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Nimoy’s Nudes Spark Debate over Line Between Art and Desecration

October 23, 2002
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Leonard Nimoy insists he isn’t morphing into the Jewish world’s Robert Mapplethorpe.

Yet Nimoy, who won fame as the ultra-rational “Mr. Spock” in the 1960s TV series “Star Trek,” is stirring Jewish passions with his new book “Shekhina.”

The book is a collection of Nimoy’s black-and-white photographs of women, many naked but for prayer shawls and teffilin.

“I don’t think I’m quite in the Mapplethorpe territory,” Nimoy told JTA, referring to the late photographer of nude figures and graphic homosexual sex.

“I wasn’t thinking about profanity when I was doing this” book, he said. “I was thinking beautiful and spiritual.”

Yet with “Shekhina,” Nimoy, 71, is igniting an artistic debate in the Jewish community over art and censorship that echoes the battles that swirled over Mapplethorpe, and other artists like Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili, who created controversial religious imagery.

The storm over “Shekhina” — a kabbalistic term for the feminine aspect of the divine spirit — erupted after Nimoy embarked on a nine-month, 26-city promotional tour of Jewish book fairs, JCCs and synagogues.

He defends the photos as part of a longtime journey into his Jewish roots, and a trek into exploring the feminine aspect of God.

In the book, many of Nimoy’s nudes are accompanied by quotes from such Jewish thinkers as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and biblical tales of Kings David and Solomon.

“I’m not introducing sexuality into Judaism; it’s been there for centuries,” he said. “The Sabbath Bride is the shekhina. It’s always been considered a mitzvah, a commandment, that husbands and wives should have sex Friday night to usher in the Sabbath.”

Last week, as reports emerged that Nimoy had backed out of an appearance at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s annual fund-raising dinner, Nimoy drew 400 people to the San Diego JCC book fair.

Papers from the Seattle Times to the Forward reported Nimoy’s decision to back out of the Seattle event after a dispute began over his desire to show slides and discuss his monograph.

“I expected more of an open-minded community,” Nimoy said of the Seattle federation. “I think they were more interested in entertainment than illumination.”

Barry Goren, executive director of the Seattle federation, said the group was not trying to act as some kind of “Ayatollah Khomeini,” but felt it wasn’t a good idea to have Nimoy show potentially controversial slides at a fund- raising dinner.

“I think they’re beautiful pictures,” Goren said. “But I think they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, and I thought they’d be offensive to some people.”

Nimoy’s agent, who also represents Al Franken, got the comedian booked instead.

Goren said he then put Nimoy’s agents in touch with a local supporter, Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Seattle’s Temple Beth Am. Singer signed Nimoy for a book promotion at his Reform synagogue that was scheduled to take place Thursday.

Singer agreed that it would have been inappropriate to show images from the book at the federation dinner, but added that it was important to allow Nimoy’s photographs to be seen elsewhere in the Jewish community.

“We have to make sure our Jewish community doesn’t become intellectually empty and culturally frozen,” he said.

Too often, Jewish art reflects a kind of shtetl kitsch, Singer said, with synagogue hallways adorned only with pictures of “old men with beards in tallises.”

Nimoy, in contrast, is “stirring up the pot of Jewish creativity,” he added. “That Jews are discussing art — not just ritual art — is a sign of Jewish cultural renewal, and should be encouraged.”

Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation of Jewish Culture, agrees.

Nimoy, who is a member of the group’s artistic advisory committee, is a “serious artist” who is “undertaking a serious exploration of Jewish spirituality,” Siegel said.

For Nimoy, that journey began when he was 8 and saw Kohanim in his Orthodox shul in Boston split their fingers in a “V” sign as they administered the priestly blessing to the congregation.

His father explained they were forming the Hebrew letter “shin” and, by wrapping themselves in their tallitot, were hiding from the Shekhina, whose light was too intense for men to view.

Nimoy later used that “v” sign as Spock’s iconic Vulcan greeting on Star Trek.

Years later, already established as a pop culture figure, Nimoy began studying photography at UCLA. His works exploring Judaism and Kabbalah blend black and white, light and shadow, figures and abstraction.

Most of the book’s 54 photos are of nude women, many wearing prayer shawls and teffilin. Nimoy said some of the women — one of them is his wife — are Jewish.

“‘Shekhina’ is an artist’s vision,” Siegel said. “This is not in any way, shape or form pornographic. This isn’t Mapplethorpe. This isn’t Serrano. It’s not sensationalistic. It’s highly demure. There is no image you wouldn’t see in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Not everyone sees Nimoy’s nudes that way.

“Art is beautiful, but even within the context of art, the concept of modesty and respect for women is very important,” said one Orthodox rabbi, who asked not to identified. “Is this showing respect for women?”

But Jean Rosensaft, national director of public affairs and planning at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, agrees with Nimoy’s supporters.

Rosensaft co-curated an exhibit of Nimoy’s works at HUC’s gallery in New York that runs though Jan. 10.

“To find someone deeply involved in text study, yet who is taking this into the form of art as midrash, it’s really wonderful,” Rosensaft said.

HUC curators pored over the images, looking to find a “middle ground” that would not be controversial, Rosensaft said. The 19 images they chose included both abstracts and figures, but no full-frontal nudes.

They were “the most expressive, the most poetic, and the most spiritual” of Nimoy’s works, she said.

For those who want to see all the images, the HUC show includes a copy of Nimoy’s book in the exhibit.

Rosensaft considers the show a “wonderful opportunity” to explore Judaism, which she said “has always been fraught with the integration of sensual imagery and spirituality,” such as the biblical Song of Songs.

Nimoy’s representatives and others watching his tour say they have heard some complaints, but far more compliments, about “Shekhina.”

The only other federation to book Nimoy is the Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties in Fort Myers, Fla. He will have top billing at the federation’s $1,500-a-plate annual fund-raising dinner in February.

“There will be those who choose not to participate because of the nudity, but that’s their choice,” said Annette Goodman, the group’s executive director.

The federation received a copy of “Shekhina” on Monday, and Goodman said she found the images “absolutely elegant.”

Some will attend the event because Nimoy’s work reflects a Jewish “neshama,” or soul, she said, while others will come because they are “Trekkies,” or Star Trek fans.

“He’ll offer something that I think will be both Judaically interesting and thought-provoking,” she said.

Whether other federations will act like Seattle or Fort Myers remains unclear. Glenn Rosenkrantz, spokesman for the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella, refused to discuss the issue.

“This is a matter between Mr. Nimoy and the Seattle federation,” he said.

Nimoy, for his part, is not entirely upset by his 15 minutes of infamy.

“Let’s face it: I did the book in order to shine a light on an idea,” he said, and the Jewish federation of Seattle “shined a light on my book.”

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