Star Wars, Hanukkah, and the Banality of Evil

Warning: spoilers ahead for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Two years ago, the release of Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi coincided with Hanukkah, and I wrote about the parallels between the Star Wars saga and the Hanukkah story.

Once again, Disney and Lucasfilm have released a new Star Wars film right as Hanukkah begins. And once again, I find myself reflecting on the Torah of Star Wars and its many connections to and parallels with the story and symbols of Hanukkah.

And seeing as though Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker is being touted as the conclusion of a saga first launched over 40 years ago, it feels appropriate to reflect on themes and ideas that are prevalent in the entire series — including recent standalone films, animated series, and the new live-action Disney+ series The Mandalorian (or, as I prefer to call it, Adventures in Baby Yoda-sitting). 

In fact, it was a recent episode of The Mandalorian that inspired this particular reflection.

For those who haven’t seen it (and/or for those who aren’t steeped in Star Wars lore), The Mandalorian takes place in the years between the events of the films Episode VI — Return of the Jedi and Episode VII — The Force Awakens

At the end of Return of the Jedi, the evil Galactic Empire is destroyed. Presumably, freedom, justice, and peace are restored to the galaxy. 

And yet, in the opening crawl of The Force Awakens, we learn that, just 30 years later, a new fascist movement called the First Order has arisen “from the ashes of the Empire,” seeking to topple the New Republic. 

While I loved The Force Awakens, I remember feeling surprised by this turn of events. How did things take such a dark turn so quickly? Why and how did the First Order rise? 

It wasn’t until about halfway through The Force Awakens that we learned a little more. As one of the First Order’s top leaders, General Hux, puts it (at a rally with distinct Nuremberg echoes, no less), the New Republic is “a regime that acquiesces to disorder.” Only the First Order, through destroying the Republic and instituting totalitarian control of the galaxy, can bring law, order, and peace. 

Life under the New Republic as depicted in The Mandalorian fits General Hux’s description. Crime, corruption, and impunity are rampant; lawlessness and disorder reign; wealth and brute force carry the most currency. Some characters in The Mandalorian openly long for the days of imperial rule. In their view, the Empire, for all its brutality, nevertheless seemed to make every system it occupied better, more peaceful and prosperous.

Given these conditions, rife with uncertainty and upheaval, it is no wonder the First Order rose. Many people must have yearned to “Make the Galaxy Great Again.” The despotic ideologues leading the First Order may have exploited and benefited from these anxieties. But they would not have gotten very far if average people did not seek, welcome, and support the new order they were promising. 

In this sense, while the Star Wars saga presents as a black-and-white conflict between ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil, between the light and dark sides of reality, and between the few extraordinary true-believers who represent either end of those extremes, when one looks past the gnostic mythology and (admittedly, super cool) laser-sword battles, Star Wars actually makes a much subtler, and profoundly more important and relevant point: Tyranny rises, broadens, and deepens with the invitation, collaboration, and participation of regular people. 

Indeed, it is the regular people who become the infrastructure upon which tyranny is built, the scaffolding that supports the weight of entire oppressive systems. They become “silent majorities” that implicitly back those systems, even while looking away from or rationalizing cruelties and brutalities as necessary evils. Some, perhaps many, become enmeshed in — and therefore both reliant upon and supportive of — those systems’ various bureaucracies, perhaps even advancing careers and pursuing prosperity or status through those ubiquitous channels. Think, for example, of the Mos Eisley wayfarers in A New Hope who report R2-D2 and C-3PO to imperial authorities, or Lando Calrissian protecting his career by selling out Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca to Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, or DJ getting rich by turning Finn and Rose over to the New Order in The Last Jedi

But the picture portrayed by Star Wars isn’t all so bleak. Because while many average denizens of the galaxy far, far away seek, invite, uphold, extend, and exacerbate tyranny, countless others are willing to risk their livelihoods and lives in order to dismantle oppressive systems and save innocents. Think about Han courageously and selflessly returning to help the rebels destroy the Death Star in A New Hope, or the Ewoks rising up against imperial forces in Return of the Jedi, or Finn abandoning his post on The First Order’s Starkiller Base in order to save Poe in The Force Awakens.

In fact [SPOILER ALERT], average people risking everything to do the right thing, despite having every good pragmatic reason to look the other way, is a significant theme of The Rise of Skywalker: a company of First Order stormtroopers who abandoned their posts rather than slaughter innocents gives vital assistance to Rey, Finn, and Poe; and thousands of average people heroically show up to help the Resistance defeat the Emperor’s formidable fleet in the desperate last moments of the film’s final battle. Force-wielding heroes and villains may get top-billing, but regular people, acting out of moral defiance, are the ones who save the day.

In her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes what she calls the “banality of evil.” Generally speaking, Arendt argues, people do not choose evil for its own sake. Instead, people tend to justify ideologies, actions, and systems that they might otherwise regard as evil when they perceive them as necessary for advancing some personal, communal, and/or national interest. Sometimes, perhaps often, this process is unconscious, passive and automatic. Arendt calls this the “banality of evil.” Consequently, only when an individual is conscious and critical, only when a person is aware of the evil lurking within the automatic processes of the world, and only when a person is willing to summon the courage to defy the assumptions and norms of their broader cultural context can they make the choice to resist and rebel against these automatic processes and act outside of them. 

The Hanukkah story, like the Star Wars saga, celebrates this kind of heroism. In the face of the power Greek rule and allure of Greek culture, in the face of widespread Jewish acquiescence to Hellenism and empire, in the face of the benefits of acquiescence to the status quo, in the face, even, of certain failure and destruction, some Jewish farmers and artisans and clerics chose to rise up, band together, and face down a seemingly invincible force. 

On Hanukkah we celebrate their victory, but I would argue it matters less that the rebels defeated their enemies in defiance of all reasonable expectations than it does that these few people chose resistance and rebellion when most people didn’t and wouldn’t. It matters less that the Maccabees won than that they chose not to collaborate with the evil of the world to which they belonged. It matters most that they upheld the spirit of the rabbinic teaching, “where there are no upstanding people, strive to be an upstanding person.”

Similarly, it is nice that two of the three Star Wars trilogies have “happy” endings, where the good guys win and tyrannies are toppled. But more important than the victories is the fact that, in the saga, most people chose to align themselves with the order that they perceived most benefit their interests; and, conversely, that the Rebellion, and then the Resistance, rose in the first place, that average people were willing to leave everything behind and put everything on the line in order to fight for what is right and good. 

Star Wars and Hanukkah both ultimately celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. But as the Skywalker Saga ends, and Hanukkah begins, I find myself focusing less on the victory of good over evil, and more on the victory of good rising in defiance and resistance of evil in the first place. That is the real battle; one that we all face, even and especially today. May the Force be With Us.

About the Author
Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow.
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