by: David Silverberg - Last updated: 2003-08-28
Photos by Leonard Nimoy
The backdrop is a body of water beneath broad clouds.
A topless woman, covering herself in a shimmering white shroud, is shown in profile, a breast peeking out. She is cupping her hand to her face, neck arched backwards. Her hand is dry, though, but contains one of the most potent symbols of Jewish ritual: the wrapped leather of tefillin.
This black-and-white photo is one of 55 tender portraits of female spirituality that comprise Shekhina by former Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy.
Whether intentional or not, the 2002 photography collection is raising eyebrows for mixing naked women with tallis and tefillin, already prompting two U.S. cities to cancel tour dates. The controversy has even been dubbed ShekhinaGate.
"I'm surprised by the reaction," says 71-year-old Nimoy from his Beverly Hills home. "Some people think simple entertainment is safer than illumination."
Nimoy talks frankly on his path of spirituality that led to Shekhina, a work inspired by scriptural mythology that "tells us that God created a divine feminine presence to dwell amongst humanity." As if prompted by a routine cue, he describes how his journey was sparked by a synagogue visit when he was nine-years-old in Boston.
When the kohanim (highest class of Judaic tribe), wrapped in tefellin, began to fervently pray, Nimoy's father forbade him to look. The entire congregation hid their faces in tallis, and young Nimoy became intrigued in the mystical moment of Shekhina - the deity's feminine counterpart that blended spirit and flesh, a sight too overwhelming for average humans to behold.
"This elevated my consciousness," he says, "and led me down fascinating roads of research and discussion."
Those decades of intense thought coincided with his growing interest in photography, which he began as a 13-year-old owning a Kodak Autographic. He studied at UCLA under Robert Heineken in the early 1970s, publishing work in two books of poetry. Around the same time, Nimoy rose to pop-TV fame as the stoic Vulcan in Star Trek episodes.
Now more known to captain his own ship, Nimoy says Shekhina deals with female empowerment head-on. "Incorporating tefillin is going right at the heart of the matter," he says. "Besides, in the Reform movement, it's not unusual for women to wear tefillin."
True, but Nimoy's models are naked women donning the scripture-laden leather. Often, pubic hair is flaunted. His photographs have been deemed inappropriate by two functions, one at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the other at a Detroit book fair. At the time of the Seattle cancellation, Nimoy said of the organization's attitude: "Let's not educate or introduce new ideas. Just come, have your chickens and have some laughs."
Throughout the controversy, few Orthodox communities have laughed at his twinning of nudity and religion. One Seattle rabbi called into question "the entire artistic paradigm obsessed with photographing young beautiful women." Nimoy is quick to note that he isn't introducing sexuality into Judaism, where it has been in texts for thousands of years. Rather, he intends to shine a light on an idea that affected his perspective so greatly that he writes in Shekhina: "The pictures now look to me like dreams brought to consciousness - a valuable bridge to a part of myself too often submerged by daily activities in the physical world."
Describing the photos as ephemeral is especially true of the book's latter half. Shards of light blur the naked bodies, often infusing the pictures with a dream-like glow. Light fights with dark, material clashes with immaterial, and the lens capture a feminine sexuality tinged with desire.
This isn't amateur photography. This isn't old Hollywood going artsy. This is a spiritual journey dripping with ideas bold enough to scare the sensitive.
First published in Afterword , the home of Canada's only Jewish student newspaper