There’s an interesting parallel between the Star Wars movies—thus far two trilogies, and now the seventh installment, which hit theaters on Friday—in terms of the order in which they were released, and their connection to Jewish history.
The original Star Wars trilogy, now known as Episodes IV, V and VI, is essentially classic Jewish history: a lone figure or small band overthrows a larger oppressive force. We see this time and again in the Tanach: Abraham vs. Nimrod, Abraham vs. the Four Kings, Moses and Aaron vs. Egypt, Joshua and the Israelites vs. the Canaanites, Samson and Gideon’s respective battles against the Philistines, David vs. Goliath and the Philistines, the numerous victories of the kings of Israel and Judah, the story of Hanukkah…
We are taught that the key to each of these aforementioned victories came from a belief and trust in an all-encompassing, all-powerful “Force,” aka God. For both ancient Jewish heroes and the Jedis in the original trilogy, the Force is simple, uncluttered, pure. “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power,” Obi-Wan Kenobi explains in the original Star Wars movie. “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” We see this in several instances across the original trilogy, most notably at the end of the first first movie A New Hope (1977), when Luke Skywalker settles his mind to deliver the fateful blow that destroys the Death Star.
Likewise, for the Jews of antiquity, faith is simple. Difficult, yes. But simple. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, so Abraham proceeds with the rite. Mi kamocha baelim Hashem (“Who is like you among the heavenly powers?”), is the battle cry of the Maccabees. Armed with a rock, slingshot, and faith in God, David fights Goliath, and he succeeds. There is a clear ideology that belief in God and his commandments are non-negotiables: Do or do not. There is no try.
But then, once we fast forward to the Jews of the 19th century, things change drastically. The splintering of denominations begin. The divinity of Torah, and even the existence of God, is questioned, denied, even stripped away. The Torah wasn’t written by one author. There may or may not have been a Temple. Laws of kashrut? Those are archaic health concerns. The coming of a messiah? Debatable. A traditional Jewish lifestyle? A primitive existence in the face of the modernity of the secular world.
Compare these fissures in modern Jewish history with the second Star Wars trilogy—Episodes I, II, and III, as it were—when suddenly the mysterious and mystical Force is demystified, explained “rationally” as midi-chlorians, or micro-organisms that exist in the bloodstream, which severely undercut the all-encompassing nature of the Force. After all, what do microscopic organisms have to do with what was previously explained as a galaxy-wide life-giving force? The once feared and revered Darth Vader is neutered with a backstory of petulant Jedi apprenticeship. The wise Obi-Wan Kenobi is revealed as being incompetent as both a student and a teacher.
For Jews of this period the period of Enlightenment, many begin to eschew and reject the traditional laws and interpretations of Judaism, opting for their own interpretations, or ones influenced by the environments of their time, whether for better or for worse, such as a rejection of the Shabbat observance and a tacit acceptance and prevalence of intermarriage. (Note that the second trilogy subtly includes the intermarriage of a Jedi (Anakin) and non-Jedi (Amidala).) This ideological shift is not unlike the midi-chlorians which supplanted the goal of becoming one with the Force, with the concept of listening to how one’s personal midi-chlorians interpret the Force. “[The midi-chlorians] continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force,” says Qui-Gon Jin in The Phantom Menace. “When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.”
Whereas the Jedis of the original trilogy—and the Jews of antiquity—were humble, eking out an existence against extinction and subjugation, the Jedis of the second trilogy—and Jews of the 19th century—were arrogant, complacent and confident of their place in society. Their hubris blinds them to the multiple threats in their midst, which brings about the demise of their entire order. For the Jedis, they cannot see the Sith Lords (literally) in their midst, either in the form of the very active Palpatine or the very volatile Anakin Skywalker. For the Jews, the notion of being in a “civilized and modern” society allowed them to forget the constant cycle of tentative acceptance, which time and time again (see: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany) resulted subsequent expulsion.
So then: What does The Force Awakens hold? Judging from the trailer, once again there seems to be themes of the modern Jewish climate: reclaiming of hidden or lost heritages, questioning of alliances to the now established “party” lines of denominations, revisiting and revival of the more traditional practices. And, as always, the stalwart “traditional” followers who always endure. A reclaiming and need for resonance with the past even as we move forward to a new future. This, I say, is more like it. A getting back to the basics—of the old school Force, picking up some of the pieces of old school Judaism—and shedding the unnecessary baggage of the new, such as the such as the dogmatic reactionary rejection of traditional Jewish law and interpretations, and midi-chlorians schools of thoughts.
Or maybe I’m just reading into all of this a little bit too much. It is just a movie after all.
(And for your viewing pleasure, here’s the Darth Vader niggun by Zusha. May the Force be with you.)
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.