The New ‘Star Wars’ Isn’t Pro-Reform Judaism. It’s Anti-Religious Inflexibility.
I watched “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” this weekend because the group I was with couldn’t decide between “Call Me By Your Name” and “I, Tonya.” I did not intend to write something Jewish about “Star Wars,” just as I have not previously intended to write about Jews and sports or Jews and sex-spaghetti.
Then I saw an article in Tablet by Liel Leibovitz, called “Reform Jediism,” which used the plot of the new “Star Wars” film as an allegory for the lack of seriousness in Reform Judaism, and I was drawn into the fray like Kylo Ren, conflicted villain of “The Last Jedi,” is drawn to the dark side.
In this newest episode of the “Star Wars” franchise, Leibovitz writes, “The Force is everywhere and for everyone, no study or observance necessary.” In addition: The ancient Jedi writings are “boring rubbish,” and the resistance fighters, laughably, believe that “to be a Jedi you just have to feel like a Jedi.”
Leibovitz argues that the resistance fighters and the version of Jediism they practice in “The Last Jedi” are the galactic version of Reform Jews, “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.” Reform Jews, he posits, are a ragtag bunch of bagel-loving anti-intellectuals who, with a soft-hearted moral stupidity, pretend at social justice but do little to advance it. Also, they’re boring.
(Liel, one Jewish pop-culture critic to another: Which Union of Reform Judaism employee broke your heart? Is there any amount of Debbie Friedman music I can play you to stem this outpouring of “Star Wars”-themed sinat chinam?)
I’d be accepting Leibovitz’s premise, and thus falling into a familiar trap, if I argued that Reform Jews aren’t “morally sophomoric” patricide-apologists whom, as he suggests, Winston Churchill would despise. Rather, consider this: Although the disorganized resistance fighters in “Star Wars” don’t call Reform Judaism to my mind, the movie includes one rule-obsessed character who refuses to adapt, maintains an arcane lifestyle, and insists on living in obscurity to preserve an ancient practice at the expense of anything else.
I won’t make wild generalizations about different strains of Jewish practice — every denomination within our religion contains value, vibrancy and, yes, that favorite word of Reform heathens everywhere, “meaning.” But in “The Last Jedi,” the behavior of Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, should be a warning about Jewish survival.
Skywalker has lived through the extermination of his entire race. Although he’s conflicted, he’s willing to let the world crumble as long as he can preserve his tradition. He doesn’t represent the last bastion of a holy tradition that is, in Leibovitz’s words, “accessible only to those orthodox souls who are committed to studying its secrets,” a notion of historical Jewish practice so romantic as to be fantastical.
Rather, he represents the failure of his tradition to adapt. As “Star Wars” fan Aiden Pink, the Forward’s deputy news editor, pointed out to me, the hyper-rigidity of the Jedi tradition allowed the Empire to rise and left the Jedi vulnerable to genocide. Skywalker, desperately guarding a set of old Jedi texts but practicing none of their vaunted principles, resembles the Karaites, the Jewish sect that refused to adapt as Jewish thought evolved from strict biblical interpretation to include the tradition of Oral Torah.
The moral conflict at the center of “The Last Jedi” surrounds Rey’s attempt to redeem Ren, which, Leibovitz writes, “only makes moral sense if you believe that there are moderates among the dark Sith lords with whom you can negotiate some sort of a deal that would somehow prevent them from accumulating their weapons of mass destruction.” But the notion that Rey’s actions represent the moral vacuousness of Reform Judaism is not only antithetical to the Jewish notion of teshuvah, but also forgets that the emotional climax of the original “Star Wars” trilogy comes when mass-murderer Darth Vader is redeemed. Ray and Ren’s tension is about the possibility of individual repentance; our heroine does not try to rehabilitate the entire First Order.
In “The Last Jedi,” Skywalker idolizes books and disdains action. Jedis and Reform Jews alike, Leibovitz writes, always “bungle” their well-intended plans because they do not have “a solid faith with specific rules and concrete decrees.” This is evidenced, he says, by Yoda appearing in “The Last Jedi” only to set fire to the tree that holds the last remaining copies of ancient Jedi texts, telling Skywalker to let go.
Yet Yoda’s act doesn’t demonstrate the fragility of the precepts underlying Jediism. Instead, it highlights the source of those precepts’ lasting strength: Their adaptability.
Before Yoda arrives, Rey, who has the wisdom to know that holy texts are necessary, spirits the books away on the Millennium Falcon. “The Last Jedi” isn’t a celebration of shallow faux-spirituality. Instead it evokes Hillel’s establishment of prozbul, a tool that allowed Jews to work around a well-intentioned Torah law that harmed the poor and wealthy alike. Even the ancient Jewish sages knew that divine law must be reinterpreted when it isn’t working, the same way Yoda knows that Jedi tradition has to learn to be more inclusive and flexible. The evolution of the Jedi tradition reminds us that Jewish texts must be open to reasonable interpretation for the practices they preach to survive.
All denominations of Judaism have value, in part because, by definition, they create community. The best hope for maintaining the existence of the religion Leibovitz and I both hold dear is not inter-denominational carping over which version of fictional space magicians we each represent. It’s deciding how to create continuity in a rapidly assimilating religion without engaging in the kind of rigid thinking that denies equality and betrays any values beyond that of survival.
Reform Judaism, in its pursuit of creating a welcoming environment, may overlook some of what is precious within Jewish tradition, namely ritual obligation and intensive study. Orthodox Judaism may sometimes treat halacha too stringently at the expense of its intention, likewise alienating what is sacred within Jewish tradition. Rather than engage in a lightsaber battle to the death, the two denominations could learn something from each other and both survive.
As Skywalker told Rey, “Reach out.”
So do it, for a moment, the Reform way. Put your arm around the person next to you, even if they’re a militantly Reform Forward writer and you’re a “Star Wars” fan who’d like to run a metaphorical lightsaber through anti-occupation groups. Pull out the acoustic guitars, make sure you have copies of the transliteration, and realize that one of the core lessons of both Jewish and Jedi history is that the more we fracture, the more vulnerable we become to outside threat.
Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny