Here’s an old joke: A man tells his rabbi, “I dreamed I was the leader of a thousand people!” To this, the rabbi responds, “Come back when a thousand people have a dream that you’re their leader.”
The power of leadership stems not from leaders, but from followers. Yet not all followings are the same. In the cultural realm, books can be bestsellers and films can break box office records, but cultural clout is at its largest when consumers confer upon a work not just their adulation but their creativity, by adding to the work original comments and insights, making it even grander in the process, like pearls forming around grains of sand. With this in mind, it’s worth comparing Star Wars, Hollywood’s most venerable fictional universe, to the Bible, the most venerable literary universe of them all.
Both the Bible and Star Wars comprise a set a interconnected and largely self-consistent stories. Both also feature a distinction between the central, authorized canon of material and a set of related but peripheral works (Star Wars’ “Legends,” Biblical apocrypha and, in different way, midrash). Forgetting for a moment that the Bible is more important by orders of magnitude—Star Wars gave us “May the Force be with you” while the Bible gave us fundamental aspects of modern English, and it wasn’t even written in English—the two share an important quality: both canons continue to expand. Both fans of Star Wars and followers of the Bible donate to these works their attention and money, but also their individual talents, their unique and best selves. These devotees can do more than just enjoy and learn from the seminal texts; they can add to them and, in doing so, claim some form of ownership, a time-share’s worth of a cultural edifice.
Because both works grow through the gifted minds of their followers, both the Star Wars and Biblical universes now exist in seemingly every possible genre and medium. There are policy discussions about Alderaan and Shushan. There’s serious analysis about the economics of destroying the Death Star and whether dinosaurs are kosher. And, of course, both canons have spawned innumerable pieces of fan fiction and fan art.
This creativity also turns inwards. Both communities never tire of delving into the intricacies of storylines, manuscript variations, wording, and backstory. Sometimes they take their knowledge and put it into databases, like Bible concordances or Wookepedia. Sometimes they create controversial new theories, like how Jar Jar Binks could use the Force, how Luke Skywalker turned to the Dark Side, or how Chapter 53 of Isaiah is actually describing Jesus. They will even obsess about origins: Who wrote the Bible? Has the text changed over the centuries? Can we piece together the original 1977 Star Wars film, which George Lucas refuses to release, using only later sources? Can we detect the Bible’s influences in ancient Egyptian erotic poetry and the Epic of Gilgamesh? Can we find Lucas in samurai films and the Wizard of Oz?
But none of this explains why this text and that movie merit such followings. Part of the answer is that both interpretative communities feel strongly that the work is no longer for the creator (or Creator) to control. For Star Wars, moviegoers’ general disdain for George Lucas has given fans license to separate him from his films and to think of him, in a sense, as unworthy of his own masterpiece. For the Bible, the rabbis insist that God can no longer tell them how to read, most famously in the Oven of Akhnai story, where Rabbi Joshua turns the Torah’s words back on their author when he states, “It is not in heaven.”
But another part, I think, is that the works are both extremely compelling yet obviously incomplete, and imperfections are opportunities for expansion, perhaps for perpetuity.
For James Kugel, noted biblicist, a Bible is a text that is perceived to be perfect but also cryptic. Therefore, it has a need for a fanbase willing to make its message clearer; one that is willing to see a Bible’s flaws not as shortcomings, but as opportunities to make the universe even bigger, big enough that every follower can find his or her own place within it. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Zionism’s spiritual founding father, would call this “expanding the palace of Torah.” When Star Wars fans say that Han shot first, or make lists of all the known planets in the galaxy, or ridicule the Holiday Special, they are engaged in a very similar project.
In The People of the Book, Moshe Halbertal notes that the closing of the Biblical canon powerfully and permanently transferred authority from the biblical authors to the biblical interpreters. The Star Wars canon was closed, but it is now opening again, and Disney will likely keep it open for the foreseeable future. Whether this discourages Star Wars fans from contributing remains to be seen, but I hold out hope that fans will continue to see the Star Wars universe as worthy of their innovative spirit. To use the words of Darth Vader: a lack of faith would be disturbing.
David Zvi Kalman is a Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the founder of an independent Jewish publishing house.