by Leonard Nimoy
(Umbrage Editions) $39.95

Two weeks ago, Leonard Nimoy put the Spock pinch on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. In a controversy reported as far away as England and parodied on Saturday Night Live, Nimoy canceled his commitment to speak at a Fed fundraiser. After weeks of negotiations, the Fed and Nimoy had failed to agree on which images Nimoy could present from his new art photography book, Shekhina (Hebrew for "the feminine aspect of God").

Nimoy asserted that his particular exploration of God's female essences--showing her naked and wrapped in ritual objects worn, in more conservative circles, only by men--was critical to his Jewish journey, a journey culminating in Shekhina. The Fed, whose primary function is to support social services and educational programs here and in Israel, wanted Nimoy to discuss his Jewish journey, period.

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, 71-year-old Nimoy told me that his book "elevates the position of women," and that, he said, "is the real issue."

Last June, the Fed selected "My Jewish Journey" from the four presentation topics Nimoy offered. The idea of Shekhina, then unpublished, didn't faze anyone--until September, when the details of Shekhina became public, and the Fed received calls. Lots of calls. Kalindi Adler, the Fed's director of marketing and communications, says that complaints came "not just [from] the Orthodox, whom you might expect to object, [but] from across the board."

But the Fed's primary opposition to Shekhina was not so much the nudity as the negative effect nudity would have on fundraising. Adler stressed the importance of fundraising no less than six times during our conversation, underscoring--wittingly or not--a complaint many Seattle Jews (including me) have with this organization. And it's not only the Fed that benefits; Tree of Life Judaica & Books (my employer) sells books at Fed events such as Nimoy's. Jewish Book Month, on whose steering committee I sit, counts the Fed among its primary donors.

At Northwest Bookfest, I spoke with Stephen Fried, the author of The New Rabbi; Fried is currently under fire from the Conservative movement for his analysis of Fed politics. He observed, "Many people who criticize the Federation are mostly criticizing the idea of the Federation--the need to raise money, the need to ask people with money to donate. We need to decriminalize that need to make legitimate critiques."

Seattle's Fed raises money at events where the $75 ticket includes a nice Jewish speaker and a $1,500 commitment. Adler dismissed Nimoy's claim about elevating women, but there isn't a single person at the Fed who doesn't understand that big contributors would flip over Nimoy's representation of God as a naked female, let alone one wearing tallithim (prayer shawls) and tefillin (leather straps attached to prayer boxes).

Elazar Bogomilsky, an Orthodox rabbi who co-hosts Shmooze Radio on 1300 AM, claimed no objection to nudity. "Everyone has the right to express through art," he said. "The issue is displaying religious articles in combination with nakedness. Every morning, you wrap yourself with these sacred articles and dedicate an hour to prayer." Citing Talmudic law, Bogomilsky said such religious articles should be "respected in the highest manner."

But Nimoy isn't simply playing around with symbols he doesn't understand. He grew up in an Orthodox community, and now belongs to a Reform shul he enjoys "primarily for social purposes." As an eight-year-old attending synagogue, he recalls being told to hide his eyes. The descendants of the line of priests, the Kohanim, were about to bless the congregation in the name of Shekhina, and according to tradition, an unprepared mortal viewing the power of Shekhina would go blind, go nuts, melt like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

He looked anyway. "The Kohanim were chanting," he said. "Y'verechecha adonai elochecha.... It was mystical, theatrical, fascinating." Years later, Nimoy would co-opt the Kohanim's gesture--outstretched hands, fingers divided into V's with the thumbs extended--for a certain TV character who went on to intergalactic fame. Laughing, he admitted he appropriated the Kohain Hands, as they have been known for centuries, "because it was fun and a bit subversive." He appears to be at it again with Shekhina.

So is it art or is it porn, or is it merely gratuitous? I talked about the book with five Seattle-area rabbis--three Reform, two Orthodox. Each one, male and female, took issue with Nimoy's use of beautiful young women. Shifra Weiss-Penzias of Temple De Hirsch Sinai called into question "the entire artistic paradigm obsessed with photographing young, naked women."

Personally, I've yet to understand how stripping someone bare elevates her. What's more, Nimoy's Shekhina is ridiculously smooth. I shave my underarms but not my legs, and so agree that fur and feminism do not necessarily correlate, but his models' pubic hair is practically landscaped.

"If the models are shaved," Nimoy said, "so be it. I did not direct or request it." Pointing out a blurb from Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms. magazine, he added, "My credentials as a feminist are solid."

I don't imagine Nimoy ever considered the porn strips passing for pubic hair on his models. But however you choose to look at Shekhina, it would be foolish to dismiss a book that examines the intersection of women and Judaism. Since the 13th century, classic texts have asked Jews to explore the female aspect of God. And yet, in some communities, and not just among the Orthodox, women do not bat mitzvah, give an aliyah (the prayer before reading from the Torah), or read from the Torah.

For centuries, classic texts such as the Zohar have presented the Shekhina as mysterious and sexual, and with precious few exceptions, these texts were written by men. Did they see woman's power in any other terms besides sexual mystery? Does Nimoy? When he beams into your community with his new book, ask him.