The path he did not take then is the one he is traveling now. Nimoy has for the past several years become deeply involved in photography; one of his projects involves creating images of the Shekhina, or female presence of God.
His images are bound to provoke more than a few feminists and conservative Jews because he depicts the Shekhina naked, draped with a prayer shawl or veils, or wearing a tefillin, leather pouches containing Torah passages that are traditionally worn only by men during morning prayers. Some might protest the fact that he is picturing the Shekhina at all.
Nimoy spoke with Beliefnet senior producer, Anne Simpkinson, about his new career direction, his provocative photographs, and his pursuit of the divine feminine.
Photographs copyright Leonard Nimoy. Used here with permission.
When did you start taking photographs?
I've been working with photography for many years. About seven or eight years ago, I started work on a collection of images of the female figure--some of which are on my web site--a classic nude series.
About three years ago, I was visiting a collector in New York, who has a rather impressive collection of photographs, all based on the human hand. It struck me that I had an image that might be interesting to him and it was the image of the hand in the kabbalistic gesture, the split fingers, that you might be familiar with. [On Star Trek, it was the Vulcan salute.]
The image is a single hand held upright, palm facing the viewer, and the fingers split, the thumb outstretched, the thumb outstretched and the other four fingers split into two pairs.
That gesture comes from something I experienced as a young child in the Orthodox Jewish service. There's a traditional blessing that is intoned by the Kohanim, the Hebrew priest, during the Orthodox service:
"May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you.
May the Lord turn his graciousness unto you,
And grant you peace."
I discovered only in the last three or four years something I had not been aware of which is that during that Orthodox ceremony, the belief is that the Shekhina, the feminine presence of God, enters the sanctuary to bless the congregation.
When I began to internalize that information, I decided that there was territory for me to explore that was the combination of the gesture and the female figure that I was working on. I began to introduce "shin" into some of my images with the female figure as a signifier. That branches out into a sizeable body of work that I have put together over the last two or three years and which will be published in a book called "Shekhina" next year by Umbrage Editions in New York.
Working with this project, have you felt that you've come to a deeper understanding of the feminine presence of God?
Well, if you are eating bags of candy every day, you're going to have a sugar experience. I deal with this spiritual issue every day--either shooting or processing or sorting or discussing or having conversations--I'm in constant contact with it.
And I love it. As an artist in whatever field that I've chosen to work, whether it's film, stage, writing, photography, or whatever, there are periods of time when I have said to myself and others: "I feel like I'm in a state of grace. I'm in touch with the bliss that Joseph Campbell talked about. I'm in touch with what I want to do, why I'm doing it, how I'm doing it." Those are wonderful moments, and they don't always come when you expect them or want them but when they do come, I recognize them. I'm old enough to know that I've had that experience a number of times in my working life; I recognize it when it comes and value it.
What other projects affected you spiritually?
I had an experience in New York around September 16th or 17th. I was in New York on the 11th and was scheduled on the following Sunday to do a narration at a program of Jewish High Holidays music sung by a choral group known as the Western Wind Ensemble.
The following Sunday, there I was narrating this event. There were several hundred people in a concert hall near Lincoln Center. I came to the moment where I was to read the memorial prayer for the dead, a traditional prayer that is read in the service every year.Some words having to do with the death of the people in the World Trade Center attack had been added, and when I got to it, I had this overwhelmingly emotional experience. I struggled to get through the words; tears were streaming down my cheeks. I was conscious that the same thing was happening in the audience, that we were having this communal experience.
It sounds as if what you're describing is some sort of relationship between the creative process and spirituality.
Yes, exactly. Coming together with the work and the personal aspect.
There's also another aspect to this thing: In the ancient kabbalistic and Talmudic writings, there are references made to the idea that before Adam, there was primordial man, and energy--spirituality--exuded from his eyes. The energy, the spirituality, was to be caught in vessels to be distributed through the universe.
But there was too much energy for the vessels to contain, they broke, and this spirituality was scattered throughout the universe in shards. The task of humanity is to collect those shards by the doing of positive and good deeds. When they are all back together again, the universe will be healed.
I'm touched by the idea that when we do things that are useful and helpful--collecting these shards of spirituality--that we may be helping to bring about a healing.
Are you referring to the concept of Tikkun?
Yes, exactly. The healing of the world, the healing of the universe.
You seem well versed in Jewish spirituality. Do you consider yourself a religious man?
No, not particularly. I certainly don't live in a kosher home although I was raised in a kosher environment. My wife and I are affiliated with a temple here in Los Angeles. We feel very close to the congregation and to the rabbi, who happens to be my wife's cousin and who I admire greatly. I talk to him regularly but I consider myself more spiritual than religious.
The art critic and teacher Donald Kuspit has called you "an agnostic mystic," "a radical spiritualist," even a "spiritual rebel." Do you agree with this assessment?
I don't know. (Laughing)
You know, for a long time I have been of the opinion that artists don't necessarily know what they're doing. You don't necessarily know what kind of universal concept you're tapping into. You may think at one moment that you're really into something terribly important and it may not be profound or important at all.
Other times, you're doing some piece of work and suddenly you get feedback that tells you that you have touched something that is very alive in the cosmos.
What I find very intriguing and very easy to relate to is [Kuspit's] discussion of chiaroscuro, this struggle between light and dark, between materialism and spirituality. We are caught up--necessarily so--in material issues so much of the time. Many of us devote an hour or two or three on a Saturday or Sunday to go to a service and get ourselves back in touch with some spirituality, and hopefully let go of the material things. The black and the white, the dark and the light is a metaphor of that for me.
I think all of that is fascinating. I was working on the female figure before I started thinking of it as spiritual work. Why? I'm drawn to it. I enjoy working with it. I like it. It's something that artists have been drawn to for centuries. I enjoy it in sculpture, I enjoy it in painting. I enjoy it in the flesh. Then to discover that I was able to find a spirituality in it made me even more comfortable with it somehow. It gave me a broader context in which to do the work because prior to that I was working more with line, light, and form. Now I find myself dealing in much more depth with the issues involved.
In your Shekina photographs, the women were all tall, lean, and very bosomy. Do you think you'll catch any flack from women, from feminists, about that particular representation of the Shekina?
Could be, yes. So far, most of the women, including some female rabbis who have seen the work, have been extremely supportive. So far. But the question has come up about whether or not I'm limiting the vision of Shekhina.
My only response to that is that this is my Shekhina and if others see her differently, want to see her in a different kind of body, a different kind of vessel, so be it.
This is my Shekhina. This is the way I see her: She is fully female. In one of my images, she is pregnant with a spiritual light. In another, she has given birth to a spiritual light. In some of the other images she is much more sensual than maternal. In some of the images she is very mysterious. In some images she is very frank and facing the camera directly. In others she is veiled.
My dream concept is that I have a camera and I am trying to photograph what is essentially invisible. And every once in a while I get a glimpse of her and I grab that picture. Sometimes, she happens to be looking at me and is aware that I'm taking the picture and sometimes she's not.
It's a particularly intriguing area in the Jewish religion because, as you probably know, the religion has been, for the most part, male based. There is in the Conservative and Reform movements a very active, and I think rightly so, presence of feminine concerns.
We have a very good friend in New York, a wonderful author named Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Letty came to her feminism as a result of a brush against the male control of the religion. When her father died, there was a period where mourning--a group of men known as minyan gather to say kaddish, a prayer for the deceased. You have to have 10 men to form this group, and on one particular day, they were waiting for the minyan to form; there were only nine men. Letty asked if she couldn't be the tenth person and the answer was no. The men went and found a Jewish male, brought him into the service so that the tenth man could be present and they could say the prayer. Now, the man that they found didn't know Letty, and didn't know her father.
As you can imagine, it was a jolting experience for her, that she was not allowed but this stranger was because he was male. It set her on a Jewish feminist path.
Do you consider photography an avocation or a vocational direction?
It's a vocational direction. It's not an avocation any more.
There was a time 30 years ago when I studied photography at UCLA when I was considering changing careers entirely. I had done three years of Star Trek and two years on Mission Impossible and I considered changing careers. I was burnt out doing episodic television acting.
I went to study with a wonderful teacher named Robert Heineken. Then I spent some time following professional commercial photographers around, quite successful people in Los Angeles and New York. I discovered that I did not want to make images to order--catalog clothes, jewelry, make-up, cars--commercial work.
It was exactly what I was trying to avoid: community-approved work, people coming together to make a choice of whether you've got it right or wrong. Is it too red? Is she bent over too much? How about that dress, does that dress fit her right? That kind of stuff.
I decided to stay with my day job and photography stayed with me as a love rather than a labor. Now, in the last few years when I have more or less extricated myself from all the other work, photography has come to the forefront. I have a studio and a dark room laboratory here at my home in Los Angeles. We have a home in Lake Tahoe, and I have the same set up there, a studio and a dark room. In New York I rent studio space when I shoot there.
Do you think you will take on another project involved with images of the divine feminine, or will you move on to another subject?
I'm going to wait to find the answer to that question. I've been asking myself a question similar to that, which has to do with whether or not I would get some sense of closure when the book is printed. Will I continue to search for these images, or will I move on to another project and will it be spiritual or not? I don't know. I really don't know.