a.m. ET
Most people know Leonard Nimoy as an actor, especially for his role as the Vulcan, Spock, in the sci-fi television series, "Star Trek." He has also directed and produced various Star Trek movies for the big screen and starred in numerous stage productions. And he has hosted "In Search of ..." and acted as host/narrator of "Ancient Mysteries" on the A&E network.
Nimoy is also a photographer and his first book of images, "Shekhina," is stirring controversy among members of the Jewish faith and igniting an artistic debate. The book consists of black and white pictures of women sometimes nude or draped in traditional Jewish prayer raiments. "It's a photographic essay on the subject of the Shekhina, which is the feminine presence of God, the feminine aspect of divinity," said Nimoy in an interview with the Seattle Times. "This is not some figure that is a foggy mist in a cloud somewhere. I have depicted her as being a flesh-and-blood woman."
| Shekhina |
Nimoy was online Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 11:30 a.m. ET, to discuss his book of photography and what some consider the sexualization of a spiritual subject.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I presume you are not going for shock value for the sake of shock. Please tell us what statements you wish to make with "Shekhina".
Leonard Nimoy: This is a book about the feminine presence of God. The concept come from ancient mythology. It's found in the Kabbalah which is Jewish mysticism. I've been interested in it for a long time. The sensuality/sexuality is not something that I've invented. It's been in the writings for thousands of years, ever since the second century c.e.
Wheaton, Md.: To what extent is your work inspired by the Jewish feminist work of the last 20-30 years to incorporate the female divine into Jewish thought and practice, and could you cite any books or authors who helped you on your path to this book?
Leonard Nimoy: I'm an admirer of a woman named Letty Cottin Pogrebin. She's one of the co-founders of Ms. magazine and she wrote a book called Debra, Golda and Me and is a leading figure in the Jewish feminist movement. She wrote a very nice comment for my book cover and I'm very proud to have it there because I consider her an important authority.
Potomac, Md.: Has most of the criticism about this book come from men or women in the Jewish community? Speaking as a liberal Jewish woman, I think it's about time someone recognized the female nature of God.
Leonard Nimoy: I agree and, in fact, most of the concern has come from men. Women have been overwhelmingly supportive. It has always been a patriarchal religion and the position of women has always been limited.
Mexico City: Do you think that the Shekhina essence of feminine beauty can never be found in older women? Does this essence manifest itself only in younger bodies? Please do let your true mind speak.
Leonard Nimoy: This is a great question. I'm very concerned about the issue of women of all ages, shapes, sizes, color, etc. I've felt that I could only take on a certain amount of issues in this book and to try to include all of the above, I was concerned, would dissipate the message. This book does not suggest by any means that only my image of the Shekhina is valid.
Lyme, Conn.: What are your thoughts on Shekhina. Do you see it in the popular context as an interesting image, or do you believe the traditional stories that she dwelled amongst people as a form of God?
Leonard Nimoy: I believe the latter, that she was intended to live amongst humans. That doesn't necessarily mean that there's a physical presence. Her presence is spiritual, but what I'm doing in the book is a photographic essay and artistic interpretation.
North Salem, N.Y.: Do you believe that God exists and, if you do, what is its role in the day to day affairs of humans?
Leonard Nimoy: This of course is the largest question of all. Three hundred years ago, a philosopher named Spinoza declared his thought that God is in everything. The air we breathe, the ground we walk on, the relationships we have with people, etc. I'm comfortable with that idea, however, let me point out, that he was excommunicated for expressing that idea and three hundred years later when Mordecai Kaplan expressed the same thoughts in establishing the Reconstructionist movement, he, too, was excommunicated by the orthodox elders and his book was burned. I am in favor of people having a free exchange of ideas.
Wheaton, Md.: Congratulations on the book, I think its great! Do you have any plans to visit Israel with it soon?
Leonard Nimoy: Interesting idea. I would love to. No plans at the moment.
Bethesda, Md.: The concept is a powerful one, and I'm glad to see it explored. It is as an ancient idea, and I'm amazed to learn through the Post that the book is considered controversial. The sexual and spiritual have been intertwined as far back as the Goddess of Willendorf and probably further.
I have viewed the sampling on the Web site and am quite excited to buy the book. Will there be a series of these explorations?
What was the initial inspiration for these photos?
To take this view -- this intermingling of sexuality and spirituality, I think it is uncommon in this day and age -- and it is complex. Each person's perception of it different. Can you explain your perception of sexuality and spirituality and how they blend?
Leonard Nimoy: I don't know if there will be a series. I'm in the midst of traveling the country discussing the book and I'm stimulated by the ideas that are coming back to me. The origins had to do with the hand gesture (the split fingers) which I introduced into Star Trek and which came from my experience during the priestly blessing in a synagogue when I was eight years old. It was later explained to me that during that blessing the mythology tells us, that the Shekhina enters the sanctuary to bless the congregation. That sent me off to do a photographic essay. It's been in progress for seven or eight years.
The mythology tells us that the sexuality and spirituality have been blended for countless centuries. We're told in legend that Moses lived apart from his wife in his later years so as to be pure in case the Shekhina should come to hom. And in fact that they did live together as husband and wife until he died and that a kiss from her lips to his released his soul to heaven and she then carried him on her wings to his final burial place. We also, every Friday night at services, sing a song which translates, "Come, let us greet the Sabbath bride." The bride is the Shekhina who is to mate with God on Friday night to usher in the Sabbath. It has always been considered a blessing for couples to come together sexually to usher in the Sabbath in the same way.
McLean, Va.: Mr. Nimoy, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.
I wonder what effect traditional cultural apparatuses, including the prayer raiments in Shekhina, have had on your creative output. For instance, for much of your performance as Dr. David Kibner in Invasion of the Body Snatchers you wore what appears (to my untrained eye) to be a leather strap on the back of your left hand. Do you find much of your inspiration for photography, acting, directing, or writing, in the human body and that which adorns it?
I missed you in Rockville yesterday, but hope to make it to the National Press Club this evening!
Leonard Nimoy: The answer is yes. I'm interested in these various elements that define individual character.
Wheaton, Md.: Could you talk a little about the tradition against the graphic representation of the divine in Judaism, how this relates to the portrayal of the divine as female, and the response of people to your book?
Leonard Nimoy: The concern is interesting. We are told that we should not worship graven images. This book is an homage and the figures in it are not intended to be worshipped.
Glenville, N.Y.: Mr. Nimoy, in my opinion, your photographs should remind us that we can not hide or cover up who we are to our deity. Everything we are is known and seen. Your photographs evoke a sense of caring, compassion and love. Why do so many religions have to turn to the image of women like Mary, Laxime, Kuan Yin and Tara to present the compassion and loving portion of their faith? Why can't the mono-deity be both judging and loving? Thank you for your response. David Cash
Leonard Nimoy: Excellent question. It is true that there are feminine aspects of deities in many religions. The Shekhina is not a separate deity but is the feminine aspect of God and does indeed represent the nourishing, sympathetic, supportive aspect of the deity. For me, I find it very comforting to have an experience of my spirituality through her.
Leesburg, Va.: Why did you do this book using sacred Jewish objects?
Leonard Nimoy: The intention was to very specifically position the female in a way that would typically be connected with male activity. I acknowledge that the images are transgressive. The objects used are most often seen in connection with the male.
Traverse City, Mich.: I have looked at your Web site and I was amazed at the beauty of your photography. I am excited to view your new project. I have briefly gleaned from the scriptures that the Holy Spirit is the feminine expression of the Lord God (look in Isaiah and he is referred to as the breasty one). I have no problem with this mundane, yet beautiful attempt to communicate the spiritual. Is this your intent?
Leonard Nimoy: The answer is yes. This work has given me an exciting new path to my own spirituality and my hope is that it will do the same for others.
Alexandria, Va.: What is the relationship between the Jewish Shekhina and pagan female goddesses such as the Babylonian Ishtar or the fertility goddess that the megalith-builders in Europe worshipped?
Leonard Nimoy: I'm not an authority on the feminine deities in other religions but it is clear that the Shekhina of Judaism is not the only feminine deity. I have come across mentions of the others in all of my readings and it does seem that through the ages people have found it comforting to know of their existence.
Silver Spring, Md.: So is the feminine presence of God, as you put it, mainly manifested in the form of sensuality/sexuality? What makes it feminine -- and how do physical representations of women illustrate that "feminine" presence? Can't feminine spirituality have little to do with the actual physicality of women's bodies? After all, the "male" or "gender-neutral" notions of God seem to have little sensuality/sexuality associated with them--they seem to transcend that.
Leonard Nimoy: The word Shekhina is of feminine gender and the relationship between she and her male counterpart is referred to in much of the writings as physical and that of a consort. It is true that in the patriarchal interpretations that the role of the Shekhina has been intentionally downplayed. The readers and followers of Maimonides believe rationally that all of biblical interpretation should be without any mystical value. The concept of Shekhina is more closely aligned with Jewish mysticism specifically in the Kabbalah.
Memphis, Tenn.: Most religions seem to have some version of the feminine side of their deity. Why is it, then, that overt feminine symbols - breasts, menstruation, childbearing -- are considered taboo? Put another way, why is the feminine element so repressed and relegated to second class status in most major religions?
Leonard Nimoy: In the history of Judaism there has always been domination by the males. At times it has even been taught that women should not study the biblical writings because their minds were weak and they might misinterpret scripture. There has been a gradual but slow movement to embrace feminism. This book is a statement for that case.
Alexandria, Va.: In your years on Star Trek did you, Captain Kirk and Chekhov ever talk among yourselves about being Jewish?
Do you think that Jews existed in the Star Trek world?
Leonard Nimoy: We never had that discussion and in fact Gene Roddenberry was opposed to the idea of religion in the Star Trek stories.
Portland, Ore.: I think the art critic Robert Hughes once said that the French surrealists were the last artists that believed seeing an image, in their case a painting, could change the human spirit.
Do you take that optimistic view of art? It seems to me that in our times art has been relegated to a kind of "fast food dessert", where people enjoy it briefly, then get on with their lives.
Leonard Nimoy: Interesting. Picasso said the function of art is to tell the truth. I do believe that when art is performing its proper function it helps people to see what they might not ordinarily envision and illuminates our lives.
New York, N.Y.: As a follow-up to McLean, Va.'s question re: the "human body and that which adorns it," what is the leather hand device mentioned from Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Is it also of significance to the Jewish faith?
Leonard Nimoy: The answer is no. We were looking for something that the character could wear that was distinctive and immediately recognizable. I got the idea from a friend who had a badly burned hand and wore the leather covering.
Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Nimoy, I can't help but wonder, with your background in sci-fi, whether or not you are familiar with some of the fictional explorations of this subject? I just finished reading Phil Dick's "The Divine Invasion". It too deals with the split, and eventual reformation, between the masculine and feminine divinity.
Leonard Nimoy: I don't know of that particular story but it resonates with all that I've been reading in the mythology. The concept that some believe is that when the Shekhina and God are reunited, the universe will be healed.
The Pentagon: What is your schedule for appearing in the local area. I can't make the Press Club tonight but would love to have you sign a book.
Leonard Nimoy: I will be in the New York area for the next eight or nine days and the events are listed on my Web site which is leonardnimoyphotograpy.com.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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