In an Enterprising Move, Rabbi’s Lecture Series Links ‘Star Trek’ to Jewish Values

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Rabbi Daniel Wolpe decided to examine the similarities and connections between Judaism and Star Trek.

It would be fair to say that when he came up with the idea for his latest program, Rabbi Daniel Wolpe was really spacing out. There is no better explanation for how he decided to examine the similarities and connections between Judaism and Star Trek, one of the most beloved pop culture franchises of all time.
Wolpe, of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in the Northeast, began his three-part series, “Judaism in the Final Frontier,” on Feb. 16 (it concludes March 1). Wolpe, who grew up watching the show and has taught this course for many years, met Leonard Nimoy, the Jewish actor who played Spock in various iterations of the series, several years ago at a Jewish Federation event in Orlando, Fla.
“I am huge Trekkie. I have been one since I was a little kid,” the rabbi, 51, told the Jewish Exponent.
Star Trek was about much more than science fiction, he explained. It was the first show to condemn the Vietnam War and was a pioneer in showcasing equal rights and respect among different races in the 1960s.
“It wasn’t just science fiction,” he said. “It was really about issues.”
He showed the 30 attendees the episode, “The Enemy Within,” from Star Trek: The Original Series. The program also screens episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. 
In “The Enemy Within,” first broadcast in 1966, Captain James Kirk, played by Jewish actor William Shatner, is transported to the ship from a planet; however, the transporter malfunctions, creating an evil, duplicate Kirk.
According to Wolpe, Kirk’s internal debate about how to defeat his evil self is the definition of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov, the evil and good inclination in Judaism.
“The best of Star Trek is metamorphosis,” he said to the audience.
Wolpe discussed good and evil using texts from the Midrash. Like Judaism, Star Trek shows that good cannot exist without evil. Kirk struggles with making decisions and wanting to kill his evil self, but eventually realizes he needs both. The episode concludes with both Kirks going to the planet, with only the “good” one returning.
Everyone needs to find a balance between his or her yetzer hara and yetzer hatov, Wolpe stressed.
“In Judaism, we don’t divide the soul being good and the body being bad,” he said. “We say that a human being is made up of positive aspects and negative.
“The same motivations that make you do the things you are proud of are the same motivations that make you do the things in life you are ashamed of,” he added. “The evil side, properly channeled through the positive side, is what allows you the means to achieve.”
He explained to the audience that yetzer hara isn’t always “animalistic” like Kirk was on Star Trek. It can represent a secret or embarrassing things a person did.
The rabbi gave Shatner credit for portraying the two sides so well. With yetzer hatov, he was uneasy and spoke softly; conversely, he was brash and forceful as the yetzer hara.
“Evil in us is always trying to get out — and the good is always trying to keep it in,” he noted.
The episode also had the evil Kirk attempt to force himself on Grace Lee Whitney, who played officer Janice Rand on the show. Rape was never seen or discussed on TV in the 1960s, so this scene was a shock to audiences at the time. Wolpe explained how sexual urges express themselves through yetzer hara and yetzer hatov. 
Among the attendees at the event was self-described fellow Trekkie Randy Goldstein. Goldstein, 42, grew up watching the original Star Trek on syndication on channels 29 and 17 and has seen every episode many times over. He knew Shatner and Nimoy were Jewish and, as he got older, realized there were Jewish undertones in the show.
He noted when Spock greeted people, his hand gesture was actually the ancient Jewish priestly blessing.
“He would only have known that if he was Jewish,” Goldstein said.
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