The Junior Jedi Who Became a Rabbi
On screen, the saga of Star Wars — the epic space opera — has always been rooted in family drama: relationships between fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, orphaned children and wise uncles.
Off screen, the films provided real-life families with multigenerational entertainment from the beginning.
I was a baby when the first film blasted into hyper drive, but I still remember my father taking me to see “The Return of the Jedi” (the one with the Ewoks) in 1983.
My father owned a toy store, so together we “ruled the galaxy” as father and son. Kenner’s plastic 3¾-inch action figures were my best friends; I still remember playing endlessly with Luke, Leia, Han Solo and Darth Vader — recreating the planet Endor in my backyard in Manchester, England. Once I’d restored order to the Force, I’d put on my Jedi PJs and climb into bed. Obviously the blankets and sheets were Star Wars patterned, as were the curtains. (Sadly, I didn’t have the wallpaper. The kid across the street did, and I’m still jealous.)
Like me, many of yesterday’s junior Jedis are fathers today. Some are even grandfathers. But I don’t know how many of them are rabbis, like me.
Through my books, I’m best known for drawing parallels between superheroes and Judaism, but I’ve never viewed the Star Wars franchise as particularly Jewish. The nebbish, nerdy quality of superheroes, coupled with their assimilation archetypes, always felt more Jewish to me. I wasn’t surprised to find out that many comic book creators were Jewish and had imbued their creations with a particularly Jewish worldview.
The new Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens,” does boast some Jewish genes: Writer? Check. Director? Check. Plus, the Empire’s latest incarnation, the First Order, has more than a passing resemblance to the Third Reich.
As a child, I thought the dark-haired Leia’s name sounded Jew-ish, but her blond brother, Luke, definitely less so. From an adult perspective, the spirituality of Star Wars seemed closer to Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the Samurai, while Darth Vader’s virginal-mother origin story echoes Christianity.
Indeed, George Lucas has long acknowledged the influence of academic favorite Joseph Campbell, who pointed out that all cultures have a “hero’s journey” legend, or “monomyth.” Whereas the Star Wars “hero’s journey” has Western, biblical resonances, the Force seems to take a more “Eastern” route to saving the galaxy.
So if Star Wars isn’t Jewish, why is a rabbi writing about it?
Because as I said earlier, I’m not just a rabbi. I’m a dad, too. It’s not often these days that kids and parents can bond over a shared interest, creating memories that will last a lifetime. Think about it: How can a generation raised on “The Partridge Family” connect to kids and their “PewDiePie” videos on YouTube? Star Wars and its cunning corporate conglomerate, Disney, have tapped into the cinematic fountain of youth.
As I get older, I wonder why football (that’s soccer, for you Americans) has become so important to me ever since I left England to live in America. (Believe me, my wife wonders about this even more.) Yet thinking about Star Wars, I get it now. Soccer takes me back to a place and a time when my father and I were together. I want to share similar experiences with my sons — which is why my oldest boy, a yeshiva kid in Brooklyn, can’t name a single New York Yankee, but can easily rattle off all his soccer heroes from the north of England.
As I began to rediscover my faith as a young adult, the intergenerational power of Judaism drew me in. As a film student in college, I began attending services for first time since my bar mitzvah and was inspired by the sight of children in the synagogue learning the same text as their parents. In fact, the kids’ enthusiasm was ignited by their parents’ knowledge.
I’ve traded my Kenner toys (sorry, collectables) for Torah. Having written a book about superheroes, I’ve spoken at lots of comic book conventions — and seen how much these trinkets mean. Mind you, watching men my own age dressed as Jedi knights and having light-saber fights in the hotel lobby is funny…until it isn’t.
Star Wars’ sibling rivalry story does have symmetry for the fanboys. But a story arc like (spoiler alert) Han Solo and his wayward emo son Kylo Ren has been around since the Bible. Cain killed Abel. Leah married Rachel’s intended husband, Jacob. And don’t forget Joseph, who fought bitterly with his brothers.
Every story in the Torah is a teaching from the past that can be applied to the present. Our sages called this, “Ma-aseh avot siman lebanim,” what happens in the lives of our forefathers serves as a lesson to us.
While it’s not really Jewish, at least the Star Wars saga has awakened and forged bonds between generations. In today’s fractured world, we need this more than ever.
The author is a rabbi and best-selling author who was voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute and resides in Brooklyn, New York.