A few weeks ago, through the weird magic of Facebook, I was reminiscing with an old friend about the time we stood in line together at midnight so we could watch the premier showing of Star Wars (the first one, now confusingly referred to as Episode Four). He reminded me that we’d also stayed up well past our bedtime that year to watch another sci-fi blockbuster “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (it was good year for nerds). It occurred to me that these two great films have very different attitudes about what awaits us out there, in the worlds beyond our star. For George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, outer-space contains great dangers. There’s an ever-tempting dark side, wildly charismatic villains, eternal enemies, and war without end. The most recent episode, set just one generation after Darth Vader’s supposed defeat, features a totally re-constructed evil empire, a new war, greater dangers. Star Wars is a lot of fun to watch but the philosophical vision is relentlessly dark.
In Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters, on the other hand, the stars promise adventure, awe, the spirit of wonder, and, above all, intellectual and emotional growth. The film’s climactic final scene features an almost messianic encounter between humans and non-humans, the dawning of new relationships, new frontiers in human and alien consciousness. Spielberg never made a sequel to Close Encounters, but its spiritual sequel is certainly ET – another Spielberg masterpiece where aliens are a source of enlightenment, not death and conflict. In that movie, humans learn to move past the fear of the unknown and embrace the odd but loving alien, who, like all of us, only wants to go home. For George Lucas, aliens threaten, but for Spielberg the larger threat is human prejudice, suspicion, fear.
We might say the Spielberg/Lucas dichotomy matches Yossi Klein Halevi’s distinction between the Purim Jew and the Pesach Jew. The Purim Jew is haunted by the wicked Haman, by the Amalekites, eternal enemies. For the Purim Jew, the outside world threatens; strangers are enemies, and the proper sensibility is vigilance, caution, preparation for conflict. The Pesach Jew, infused with the ethical consciousness of the Passover story, loves the stranger – sees the outsider, the immigrant, the non-Jew not as a threat but an opportunity to actualize Jewish values – in other words to be a Jew in the fullest sense of the word. The Pesach Jew, like the newly liberated Jews at Sinai, views the journey into the mysterious wilderness as the perfect time for spiritual and intellectual growth. The Purim Jew leads with weapons. The Pesach Jew may have weapons in reserve (she’s no idiot), but leads with compassion and intellectual curiosity.
Spielberg offers a particular vision of freedom. When we celebrate Pesach we acknowledge many types of slavery. By not even mentioning Moses’ name, the Haggadah removes the story from its historical context and urges us to find our own slavery, and our own path to freedom. There’s physical bondage, but there’s also the slavery of substances, of toxic relationships, of career ambition, of illness, fear, etc. For me, the most obvious slave in the Passover story is Pharaoh. God hardens his heart; removes his free will. Pharaoh’s a slave to an ideology. He’s chained to the notion that outsiders threaten relentlessly, that majority cultures, stuck in a never ending zero-sum game, must oppress minorities. Pharaoh is the Purim Jew on steroids, locked in his own prison of fear, with not even a window crack of curiosity or empathy. He was probably a Star Wars fan (or a Sith Lord).
After the Facebook conversation, I wondered why Stars Wars captured the zeitgeist, and not Close Encounters or ET. Spielberg’s films were hits, but Star Wars become a franchise behemoth, a planet-sized, rampaging Death Star, dominating the cultural conversation. Maybe there’s something too naïve in the Pesach Jew. Recent history has certainly taught us that strangers are often dangerous, that the world outside our Jewish sphere contains no shortage of enemies. Fear can be a tyrannical slave-master, but it’s also merely prudent. As long as we’re focusing on sci-fi, maybe the best model is Star Trek, where the ethos is intellectual growth and exploration, but the journeys take place on star ships loaded with weapons, and a hand phaser is always nearby.
But this year I’m hoping (naively) for a Close Encounters revival, and a renewed mission for the Pesach Jew. For me, the most important episode in our story isn’t the confrontation with Pharaoh, or the burning bush or any of the ten plagues. It’s the moment at the Red Sea, Egyptian chariots closing fast, where Moses prays in panic and God responds, “Why shout out to me? Speak to the Israelites and move!” The children of Israel then vanquish their fear – always the deepest enemy — and in a burst of freedom that resounds to this day, leap into the still roiling waters. We were slaves then, in bondage to prejudice, fear, bigotry, conflict, hatred. Next year we’ll be free.