The Search for Spock at Congregation Shearith Israel

16239807059_7e6a82bfa7_zI have lately, with the help of my friend and onetime college roommate Frank Aronson,  embarked on yet another of my adventures as a recent Jew–synagogue-hopping on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Last shabbat, we visited the legendary Spanish and Portugese Synagogue on Central Park West, home of Congregation Shearith Israel.

Shearith Israel bills itself as the country’s oldest Jewish congregation. Founded by a small group of Sephardic refugees in 1654, it was the only Jewish congregation in New York City until 1825. The current building, located at the corner of 70th Street and Central Park West, was erected in 1897. The building’s Greek-columned facade is impressive enough but its sanctuary is spectacular. High-ceilinged and dominated by an elaborate central bimah, it is lavishly embellished with marble and carved wood. On entering, were reminded that this was an Orthodox shul by the large balcony to which the women worshippers were confined. We were surprised, though, to find a section of the balcony devoted to a large male choir, not an amenity one would find in many Orthodox shuls, Sephardic or Ashkenazic.

An amenity we had been told to expect was the attire of the gabbaim–top hats and tails! The rabbi and the cantor, more subdued, were wearing ecclesiastic gowns much like those one would see in one of the more formal Christian churches. The service itself was pleasant and uplifting, though the Sephardic melodies were mostly unfamiliar. They brought back memories of Shomrei’s former cantor, Galeet Dardashti, descendant of Persian Jews, who had tried so to hard to introduce us to Sephardic tunes.

My friend Frank, an accomplished pianist and student of classical music, pointed out that the melodies used by the choir in particular were almost entirely in a major key. To my ear, this made their Hebrew songs sound more like the Christian hymns of my youth–or perhaps Gregorian chant. Frank also pointed out helpfully that though the trope marks in the siddur were the same as those in our prayer book, they denoted entirely different musical tones. No wonder I was confused!

The rest of the service passed agreeably, not very differently from a service at Shomrei or at Frank’s own Conservative shul, Temple Emmanuel in Newton, Massachusetts.  The Torah and Haftorah readings, Parsha Ki Tisa, were ably and fluently read, though without the helpful dvar Torah commentary I have come to expect at Shomrei. I had expected a sermon from Shearith Israel’s leader, Rabbi Meir Soloveitch. The program we received promoted his talk on “The Search for Spock: A Siur on Love and Logic.” In the week since his death, I had heard and read many tributes to the actor Leonard Nimoy, the actor who had brought his Jewish heritage to the role of Mr. Spock of “Star Trek.” Still, I was excited at the prospect of hearing Spock explicated by a teacher of Rabbi Soloveitch’s distinction.

When the service ended without an address by the Rabbi, I soon learned that this was going to be a post-service lecture and not a sermon. As the gabbaim invited us to move to one side of the sanctuary for the lecture, I was pleased to find that the women, needing no encouragement, were coming down from their perch to join us.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s heritage alone commanded my attention. He is the latest in the line of Soloveitchik rabbis, part of a dynasty of Lithuanian rabbis stretching back centuries. His great-uncle, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, is regarded as one of the founders of Modern Orthodox Judaism. But this Rabbi Soloveitchik would have had no trouble holding my interest whatever his lineage. A tall man of almost boyish mien, now in his late 30s, he turned out to be a charming and informal speaker, erudite both in matters of both Jewish and Star Trek learning.

As I had expected, he began by retelling the story of how Nimoy, called on to create a greeting gesture for those of his Vulcan race, turned to his boyhood memories of the Kohanim and their famous hand gesture of blessing. Rabbi Soloveitch went deeply into the ritual of the blessing and its significance. He pointed out that the Kohanim begin with their fists clenched, then open them into the split-finger gesture Nimoy borrowed for his Vulcan salute. This, the Rabbi explained, displayed an opening of the heart, as expressed in the Kohanic blessing:

Blessed be [He]… who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and who commanded us to bless his people Israel with love.

Rabbi Soloveitch returned throughout his lecture to his theme of logic and stricture opening to love, both in the Kohanic ritual and in the conflicted emotional life of Mr. Spock, a half-human creature who revered logic but was capable of great love. In doing so, he drew on episodes from the original Star Trek series and, most movingly, the closing scene of the Star Trek movie, “The Wrath of Khan,” in which Spock smiles broadly, perhaps for the first time in his life, and exclaims to his Captain Kirk in a voice throbbing with emotion, “I am and always shall be your friend.”

Rabbi Soleveitch then went on to point out that, as Jews, we, like Spock, are caught between the contending forces of mind and heart. He summoned the vast panoply of Jewish teaching and ritual, beginning with duality of Moses the lawgiver and Aaron the heart of his people Israel. Rather than attempt to summarize his sophisticated argument, I’ll present the Rabbi’s own closing words:

The heritage of Spock’s Vulcan father committed him to privilege logic above all else, but the emotion of his human mother made the job impossible … Jews have engaged in this same struggle, with rationalists, kabbalists, Hasidim and Mitnagdim locked in a battle of the mind versus the heart. And even there the lines are not always clearly drawn … And still the battle rages.

And as my own closing, I’ll offer, from my heart to Jews everywhere, Mr. Spock’s Vulcan blessing:

Live Long and Prosper

Image: “Blessing with the Hands,” Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France © Leo Reynolds. Used with permission via Creative Commons License 2.0

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