The Last Jedi through a Jewish lens
December 29, 2017
Star Wars: The Last Jedi was deeply satisfying to me on several levels. I appreciated its feminism, especially in this current political moment when women's leadership has felt devalued in the public sphere. I enjoyed its subversive qualities. And most of all I appreciated what I understand to be the film's implicit theology, which resonates neatly with my own.
(Please note: this post is full of spoilers! If you haven't seen the movie and wish to remain unspoiled, stop reading now!)
Luke tells Rey that the Force isn't a tool for lifting rocks or winning wars: it flows through everything, and is available to everyone. The movie wants to make sure we get that, so it offers that teaching in two forms: the pshat (surface) form of Luke flat-out saying so, and the remez (hidden / built-in) form of the discovery that Rey's parents were "nobodies." Rey isn't the next scion of some magical dynasty. She's just a regular person who's attuned to spirit and flow, and by extension, that means that any one of us could be (like) Rey.
This teaching about the Force is pretty close to my understanding of God. Many religious teachers (among them Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers) have offered the caution not to confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself -- not to confuse the pointer for the point, as it were. The Force is "the moon itself." What Luke calls the Force is what I call God, who in the words of the Jewish mystics "fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds." The Jedi tradition in which Luke placed his faith -- and in which Luke lost his faith -- was always only a pointer, never the point.
And Rabbi Luke knew that, at least on some level, because he taught it to Rey: the Force doesn't belong to anyone. On the contrary, it flows through everything and everyone. The core question of hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) as I've been taught to practice it is "where is God for you in whatever's unfolding?" God flows through all aspects of our lives: the things we consider sweet, and the things we experience as bitter. As the Zohar teaches, leit attar panui mineh: there is no place devoid of God. Or in Star Wars' language, there is nowhere that the Force is not -- if we open ourselves to that flow.
For me the tensest moment of the film was when Luke went to torch the ancient tree. I thought of my tradition's great destructions. I cringed to think of ancient texts burning (and was deeply relieved to learn that Rey had pinched them before leaving!) -- in part because there are too many stories of precious Jewish texts and teachings going up in flames, from Roman times to Kristallnacht.
But even when enemies have tried to destroy my tradition (Babylon, Rome, the Nazis, you name it) they've failed, and one of the reasons for their failure is that the tradition is more than our texts, as precious as those texts are to us. The tradition lives in the minds and hearts of those who cherish it. The texts contain endless wisdom for which I am grateful, but they too are the pointer, not the point. And as long as there's someone left to uphold our teachings and study them and learn from them, then our teachings remain alive. As for us, so for the Jedi.
Luke and Kylo Ren are positioned as opposites, and that's not unreasonable, but (for a while, at least) they align in their desire to forcibly end the old ways. Luke wanted to burn Jedi history in order to wipe history's slate clean of his order and the mistakes that it had (and he had) made. And Kylo claimed he wanted to discard the past -- though given that his ultimate goal was still dominance, I don't think he was destroying the past so much as planning to recreate it in his own image. But both of them missed the point: the way to move forward is to know where and who we've been, flaws and all, and then to build from there.
That too feels to me like a very Jewish idea. Judaism today isn't identical to Judaism of a hundred years ago, or 500 years ago, or 3000 years ago. But neither is it completely discontinuous from what has been. Judaism is perennially renewing itself. I'm hoping that in Rey's hands, and in the hands of those she may someday teach, the Jedi tradition will do the same.
Given the timing of its release, I couldn't help watching the movie through the lens of the Chanukah story. Not the story of the violent rebellion against brutal Greco-Syrian hegemony, but the meta-story of how my tradition chose to valorize the tale of the miracle of the oil that lasted beyond all reason over the tale of that military victory. Because focusing on military might can all too easily lead to more death (like the Bar Kokhba revolt -- or like Poe's ill-advised choice to bring down the star destroyer)... but cultivating hope in dark times can give us the strength to carry on.
And the film ends on a note that resonates perfectly with that miracle-of-the-oil reading: a little kid recounting the story, and using the story to nurture a spark of hope. Hope for better than what exists now. Hope for a world without tyranny, a world of justice and kindness, a world where difference is celebrated and rights and freedoms are universally acknowledged to be the birthright of every living human being. May it come speedily and soon!