Leonard Nimoy, the actor who brought to life the Vulcan-human Mr. Spock on TV’s Star Trek science-fiction series and in subsequent movies and spin-offs, died last week in Los Angeles at age 83 of end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I knew him as a congregant and genuine mensch.
While Nimoy made his mark in poetry, photography, music, movie directing and in other acting roles, it was as Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared, brainy, determinedly logical first officer of the starship Enterprise, that Nimoy became one of the most iconic fictional characters of the last several decades.
Although Nimoy published an autobiography in 1975 titled I Am Not Spock, he says he was not rejecting the role, as some people assumed. He maintained he was only clarifying the difference between himself and Spock, whom he always enjoyed playing. But he admits that he didn’t count on the fact that some people would only read the title and not the book itself. Thus, in 1995, when he published a second volume of his autobiography, he called it I Am Spock. In that book, Nimoy explains that Spock has always been a part of him.
The original Star Trek premiered in 1966 and was canceled after three seasons because of low ratings, but it birthed a cult-like following, with fans calling themselves Trekkies or Trekkers (Nimoy preferred the latter).
Spock — the character, not the actor — always sought to keep his emotions, inherited from his human mother, under the domination of his logic, inherited from his Vulcan father, though occasionally his emotions temporarily broke through.
In Nimoy’s obituary in The New York Times, Virginia Heffernan wrote, “… Spock, the most complex member of the Enterprise crew, who was both one of the gang and a creature apart, engaged at times in a lonely struggle with his warring racial halves.”
Whether or not Nimoy is Spock, he made this comment some years after the TV series ended: “To this day, I sense Vulcan speech patterns, Vulcan social attitudes and even Vulcan patterns of logic and emotional suppression in my behavior.” Apparently he was okay with that, for he added, “Given the choice, if I had to be someone else, I would be Spock.”
Nimoy’s Spock struggled with logic and emotion. Which begs the question, What actually makes something logical?
We might argue that something is logical if it derives by means of clear and sound reason. The opposite is not “emotional” but “irrational.”
Something logical can be accompanied by an emotion of disgust, of pleasure, of fear, of desire — or by none at all.
However, in the case of the Spock character in the Star Trek series, logic is often presented as being in opposition to emotion.
The logical Spock is contrasted with his friend, the emotional Dr. McCoy. Captain Kirk symbolizes the middle road, synthesizing the logical and the emotional into the whole person.
Kirk’s actions are motivated as much by logic as by emotion — with the added twist that the logic is often subconscious and not fully apparent until after a decision has been made and proven to be effective.
Finally, logical conclusions are always based upon premises that are accepted as true. If a premise turns out to be false (or unknowable), then a logical conclusion may also be false — at the least, it can have no more validity than any conclusion based solely upon emotions.
While Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek was an atheist, several observers have noted religious themes in some of the series episodes and movies, including, in one movie, the resurrection of Mr. Spock from the dead. Websites list the religion elements of the shows and movies.
One particular line of interest to me: In character as Spock in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy said, “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”
This insight reminds me of the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Religion begins where philosophy ends.”
Judaism is a religion that respects logic and reason. But it also celebrates trust. The Torah portion this week — with the infamous golden calf episode — demonstrates what happens when there is no trust in God or Moses.
But ultimately God and Moses find themselves trusting the Israelites enough to give them a second chance.
I am inspired by this prevailing of faith over reason.
According to Lucinda Vardey, in Mother Teresa: A Simple Path (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), page 185, there was “a sign on the wall of Shishu Bhavan, the children’s home in Calcutta.” This is what the sign said:
People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered,
LOVE THEM ANYWAY
If you do good, people will accuse you of
selfish, ulterior motives,
DO GOOD ANYWAY
If you are successful,
you win false friends and true enemies,
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow,
DO GOOD ANYWAY
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,
BE HONEST AND FRANK ANYWAY
What you spent years building may be
People really need help
but may attack you if you help them,
HELP PEOPLE ANYWAY
Give the world the best you have
And you’ll get kicked in the teeth,
GIVE THE WORLD THE BEST YOU’VE GOT ANYWAY.
This may not be a Jewish teaching but I think it reflects the spirit of the marriage of logic and faith.
I have a feeling my old congregant Leonard Nimoy would not disagree.