George Lucas and Star Wars: A Jewish defense of action

Anticipating this week’s release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” one of my favorite podcasts recently broadcast an interview with George Lucas.

The podcast is called What It Takes, and it’s a project of the Academy of Achievement, a nonprofit organization out of Washington, D.C. that has been introducing young scholars, scientists, and social entrepreneurs to the pre-eminent figures of our time since 1961. Through the academy’s programs, aspiring young people have the opportunity to meet personally with what it calls real-life heroes. Now, with its podcast, which started in August, the academy is expanding its reach to folks like me, who aren’t so young anymore. About every two weeks, I take in an intimate, personal interview with folks like Jonas Salk, Benazir Bhutto, James Michener, Oprah Winfrey, Willie Mays, and, most recently, George Lucas.

When I saw George Lucas appear in the list of downloaded episodes, I wasn’t any more enthusiastic than I would normally be. I don’t think much about film, directors, producers, or the entertainment business. Generally, I don’t even go out of my way to catch a film at the box office. (This isn’t a policy, of course, but rather the happenstance of my life as a rabbi and the father of two young kids.) As a child, I loved “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones, but “American Graffiti” was before my time. I don’t keep up with film-related news. My first inkling this fall that a new Star Wars movie was coming out was the merchandizing that began to drip off the shelves at the stores where I run errands.

I quickly bought matching Darth Vader outfits for Halloween and a pair or two of Star Wars footwear for the kids. OK, exactly two: R2D2 slip-ons and Yoda light-up shoes. Check the box marked “modestly keeping up with the times.” And, yes, I let my kids go trick-or-treating, because as a Reconstructionist Jew I believe we can live Jewishly in two and maybe even more civilizations. So, all of this to say that even though the new Star Wars release seems to be happening to me, I know that many of you are tracking the release of “The Force Awakens.”

Consider this a friendly heads-up from your local Reconstructionist rabbi: Go check out the George Lucas interview on What It Takes.

One of the things I love about Judaism is how it gets down into the nitty-gritty details of life, our everyday thoughts and actions, which, alone and in aggregate, come to define our lives. Judaism’s interest in the way I live my life each day leaves me with endless opportunities for reflection, evaluation, and yes, practice. For any one of us, there are literally thousands of paths we walk each day that can be enhanced by Jewish learning and living. Which of those paths speak to us depends on the day and the season of our lives. It’s ultimately the same interest in the potentiality and richness of the mundane that attracts me to podcasts like What It Takes even though its subjects are extraordinary heroes. When I listen to an interview, it’s like scratching the surface of the remarkable, revealing the ideas and daily decisions underneath big achievements. Though simple, these ideas and the consonant decisions we make about them daily lead us to live lives of purpose.

Sometimes, as it did with George Lucas, it also leads us to accomplish something extraordinary.

One thing more stood out for me when I listened to Lucas’ interview at the Academy of Achievement, one decision he made that others in his situation did not. It goes back to the time when he entered film school, after a few years at a junior college. But in a sense it doesn’t start there. Lucas grew up wanting to be a racecar driver, but a terrible accident almost killed him and he changed course. Since the accident, he approached each day as a gift, and he followed his passion. That led him toward film, so he transferred to the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.

When he got there, the big thing on everybody’s mind was making a movie. He recalls that in his very first class, an animation course, he and the other students were given 32 feet of 16mm film — that’s exactly one minute of film — in order to “test the camera,” which at that time was like a giant crane. Lucas did test the camera, but he also turned his assignment into a movie. He put a soundtrack to it, and pioneered a new technique called kinestasis, using fast movements over photographs. The movie, in his words, won “zillions of film festivals.”

All the other students sat around saying “How did you do that?” “I wish I could make a movie,” and “I wish I could do this in that class!” but what distinguished Lucas was that he just did it. And, importantly, he added, “I kept doing that.”

Alice Winkler, the host of What It Takes, pointed out the relationship between Lucas’ story and Yoda’s famous and often-quoted words in “Star Wars”: Do or Do Not. There is no Try. We might equally relate Lucas’s story to the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanov, who, in “Chesbon HaNefesh,” wrote: “Always find something to do — for yourself or for a friend, and don’t allow a moment of your life to be wasted.”

Lucas was given film and he made a movie. Other students also were given film, but they did not make movies. What Lucas practiced then, and continued to practice, was the character trait of zerizut, often translated from the Hebrew into English as zeal. It might be better understood, however, as in the case of George Lucas, as acting quickly on opportunities.

Many of us have a sense of what it is we want to do with our lives, or what it is around us in this world that needs fixing. But we wait. For what? Of course, we must always balance zerizut, action, with haritzut, deliberation. But, like the classmates in Lucas’ story, many of us are out of balance. We seek the answer to problems or challenges outside ourselves, while letting opportunities pass us by. This week, as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” hits theaters, let’s take a page out of George Lucas’ playbook and a page out of Menachem Mendel’s guide for living life. Do or Do Not. There is no Try.

About the Author
Rabbi Jacob M. Lieberman is a Reconstructionist rabbi, meaning maker, and social change agent. He believes that inspired [+ Jewish] living starts today with wonder, gratitude and curiosity. Jacob mixes wit, openness, vision, community building and social justice with spiritual growth then follows it up with hard work, one day at a time. Jacob is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a biological and adoptive parent to two beautiful Ethiopian Jewish kids.