Back to the future

Back to the future

Ridgewood’s Rabbi David Fine welcomes Selichot on ‘Star Trek’s’ final frontier

William Shatner’s Captain Kirk is split in two — his good and his bad inclinations — in a scene from “The Enemy Within” episode.
William Shatner’s Captain Kirk is split in two — his good and his bad inclinations — in a scene from “The Enemy Within” episode.

On Saturday night, Rabbi David Fine is boldly going where he has gone before.

He will mark the beginning of the High Holiday season with a pre-Selichot screening of “Star Trek.”

“It’s an annual tradition,” Rabbi Fine said; it’s something he began when he started as the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood 11 years ago.

When we spoke, he hadn’t yet decided on which episode to show. But he knew one thing: It would be from the classic series, the first one, which aired for three years starting in 1966, not one of the several later shows.

“I only show classic ‘Star Trek,’” he said. “I’ve had congregants lobbying me to show ‘Next Generation’ episodes” — that’s the series that’s set 100 years after the original and first aired in 1987. “I say sorry, I’m an originalist. I don’t like change.”

Rabbi Fine grew up watching the reruns of the original series with his father. “As a child, I taught myself how to raise one eyebrow, imitating Mr. Spock,” he said. “I had to do a lot of exercises in the mirror to do that. It was my left eyebrow. I forgot to adjust for the mirror; it was actually Leonard Nimoy’s right eyebrow that went up. I taught myself how to make a shin,” the Vulcan salute that Mr. Nimoy, who grew up Orthodox in Boston stole from the traditional hand gestures used for the priestly blessing in his childhood synagogue.

A “Star Trek” screening “is a fun way to ease into the heavy themes of the High Holiday season,” Rabbi Fine said. After the screening, he will lead a discussion, which in the past has related the show to such topics as repentance, a person’s inner struggles, and racism.

The first year, Rabbi Fine showed the episode “The Enemy Within,” where a transporter accident splits Captain Kirk into two. “Kirk is split between his good inclination and his evil inclination, his yezter hatov and his yetzer hara,” Rabbi Fine said. And in the spirit of the talmudic story where the rabbis vanquish the evil inclination only to discover that chickens stopped laying eggs, without his dark side Captain Kirk couldn’t command his ship.

But what episode will Rabbi Fine show in the eleventh year of screenings?

“Not to compare the quality, but ‘Star Trek’ episodes are like parshas of the Torah,” Rabbi Fine said. “There’s always ways to find that it speaks to us, to our current concerns. Like any good literature you find yourself in it. It speaks in different ways that were not necessarily intended at the time it was put together.

“Science fiction is an excellent medium for that, because the author is consciously imagining something different.”

And that ties in to the reason for the season.

“The introspection of the High Holidays is an exercise in imagination. We’re imagining how our lives could be different and better,” Rabbi Fine said.

That’s a fundamentally optimistic enterprise — this year, we say as Selichot begins, we can do better. And ‘Star Trek,’ Rabbi Fine said, is a profoundly optimistic show.

“It’s the sense that we can dream of a future where human beings can fulfill their potential of working with each other. They move past the divisions that divided people, crusading around the universe preserving the values we care about. What’s also beautiful about ‘Star Trek’ is that while they’re doing that on a cosmic level, it’s really about the personal relationships between individuals. On the High Holidays, we look outward to fixing the world and also look inward to fixing ourselves.”

But does ‘Star Trek ‘work in the contemporary age? Isn’t McCoy’s relentless teasing of Spock over his Vulcan heritage actually workplace harassment based on his origins? Shouldn’t that be against Star Fleet regulations?

And what about Kirk and the ladies?

“There’s sexism there that comes across,” Rabbi Fine admitted. “I’ll point that out.

“In many ways, ‘Star Trek’ was ahead of its time in the 1960s. It had the first interracial kiss on network television. It wasn’t romantic — Kirk and Uhuru were forced to do so by an alien — but it did cross a barrier. It had a Russian and an American and a Japanese all on the bridge, in the middle of the Cold War.

“But there are aspects that make us uncomfortable and we acknowledge that. We have the same challenges when we read the Torah. There are aspects of the Bible that are hard for us to relate to. We say the Bible is written in the language of people — it also reflects the culture of the time it came out of. It’s okay to acknowledge how it brushes against our values even as it’s also timeless.

“We say its ahead of its time for the treatment of slavery, yet it still allows humans to own other human beings, which we’re not comfortable with today. It imagines men having more than one wife, which we’re not comfortable with today. We can be balanced in acknowledging both — it doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from earlier literature.”

So what about the franchise’s newest incarnation, “Star Trek: Discovery?”

“I like it. I appreciate the changing of perspective, the main character not being the captain. We don’t all get to be a captain.

“What I’m also really enjoying is ‘Orville,’” the Fox series that is not set in the “Star Trek” universe but borrows themes, style, writers, and actors from “Star Trek’s” world.

“I love ‘Orville,’” Rabbi Fine said. “I think that ‘Orville’ has really gotten the ingredients of the original ‘Star Trek’ more than any of the official incarnations. It combines the thought experiments of real imagination, which hardcore science fiction is supposed to be, and pushes the envelop of issues, and at the same time it’s campy in the ways that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were before they started taking it too seriously. It’s what William Shatner sought to bring back in ‘Star Trek V,’” the movie he directed, which many fans consider a nadir of the series for its cheesiness (there was little budget for special effects) and the problematic plotline of journeying to the center of the galaxy to meet God.

“Are we going to find God in space?” I asked Rabbi Fine.

“The point of that episode is we can find God wherever we look,” he said. “I think back to Selichot: That’s the ultimate message of the teshuva process. Finding God is an internal process. We look within.

“I think that’s also the ultimate message of ‘Star Trek V.’”

What: Screening of a yet-to-be-determined episode of “Star Trek:
The Original Series,” followed by discussion led by Rabbi David Fine

When: 10 p.m. Saturday, September 21, followed by Selichot at 11:30

Where: Temple Israel, 475 Grove St., Ridgewood

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