Georgiou Is a Jealous God—Feminine Power and the Jewish Divine in Star Trek: Discovery

I’ve been blessed over the last few years to get to learn and co-create rituals in Jewish spaces that uplift the divine feminine. One of my favorite resources is Jill Hammer’s Kohenet Siddur, which remakes the poetry of the traditional Hebrew liturgy to use female titles, pronouns, and verb forms. Instead of praying to the male “Adonai,” we get to pray to the divine feminine “Shekhina,” and it always feels like a devious form of rebellion everytime I chant “Berachu at Shekhina,” instead of “Baruch atah adonai.”

Most images of the Shekhina that I see are of nurturing, serene Earth Mothers, but to be honest I’ve never really connected to them. I’ve been in spaces where everyone has been blissed out getting in touch with their divine feminine goddess, and I feel like a jerk for seeing it all as a bit cheesy.

If I’m being honest, when I am trying to conjure an image of primal female power, I think of Michelle Yeoh as Philippa Georgiou from Star Trek: Discovery, whether as the stern but nurturing Starfleet Captain or her jaded, murderous dopplerganger from the Mirror Universe. I met Georgiou, Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham and the rest of the Disco crew during a Trek deep dive in 2021 while working from home and completing a Jewish Storytelling program online. As I immersed myself in Torah stories while dealing with COVID-induced isolation and professional uncertainty, I was thrilled and empowered watching women like Burnham, Georgiou, and so many others on Discovery wield their authority unapologetically in ways I longed to see in Torah stories. Sure there are fantastic women in the Hebrew Bible, like Esther, Vashti, Yael, Deborah, and Miriam, but most of the time these women’s stories are either painfully brief, or still stuck in the context of a patriarchy in which they have limited roles or agency, and rarely show any sort of vulnerability or frailty. What thrills me about watching Burnham’s journey with the various faces of Philippa Georgiou is she gets to grapple with leadership, make mistakes, and grow into her own power in ways that are just as complex as the relationship between G!d and Moses.

Star Trek Discovery Vaulting Ambition Emperor Georgiou and Burnham

I also want to say that I know that I am far from the first person to point out Jewish ideas in Star Trek–I spend a lot of time in the Star Trek Jewposting Facebook group. I would also be remiss in discussing Star Trek and the Divine Feminine without also mentioning Leonard Nimoy’s hauntingly beautiful Shekhina photo project. But something in the thorny Georgiou-Burnham bond not only stimulated me intellectually; it has also helped me process the ways in I have struggled to embody my whole self in the Jewish world. They awakened in me something I had been unconsciously seeking my whole life, but never considered I could integrate into my spiritual practice.

I was raised to be a nice, smart, well-behaved, Jewish kid growing up in suburban Ohio. My dad is a pillar of our close-knit Jewish community, and recently succeeded through force of his unrelenting positivity in negotiating the various local factions into a merger between our dwindling synagogue and one across town. Any resistance or negative energy he faces, he has this supernatural ability to let it roll off his back like teflon for the greater good and has always expected me to do the same. I loved Jewish learning and leading services at our temple, but I was a socially awkward kid, and when I would come home sad from Hebrew school upset that I had been bullied, dad suggested I just needed to try harder to connect to the other kids “We’re interested in people who are interested in us,” he advised. My family were also musical theatre people, and I spent a lot of my life feeling like I was always auditioning to gain acceptance professionally and emotionally. It also didn’t help that as a girl in a small theatre community, I would have to work a lot harder than a guy would in order to distinguish myself on stage and off. I was expected to both keep up with the rhythm of the Jewish comedy patter, but also maintain a non-threatening, feminine exterior. My big feelings could get in the way of that.

This need to always be “on” and live up to the expectations of a demanding family legacy made me see an instant kindred in Burnham, the adopted sister of Spock caught between the Vulcan world of logic and her human emotions. She has spent most of her life working to prove her worth and competence to her father Sarek, becoming the first human to graduate from the Vulcan Science academy and rising through the ranks of Starfleet to become First Officer to Captain Phillipa Georgiou, who serves as a surrogate mother and mentor.

Captain Georgiou Star Trek Discovery

My own childhood followed a similarly high-achieving trajectory. I was the kid who did a million activities, always took honors classes, and after my bat mitzvah led Saturday morning Shabbat services with my dad at the local Jewish nursing home. Though the social scene in Hebrew School was awful, I loved leading services and performing in front of the crowd. When I needed to exhale, I took refuge in uncompromising female leaders like Xena Warrior Princess, Demona in Gargoyles, and the literary versions of Mary Poppins and Elphaba. In real life, I also sought out female teachers who took in all of the local misfits, who, like Captain Georgiou, helped me feel a little less awkward and alone.

While we don’t get a lot of information about Moses’ early life after he is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter from the river as a baby, I expect his childhood was filled by an intense amount of pressure. Raised in the palace as a prince but aware he was an outsider, his life must have involved a careful tightrope walk to prove he belonged.

But a person can only suppress difficult emotions for so long, and all of that compartmentalization eventually comes back to bite Burnham, Moses, and also myself. A confrontation with the Klingons triggers Burnham’s unhealed rage and trauma over her parents’ deaths, and she leads a mutiny that not only causes her Captain’s death, but ignites a war and leads her to being sentenced to Federation prison for treason. Moses flies into a rage and kills an Egyptian guard who he witnesses beating a Hebrew slave and forced to flee to the wilderness.

My own break from the Jewish world I grew up in was less murderous, but still devastating. On a Holocaust Remembrance Trip to Poland and Israel in 2004, I wanted to discuss the separation barrier the Israeli military was building in the West Bank. I was shocked at the way I was angrily shot down, made to feel like by bringing up anything remotely negative about Israel, I was calling for a second Holocaust. I came home distressed and tried to process it with my dad, who told me “You think too much.” I suddenly felt like the Jewish world was no longer a place I could call home, afraid that my words of anger or doubt could cause the people I loved harm, and I felt like the Jewish world was better off without me. So like Burnham and Moses, I attempted to cut myself off.

But just because one is in exile, doesn’t mean that one’s heart is fully disconnected from our roots. Another aspect of the Shekhina is the clouds of glory that guide the Israelites through the desert, and the pillar of fire that warmed them at night. I still longed for the high I would get chanting Hebrew in services, and every now and then would take out my copy of the kabbalah text God is a Verb and write angsty monologues to the Divine.

Burnham and Moses start to make peace with their exile, and resist re-engaging with worlds that have been the source of the pain they have tried so hard to bury and escape. But eventually they are confronted with a blaze so bright that they cannot ignore it. For Moses, it’s a literal fire in the form of G!d in the burning bush commanding him to return to Egypt and free his Hebrew brethren. Burnham is recruited to work on a starship with former crew members, but she is then pulled into a Mirror Universe where she is forced to confront an Evil doppleganger of the captain she betrayed. No doubt seeing Georgiou’s face once again on the Terran Emperor was just as miraculous to Burnham as Moses witnessing the burning bush not consumed by flames.

And while Captain Georgiou in the Prime Universe is the ideal maternal, nurturing mother figure and mentor, Emperor Georgiou is all chaotic fire and divine retribution. Clad in gold armor and willing to run a sword through anyone who shows her disloyalty, she bears more resemblance to the angry G!d of Sodom and Gomorrah and the ten plagues than the kind of serene and comforting Shekhina I see depicted in Jewish women’s spaces. This is a powerful female leader who doesn’t feel any pressure to be the bigger person or suffer fools. There’s a moment where she slits the throat of six people by using a communications badge as a boomerang and I found myself giving a standing ovation alone to my laptop.

Star Trek: Discovery "Far From Home"

Credit: CBS

It’s also wild to me that I would be so thrilled by indiscriminate violence in this context, when I am normally horrified by it–it was the Israeli military’s disregard for Palestinian life and autonomy that turned me off from Jewish life in the first place. But I think what bothered me more than just knowing that Jewish violence and xenophobia existed was the way seemingly liberal members of my community felt comfortable simply ignoring or rationalizing it away in favor of their narrative that Judaism is and has always been about social justice and Tikkun Olam. What brought me back to Judaism was finding spaces where I didn’t have to pretend to ignore the hypocrisy and bullshit I saw around me.

Though Burnham is disturbed and repelled by Emperor Georgiou’s brutality, she is compelled by this terrifying woman with her former mentor’s face. When this Georgiou’s life is threatened, Burnham takes a moment to redeem herself for her past betrayal and pulls her into the Prime Universe.

And just as those of us who consider ourselves progressive Jews are troubled when we meet our coreligionists whose approaches to Judaism differ from ours, Emperor Georgiou’s presence in the Prime Universe challenges everyone she encounters in the Federationto be honest about their self-delusions. When Burnham questions Georgiou’s violent approach to ending the war, Georgiou reminds her of her own rebellious history. “You know your problem? No follow-through. You should have killed my counterpart in her ready-room, attacked the Klingons and then been a hero.” Georgiou isn’t afraid to call Burnham–and everyone else–out on their shit.

Watching Georgiou is so liberating, whether she is snarking on the bright colors of the Enterprise crew uniforms—”Orange? Really? Ugh”—or deliberately blinking rapidly to destabilize the Federation holograms who are debriefing her after the crew jumps 900 years into the future. She feels no pressure to conform or fear that having a negative attitude will push people away—she knows her own worth.

Not only that, but she is sexy as hell, in a way that is both terrifying and delicious. A dangerous mission on the Klingon homeworld does not stop her from taking some time out for an alien threesome while gathering intel. Later during a strategy session she starts casually flirting with one of the Discovery engineers he rebuffs her by saying that he is gay, and she scoffs, “Don’t be so binary. In my universe, he was pansexual, and we had defcon-level fun together. ” At the same time, we also see Georgiou get turned on by exercising violent punishment upon her enemies. “You should know me well enough by now,” she tells a colleague, “that I never leave anything to chance. Especially when it comes to revenge.” When a captain who betrayed her returns as a prisoner on his knees, Georgiou delights in telling him, “Your life will be long, Gabriel, and every single moment of it will be spent in our agonizers. A fair price to pay for your vaulting ambition.”

Star Trek: Discovery "Terra Firma, Part 2"

Credit: CBS

In Georgiou’s wild sexual appetite, I get echoes of the delicious gender fluidity of G!d in the texts that are NSFHS–Not suitable for Hebrew School. In Song of Songs, with Solomon longing for their G!d-lover to take them into the open, to “lodge among the henna shrubs” and “to drink of the spiced wine of my pomegranate juice.” I see clear echoes of the way G!d speaks of the wanton ways of Israel throughout Nevi’im. We see this especially with the prophet Ezekiel, who is commanded all levels of physical and spiritual humiliation as symbolic punishment for the Israelites insolence. These include but are not limited to, ingesting a scroll, shutting himself up and binding himself with cords, and lying with his head on a brick for three hundred and ninety days while being whipped in public.

All of these examples though are still with a G!d that is generally coded as male, with the prophet taking the position of the woman being dominated. Perhaps it is wrong for me to be less disturbed by dictatorial violence coming from a female leader like Georgiou than a male deity in the Torah and the prophets who follow—but I crave to feel like my whole self is welcome in the story. The Shekhina is expected to be the nurturer, the soother, the untouchable, unknowable. Too often women are considered the more emotionally in touch gender, the kinder, more peaceful, the moderating force. We have prayers like “Women of Valor” and Talmud stories of clever wives who secretly pull the strings behind the scenes. But if they are so smart, why aren’t they the ones leading? Why don’t they have the agency to make mistakes and learn from them and be transformed?

What did start to scratch the itch of Jewish gender rebellion was when I read Israeli feminist poet Yona Wallach’s “Tefillin,” in which she reimagines the ritual in which mainly Orthodox men wrap their arms in leather straps attached to boxes containing holy inscriptions as a BDSM fever dream. She entreats her partner to take the leather straps and “Rub them against me, Arouse me everywhere/ Make me faint with sensations/ Run them across my clitoris/ Tie up my hips with them/ So I can come quickly.”

Yael Kanarak’s Toratah project aims to reshape the Jewish bible to give women the agency they have been lacking in the main narrative. Her multi-year project has involved commissioning a completely regendered version of the Bible, which flips the male and female roles, thus expanding the possible ways for men and women to see themselves in the text.In this rendering, Moses becomes the prophetess “Moshah,” and in her relationship with her deity “Tehovah,” gets to experience the full range of ascension, prophecy, and heartbreak. It is Moshah who receives the call to be the divine messenger, who must put her own discomfort with leadership aside and accept the call to action to lead her people out of Egypt–at the age of eighty years old, no less.

It is Moshah who ascents to Mt. Sinai and fasts for forty days and forty nights to retrieve the Ten Commandments. Moshah who begs for Tehovah’s mercy on her people after the Golden Calf incident as Tehovah laments the behavior of the “stiffnecked people,” and resolves to “blot it out its name from under the skies.” And it is Moshah who finally crumbles under the pressure and defies Tehovah’s orders by striking the rock for water instead of speaking to it, and is forbidden from entering the promised land. G!d’s heartbreak over Moses’ death always moved me to tears, but it is even more crushing to read here that that, “And no prophetess arose since in Tisraelah like Moshah, whom Tehovah knew face to face.”

Like the Goddess Tehovah, Georgiou also struggles with her need to display power vs. her desire for connection. When the crew jumps ahead nine-hundred years to the 32nd Century, Federation Doctor Kovich questions why someone as ruthless as a Terran Emperor would stay on Discovery, she rebuffs him and explains that Terrans are “untroubled by pesky motivations–except for revenge.” And yet she is silent when he suggests it is because she has come to care for someone on the crew. Eventually Georgiou’s body starts to destabilize as a result of being out of time and place, and Burnham discovers her only cure is to enter through a portal, where Georgiou ends up back in her original Universe at the helm of her Empire once again. But despite her earlier instance that she was “extremely ruthless, even for a Terran,” she is no longer satisfied with her Empire’s violence, even though she had previously snarked at Starfleet’s noble ideas of diplomacy. When she is confronted with the betrayal of her universe’s Burnham, Terran law dictates Georgiou execute her daughter for her treachery. But rather than simply follow the code of justice that led Tehovah to exile Moshah for her disobedience, Georgiou surprises even herself by choosing mercy, and attempts to find a way to bring her daughter back into the fold, to give her the opportunity to make a tikkun–a repair to the harm done to their relationship. Though this path ultimately fails, and she is forced to slay Burnham anyway, the fact that she had tried to find a more peaceful solution—and showed kindness to those who she had before considered inferior races—proved that she had in fact evolved and changed.

Star Trek: Discovery "Terra Firma, Part 2"

Credit: CBS

What also makes the journey between Burnham and Emperor Georgiou compelling is that it isn’t just one way. While the story is mainly about Burnham overcoming her insecurities and missteps growing into a leader, she also changes the Emperor as well. Despite her best intentions, Georgiou is finally forced to admit how much her relationship with Burnham has meant to her. “I said you sentenced me to death when you brought me to this universe,” Georgiou tells her before she finally departs. “In truth, the greater part of me was already dead. You gave me a new life.”

And this is the thing that is so powerful in this story and relationship between Georgiou and Burnham—the potential to grow. What has frustrated me in reading the Torah–as well as the regendered Toratah–is that there seems to be an understanding of human frailty and imperfection, but too few opportunities to grow and learn from mistakes. The spies express fear of the people of Canaan—and so G!d sentences the whole tribe to 40 years of wandering so the whole generation can die out. Moses loses his sister in anger, and decides to hit the rock for water instead of speaking to it as G!d demands–and is barred from entering the holy land. You make one misstep, you will be condemned forever and G!d will move on.

Unlike Moses, Burnham gets to grow from her mistakes. Her experiences in exile—both in prison and then the year she spends in the future waiting for the rest of her crew to arrive—force her to confront herself and grow into her destiny. Mirror Georgiou acts as her angel, forcing her to wrestle both physically and mentally and face the darkest parts of herself. In commemorating Georgiou, Burnham notes, that she was the “wall I crashed into over and over and over again,” while also serving as a “tormentor, but a truthteller.” When Burnham finally assumes the captain’s chair, she has a new appreciation of the responsibilities it entails.

Star Trek: Discovery "Terra Firma Part 1"

I was worried when Georgiou’s character left the show at the end of season three that there would be a vacuum of prickly female leaders to keep Burnham on her toes. But the 32nd century has seen a slew of new fantastic female leaders, from the meditative Ni’Var President T’Rina, the calculating Federation President Rillak, not to mention Burnham’s mother Gabrielle, a warrior nun in the Romulan Order the Qowot Milat (In Picard, we first meet the Qowat Milat on the planet Vashti, which… talk about a badass female Jewish icon). And Burnham uses her experience to be a mentor to others like Sylvia Tilly and Adira Tal, to model a leadership that can be strong as well as vulnerable, decisive and collaborative.

As I grow into my own sense of what it means to be a leader to my own students as a Hebrew school teacher, it is vital and invigorating to see different examples of power across genders. That can involve strength, but also pettiness, humor, and above all, the freedom to make mistakes and trust that I will be able to learn from them.

Having role models like Burnham and Georgiou gives me the assurance that I am allowed to be flawed as well as unlikable. That it’s okay if not everyone understands or appreciates me. In envisioning what I want in a Shekhina, I want someone who assures me of my own worth and potential, who helps me learn to trust my gut, even if that takes me down a path that may disappoint others.

Lisa Huberman (she/they) is an educator, storyteller, playwright and Jewish art nerd. They live in Astoria, Queens and teach Hebrew school in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  You can follow them on Instagram at @lahuberthem and find them on their website at lisahuberman.com

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