The Last Jedi through a Jewish lens

25018104_667783616943227_2857874915250405376_nStar 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!


Jew in the Lotus - on film

In preparation for Getting It... Together, the coming weekend's gathering celebrating the 25th anniversary of that historic trip taken by a group of rabbis and a poet to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama, I finally watched Laurel Chiten's film The Jew in the Lotus, which arose, of course, from Rodger Kamenetz's best-selling book of the same title. (Here's Patrick Sullivan's review of the film: Spiritual power blossoms in 'The Jew and the Lotus'.) Here's the first minute or so of the film:

The film and the book overlap in obvious ways. The filmmaker became interested in the story after reading the book, and there are moments from the book which appear in the film -- much to my delight. But in many ways the film's project is the telling of a different story, a story about personal loss and how the trip to Dharamsala marked a turning point for healing. I hadn't known that story, nor that it would be so central. It moved me deeply, though it wasn't what I was expecting to see.

For me the greatest joy was in glimpsing the footage of the dialogue in Dharamsala. Because I just reread the book, its images and scenes are alive in my memory. In rereading, I was particularly struck by a description of joyful morning prayer -- which the film offers me the chance to briefly witness. And of course there's the amazing scene where Reb Zalman z"l is talking about the angel of the Jews and the angel of Tibet, about which I wrote a few weeks ago; to my delight, that scene is in the film, too.

I wasn't blessed to meet Reb Zalman in person until he was 80, so I only knew him during the last decade of his life. But on the trip to Dharamsala he was a hale and hearty 65, and when the film was made he wasn't much older. I loved having the chance to witness him as he was then. His voice and his demeanor and the sparkle in his eye are all familiar, but this is a younger Zalman than I ever knew. It's a little bit like seeing old movies of one's parents or grandparents -- the past, once again made life.

I know that next time I reread the book I'll have some of these visuals in mind alongside Rodger's descriptions. And now I'm even more excited about the Sunday session which will serve as the culmination of the weekend -- "Tracing Reb Zalman’s Vision, from Dharamsala to the Future" -- where we'll hear from several of the trip's participants. I'm looking forward to hearing how they reflect back on that journey now, and their hopes for how its values can be carried forward in years to come.


If you won't be able to join us in West Chester but are interested in the Sunday program, go to and click on the "Live-streaming and yahrzeit tributes" link. If you make a donation there, you'll receive a link to the livestream of Sunday's program.

My Neighbourhood in my neighborhood

Earlier this week I attended a screening of the short (25 minute) documentary film My Neighbourhood at The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. The filmmakers describe the film as being about "a remarkable nonviolent struggle in the heart of the world's most contested city." Here's the movie's official trailer:

(Edited to add:) For those who can't see the embed, it's here on YouTube. And for those who don't want to watch the trailer, here's a synopsis:

The documentary tells the story of Mohammed El Kurd, a Palestinian boy growing up in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. When Mohammed turns 11, his family is forced to give up part of their home to Israeli settlers, who are leading a campaign of court-sanctioned evictions to guarantee Jewish control of the area.

Shortly after their displacement, Mohammed’s family and other residents begin peacefully protesting against the evictions, determined not to lose their homes for good. In a surprising turn, they are quickly joined by scores of Israeli supporters who are horrified to see what is being done in their name. Among them is Jewish West Jerusalem resident Zvi Benninga and his sister Sara, who develop a strong relationship with Mohammed and his family as they take on a leading role in organizing the protests.

Through their personal stories, My Neighbourhood goes beyond the sensational headlines that normally dominate discussions of Jerusalem and captures voices rarely heard, of those striving for a shared future in the city.

I'd read a lot about it (see East Jerusalem Doc 'My Neighbourhood' Wins Peabody Award by Emily L. Hauser in The Daily Beast, or Sumeet Grover's review in the Huffington Post.) In addition to winning a Peabody, this short film won both at the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival and the Al Jazeera Documentary Festival -- how many movies can make that claim?

I knew I wanted to see it on the big screen. And I was especially interested in seeing it accompanied by the panel discussion which followed -- featuring Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace; Israeli writer, activist, refusenik, and poet Moriel Rothman (a frequent contributor to The Times of Israel and to Ha'aretz); and moderator Victor Navasky, Publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I expected that the film and subsequent discussion would move, challenge, and discomfit me. I find that trying to look at the Middle East with clear eyes and an open heart always does. 

Let me just say this: You should watch the film. It's 25 minutes long, and the whole thing is available on YouTube. It tells its story better than I can. If this is a part of the world that you care about; if peace and justice are issues that you care about; you should take 25 minutes of your life and watch this film.

Watching it made me weep.

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New film about the Baal Shem Tov

"The Baal Shem Tov was so different than other teachers of his day. They were studying the texts that were in books. And they were so smart about those texts, they were able to find the very fine finesses between one statement and another statement, and do a kind of philsophical building that they called pilpul... It led to cleverness, but it didn't lead to wisdom. The Baal Shem, on the other hand, didn't study at any of these schools. He lived and studied in nature. When people would say, he knew the voices, he could hear the speech of birds and of the trees -- it's not that they were speaking human language! It means that he had tuned in to the frequency where they were communicating."

That's my teacher Reb Zalman, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. (If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can go directly to it: A Clip from the Film.) This is part of an interview with Reb Zalman which appears in A Fire in the Forest, a new film about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Here's how the filmmakers describe it:

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, is one of the most beloved and celebrated figures in Jewish history, but also one of the most elusive. Today, Jews all over the world, and even many non-Jews, revere him as the founder of the Hasidic movement, and as a model of piety and mystical spirituality.

But many also find it difficult to say why he is so important to them, and to characterize his unique contribution to Jewish spirituality. Thus, A Fire in the Forest, a new documentary on the life and legacy of the Ba'al Shem Tov, sets itself the task of answering these basic questions, exploring how the Ba'al Shem Tov’s teachings can be applied to our lives today.

To do this, the filmmakers traveled with Rabbi Marc Soloway, our guide on this journey, around the world, talking to leading rabbis, scholars and teachers of Hasidism, traveling to the graves of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spiritual heirs, and to his own prayer-house and grave in the town of Mezhibozh in the Ukraine.

I'm really excited to see this. I've ordered myself a copy, and I'm looking forward to settling in with it -- both to watch the film proper, and to take in the extra interview footage that's part of the dvd extras. One of the other teachers featured in the film is Rabbi Burt Jacobson, with whom I was blessed to study the BeShT a few years ago. (See Two short teachings from the Baal Shem, 2009.) R' Burt has dedicated his life to immersing in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and he is an amazing teacher of those texts and of their meanings.

The film features interviews with a number of other rabbis and scholars who I admire greatly, as well: in addition to Reb Zalman and Reb Burt, the list includes Rabbi Dr. Mimi Feigelson, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Rabbi Dr. Art Green -- as well as others who I don't yet know but feel certain I will learn from as I watch. I'm looking forward to hearing what they have to teach about the "Master of the Good Name" and about the continuing relevance of his teachings in today's world.

The Torah of Local Hero

When Helene invited me to show a favorite movie in what she was calling "The Rabbis' Favorite Films" series, I spent some time pondering what I might do. Finally I came to her and said, look, there are plenty of Jewish movies I've enjoyed, but the truth of the matter is, my favorite movie isn't Jewish per se. It's called Local Hero. (IMDB entry; Wikipedia entry.)

The Local Hero theatrical trailer. If you can't see it, you can go directly to it at YouTube.

To my surprise, her face lit up. She told me that she and her husband had been to Pennan, the small town in Scotland where most of Local Hero was filmed. It happens that so have I; Ethan and I went there on our honeymoon. We traded stories of Pennan and what it had meant to us.

That's it, she said; you have to show that film. What are the odds of two families in our tiny congregation having been to this remote bit of Scotland for the same reason, and having been so moved?

I never imagined, when I was a kid, that I would settle in a small town in New England. I'm a Texan born and bred. Maybe that's part of why this movie grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go. "Mac" MacIntyre is a quintessential Texan -- he works for an oil company, even -- but once he comes to Ferness, he makes connections he would never have imagined. That small northern town changes him.

My husband Ethan, who showed me Local Hero when we were first dating, says now that we don't choose favorite movies -- often, favorite movies choose us. So why did this movie choose me? And can I make it relevant to the themes you usually hear me talking about here at synagogue?

I could try to argue that Mac is secretly Jewish -- we learn early on that he's not Scottish; his father chose the surname MacIntyre upon immigration from Hungary because it "sounded American" -- but there's no textual evidence for that. Instead, I want to argue that there's Jewish value in this film not because it has any Jewish characters, but because it relates to Jewish themes.

For me, part of what makes Local Hero a good movie, and a movie that's worth watching many times, is that it isn't reducible to a simple message or platitude. But when I watch this film through Jewish eyes, I find three primary things which seem to me to be aligned with Torah teachings.

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Learning about A Land Called Paradise

I've always come to tears more easily than I think most people do, and since I became a mother, that's even more true. I don't know if it's a lingering effect of last year's postpartum depression (though the tears now aren't always sad ones), or if it's because my whole emotional and spiritual self is more open now to both joy and pain. Who knows: it's just something in who I am. I try to consider it a feature rather than a bug, a gift rather than something to hide away.

The thing that made me cry this morning is a video for a country song. Well, actually: it's more like a vid than a video per se; it's a short film set to music, and the lyrics of the song act to highlight and accentuate the visuals (as well as the other way around.) Here it is:

A Land Called Paradise, a 3-minute short film by Lena Khan, set to Kareem Salama's song of the same name.

The song is by Kareem Salama, an Egyptian-American country singer. (If you can't see the embed, you can go directly to it here on YouTube -- and oh, please do; it's really something!) I found it via Emily Hauser's post on Muslim American Heroes.

The technique of featuring people holding up signs originates (I think) in the "film clip" released with Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues; plenty of other bands have used it since (here's a partial list.) But none of those instances have moved me the way this one did.

The short film was made by Lena Khan, who was 23 at the time when it was made. This won the grand prize in the One Nation, Many Voices short film contest a few years ago. As this USA Today story explains:

Muslim Americans say they often feel like strangers in their own country, and the struggle to overcome stereotypes became more complicated after 9/11.

So when given the chance to tell their stories, more than 100 young Muslim American filmmakers poured their creative energies into producing four- to five-minute films about Islam and its followers for an online competition...

Frustrated with the myths and stereotypes surrounding Muslims in the media, Khan wanted to help viewers relate to Muslims in America. "The idea was, 'I really wish everyone knew this about Muslims,' " says Khan, a USC film school graduate. So she collected more than 2,000 comments from Muslim Americans, many of which she put into a music video set to Kareem Salama's song A Land Called Paradise.

And here's another article about Khan, slightly more recent: Muslim Filmmaker Looks at Social Issues with Humor, Warmth. The contest was in 2007; this film is a few years old, but holy wow, it still speaks today. All of the winning films can be seen at, and here's a link to a short news piece about / interview with winner Lena Khan.

One of the things I found most valuable about the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders which I attended late in the summer when I was pregnant with Drew was the experience of connecting with the Muslims who were part of the group and beginning to collectively shatter the stereotypes that we held about them and that they held about us. Khan's video for "A Land Called Paradise" goes a long way toward shattering some of the stereotypes I think many Americans hold about the Muslims in our communities. Plus, it's a beautiful short film, and it brought tears to my eyes. Thanks, Lena.

Slingshot Hiphop

Our local single-screen movie theatre, Images Cinema, just screened Slingshot Hip-Hop, a film about Palestinian hip-hop made by Jackie Reem Salloum.

The trailer for Slingshot Hiphop.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I have complicated feelings about Israel and Palestine. I spent last summer in Jerusalem, and came to really love the city while I was there. I have dear friends in Israel, as well as family. I'm committed to Israel's continuing existence. And I'm also committed to the hope of a sustainable independent state of Palestine alongside it.

While I was living in Israel last summer, I made a concerted effort to engage not only with the things which delighted me about Israel (the history, the community, the wonder of hearing my language of prayer as a living tongue on the streets), but also the things I knew would make me angry and sad. I spent a day with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, and went on a a day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron, both of which were powerful and heart-wrenching.

The trailer for Slingshot Hip-Hop gave me two expectations: first, that the film would highlight the injustices faced by Palestinians in a way that would upset me, and secondly, that the film would likely paint Palestinians as purely victims, and Israelis as the monolithic bad guys, which would also upset me. Any one-sided portrayal of either side necessarily ignores the complicated realities of both communities, and this film looked likely to be pretty one-sided.

But I believe it's important to hear each side's story as each side tells it. Which means I feel an obligation to encounter both Israeli narratives and Palestinian narratives, even when they make me uncomfortable. Besides: I like a lot of hiphop. So we went to see the film.

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