A long time ago in a place far, far away…
It is a period of civil war. A new government has declared the practice of the old faith a crime punishable by death, disbanding an ancient order of sages and sending many into exile. Rebel fighters, striking from a hidden base, have won their first major victory against the evil Empire, stirring a spirit of defiance among the populace. Outarmed and vastly outnumbered, the ragtag band of rebels—aided by an all-powerful, all-permeating Force that binds together all life in the universe—remain the only hope for restoring peace and freedom to their people.
As you’ve no doubt figured out by now, I’m describing the plot to Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival celebrated each winter that commemorates a miraculous victory of Israelite insurgents against the tyrannical Seleucid Empire roughly 2,200 years ago. With Star Wars Episode VII set to premiere in just a few short weeks, I got to thinking about how certain aspects of the Star Wars universe are eerily similar to the history, beliefs, and teachings of the Jews. I’ve seen essays out there trying to explain how Star Wars is a parable for Christianity, or how the Jedi are essentially Buddhist monks with cooler weapons. Of all the various faiths internet writers have tried to link to the Jedi, the Jewish tradition was conspicuously absent. Now, I’m not saying that George Lucas set out to create a fantasy universe full of Jewish references, but the connections are there, and they run the gamut from superficial and amusing to deep and profound. So let’s put the “Han” back in Hanukkah (Harrison Ford, by the way, technically a member of the tribe) and look at some of the Jewish elements of Star Wars.
Just a little disclaimer before we start: We may venture into borderline heresy at some point, but it is not my intention to offend my fellow Jews—or my fellow Star Wars fans. I just thought it was really neat how elements of both seem to overlap, even if it was unintentional, and I offer the following in a spirit of admiration and good humor. If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, well, no one is forcing you to read it. (I’m a decent writer, but I’m not that good. No Jedi mind tricks here.)
A Galaxy of Hebrew Names
The heroes of the Star Wars series are members of a “rebel alliance,” basically Maccabees in outer space. It’s right there in the name: Jedi. The Hebrew letter yud is often anglicized as a “J,” and syllables occasionally get dropped in translation. Hence, a Biblical name like “Yehoshua” makes its way into English as “Joshua.” It’s not much of a stretch to see how “Jedi” can be derived the original Hebrew word for Jew, “Yehudi.”
Remember Luke Skywalker’s Jedi rebbe, Grand Master Yoda? Is it just me, or is his peculiar syntax reminiscent of someone whose first language is Yiddish (“Yodish”)? More to the point, his name sounds a lot like “yada,” the Hebrew word meaning “to know”*. Are you beginning to see a pattern?
And how about those Skywalkers? Luke Skywalker might sound like a gentile name, but that name was clearly chosen to alliterate with his twin sister Leia (Leah). Also keep in mind that their parents were an interfaith couple. The father, Anakin Skywalker, played by the unmistakably un-Jewish Hayden Christensen, tried to convert to Jediism, but as we know he ultimately turned to the Dark Side instead. Their mother was Queen Amidala, portrayed by the beautiful and talented Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman. Suffice it to say their marriage did not end well, and it wasn’t until much later in life that their children discovered their Jedi-ish identity.
Traditional Practices: Bochurim and Padawans
The Jedi have a very particular way of doing things, and while their lifestyle and customs don’t always correspond to Jewish ones, similarities do exist, and they are striking.
When an aspiring Jedi Knight goes to the Academy, he or she must complete what is essentially an apprenticeship with one more learned in Jediism than they are. Similarly, a future rabbi’s yeshiva experience will consist largely of chavruta learning (that is, studying with a partner—lit. “friendship”). There is also an axiomatic teaching found in the pages of Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) enjoining the Jew to “assume for yourself a master, and acquire for yourself a friend.” Oh, and fun fact: The name for a young, unmarried yeshiva student, “bochur,” actually means “chosen” (as in “The Chosen People”). Of course, if you tell a young rabbi-in-training that he is the Chosen One, it sounds cool and dramatic and is technically true, but then, the same can be said of all of his classmates.
The strict moral code preached by Jewish scholars throughout the ages, again, isn’t identical to that of the Jedi, but again, there are parallels. A more recent school of Jewish thought—and by recent I mean early 1800s—the Mussar (“Ethics”) Movement, certainly comes to mind. And the most popular Jewish ethical and philosophical texts, going all the way back to the Talmud, have names that just sound Jedi as Hell: “Duties of the Heart,” “The Lonely Man of Faith,” “The Path of the Just.” Ask any devout Jew, and they’ll tell you that these books can have a transformative effect on those who study them and internalize their teachings. Sure, rabbinic ordination might not carry with it the ability to create or wield a lightsaber (“You mean all those years at Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva were for nothing?!”), buuut, you might acquire some Jedi-level enlightenment if you use your time well.
(To Be Continued Next Week)