Jew vs. Jedi: “May the Schwartz Be With You”

The Last Jedi is one of the best, if not the best, of the Star Wars cinematic series that first exploded onto theater screens in 1977. The film franchise, originated by George Lucas, was sold to the Walt Disney Company in 2012, and revitalized in 2015 by the first installment in the new trilogy, The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams.

Although it was a huge commercial success and generally well received, many fans were unhappy with the shift to a more progressive outlook in The Force Awakens, and expressed dissatisfaction with the casting, which deviated from the previous films, which were all but monopolized by white males. In this new trilogy, the lead heroic role of Rey is given to a young woman, while another main character is played by a young African-American man. Even when the sentiments expressed were not overtly racist and sexist, those undercurrents were apparent, especially given that the plot of The Force Awakens was quite consistent with the original Star Wars film.

The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, extended the new sensibility by highlighting female leadership, including the late Carrie Fisher as the leader of the resistance and Laura Dern as a self-sacrificing admiral of their decimated fleet, while introducing a significant new character played by Kelly Marie Tran, the child of Vietnamese immigrants. Consistent with this move toward greater diversity in casting, the film also emphasized the progressive theme of breaking with the past.

Given the reactionary mentality of most disgruntled Star Wars fanatics, I was disturbed to read Liel Liebovitz’s December 18 piece in the Tablet magazine, called “Reform Jediism.” Liebovitz explains his reaction to the film: “I felt a torrent of anger I haven’t known since gazing at the calamity that was Jar-Jar Binks. That’s because the movie, while otherwise engaging and enjoyable, introduced a radical new take on the Jedi religion. Call it Reform Jediism.”

Anger is consistent with right-wing screeds against any form of liberal politics, but in this instance the target was Reform Judaism. As he puts it, “for American Jewish audiences… The Last Jedi can feel almost like a documentary, a sordid story about a small community eager to trade in the old and onerous traditions for the glittery and airy creed of universalist kumbaya that, like so much sound and fury, signifies nothing.”

As a Reform Jew, I am deeply offended by Liebovitz’s disdain for those of us who practice a form of Judaism different from his own. And I have to wonder what it is about us that makes him so afraid. In the words of the Jedi master Yoda, who presumably represents Liebovitz’s idea of Orthodox Jediism, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Don’t we know this to be true? Isn’t our world big enough for different forms of Jewish worship, different modes of Jewish identity? Does he really want to open up an irrevocable schism in the Jewish population?

Responses from readers both sympathetic to his general outlook and supportive of the Reform movement have taken Liebovitz to task for misinterpreting the meaning of The Last Jedi, ignoring important details in the film or just getting them wrong, forcing facts to fit his views instead of vice versa. For my part, I find the entire conversation absurd. Its original sin is Liebovitz’s equating Jew and Jedi.

The Star Wars universe was created by George Lucas, who was raised a Methodist. The film’s underlying Christian sensibility is apparent in its emphasis on a savior figure. In the original trilogy, the messianic character is Luke (evoking the Gospels) Skywalker (paralleling walking on water). In the prequels, Anakin Skywalker is born via immaculate conception on the part of the Force and identified as the “chosen one” of prophecy, before falling from grace and becoming the equivalent of the Christian Satan, Darth Vader.

The Jedi are referred to as an “order” rather than a religion. Judaism does not have any orders, but there are many within the Catholic tradition (e.g., Jesuits, Dominicans), as well in as other forms of Christianity including the Methodists, and also within Buddhism, a major influence as well on Lucas and his creation. The Jedi Order is monastic. Worldly attachments—notably marriage—are forbidden; that’s a rule also associated with Christianity and Buddhism.

A fully trained Jedi is referred to as a knight, and Jedi knights are all but invincible warriors, in some ways modeled after Japanese samurai, but also after holy paladins, not unlike the Arthurian knights of the roundtable in search of the Holy Grail of Christian legend. Jedi also are much like priests, Christian or Shaolin, with a direct connection to the godlike Force, one that ordinary people lack. They are nothing like the great rabbis of Jewish tradition, learned sages who study and interpret our sacred texts.

The Christian sensibility of Star Wars is especially apparent in its valuation of redemption and forgiveness. At the end of the original trilogy, Luke is able to convince his father, Darth Vader, to turn on his master, the evil emperor. Luke insists that there still is good in Vader, and this final act allows Vader to die in a state of grace, and to appear in ghostly form alongside the good Jedi who have also left the earthly plane. But the fact remains that Vader was guilty of untold atrocities, including destroying an entire planet in the first Star Wars film.

In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren is introduced as essentially worshipping Darth Vader as well as following the evil Supreme Leader of the First Order, and engages in acts of patricide and mass murder. In The Last Jedi, Rey tries to turn Ren away from the dark side, just as Luke did with Vader, saying that it’s not to late for him. The idea that you can be forgiven for all of your sins as long as you repent in the end has its origins in Christian theology, whereas in our tradition, as expounded by Maimonides, some sins are so heinous that no forgiveness or redemption is possible.

I don’t mean to imply that Star Wars is based only on Christian elements. Lucas weaved together a variety of influences, including Buddhism, Japanese samurai films, westerns, World War Two movies, old movie serials such as Flash Gordon, and Joseph Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey (itself more consistent with Christianity than Judaism). What I want to emphasize is that Star Wars does not reflect Jewish sensibilities, and does not make for a good analogy with contemporary Jewish life.

We still can appreciate and enjoy the movies, which above all are entertaining. But we also ought to be aware of Lucas’s failings as a storyteller. His movies have been criticized for portraying democratic institutions as weak and ineffectual, supported only by the elitist Jedi. Only a few people exhibit the force sensitivity needed to become a Jedi, and that trait is inherited rather than acquired through hard work or ethical conduct.

Lucas drew on many stylistic elements from the World War II era, some in disturbing fashion. For example, the final scene of the first Star Wars movie is based on a scene from the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Worse, in the prequel trilogy, Lucas drew on offensive ethnic stereotypes, trying to displace them onto alien beings. The character of Jar Jar Binks, whom Liebovitz and many other fans criticized for being too silly, was based on African-American Stepin Fetchit stereotypes, with a Jamaican/Rastafarian speech pattern. The leaders of the evil Trade Federation were based on East Asian “yellow peril” stereotypes. And the greedy slave owner Watto is hook-nosed and speaks with a Yiddish accent.

Liebovitz is wrong in thinking that the earlier Star Wars movies emphasized tradition. No, they were exercises in nostalgia, romanticized images of the past. And they are profoundly ahistorical, set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The fairytale-like formula stands in stark contrast to the Jewish invention of historical narrative. The events that occur in the Star Wars universe have no connection to our world. How long ago did they happen? What is the connection between their time and ours? Are we the descendants of the human characters in these stories? Are they even human? For this reason, as well as the fact that there is no rationale given for the “futuristic” science and technology, purists argue that these stories are fantasy rather than science fiction.

As Jews, we believe in progress toward a better future as well as continuity with the past. The Star Wars universe is as disconnected from our tradition as it is from human history. We can enjoy the films as entertainment, certainly, and I would suggest that also we ought to applaud the more progressive approach associated with Abrams, Johnson, and Disney. As for a Jewish take on the franchise, I can think of none better than the 1987 Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs, which teaches us to live and let live and not take ourselves so seriously.

And so I say to Liebovitz and others like him, “May the Schwartz be with you!”

About the Author
Lance Strate is the President of Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia, New Jersey, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York CIty, and the 2015-2016 Harron Family Endowed Chair in Communication at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited; On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology; Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study; and Thunder at Darwin Station.
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