(Continued from last week)
In the Star Wars series, the Rebel Alliance (led by the Holy Order of Jedi Knights) are at war with a wicked Empire, which embodies the values of the “Dark Side” of the Force. Hanukkah (a.k.a. The Festival of Lights) also commemorates the victory of a rebel force—led by a family of Kohanim, Israelite priests—against an imperial occupation that banned the study or practice of the Jewish faith on pain of death. But more broadly than that, the antagonists of the Jewish nation throughout history have taken the form of mighty empires, who would conquer the Holy Land, their conquests often followed by mass exile and/or genocide.
Fact and fiction, Seleucid and Sith, the Jewish and Jedi narratives are quite similar. Initially, Greek domination of Israel under Alexander the Great was more or less benevolent (to this day, “Alexander” remains a popular name among certain Jewish communities). You could say that among his successors, Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the villain of the Hanukkah story, was our Palpatine. In any event, it took two thousand years, but the Israelite “Republic” was ultimately reborn. Another fun fact: The first installment of the Star Wars saga to appear in theaters, Episode IV, was later titled “A New Hope.” The State of Israel’s national anthem is called “HaTikvah,” literally “The Hope.”
In the mid-20th century, an imperial government attempted to enact a Final Solution to the “problem” of the Jews’ existence. In the Star Wars universe, the Great Purge that caused the near-extinction of the Jedi was initiated with the infamous Order 66, with which the army had been secretly instructed to treat all Jedi as traitors, executing them immediately and without question, let alone any semblance of due process.
Please understand that I am not intending to make light, Heaven forbid, of the very real and incomparable tragedy of the Holocaust by comparing it to a lighthearted work of fiction. But a lot of these similarities were clearly intentional. Being the very embodiment of evil, Hitler and the Nazi regime have influenced generations of writers and filmmakers alike in creating the most diabolical villains imaginable. Both the German Reich and the Galactic Republic (which was transitioning into a malevolent empire) were led by megalomaniacs assuming the title of “chancellor.” In both cases, a specific segment of the population (one that had contributed greatly to the security and well-being of their respective societies for generations) was singled out, branded a fifth column, and sentenced to die.
Lastly, the late Republic was dependent on a military comprised of specially-bred, genetically-altered clones. That positively reeks of eugenics, the pseudo-scientific rationale for Nazi barbarism. The members of that clone army ultimately became the first Stormtroopers, a group unambiguously named for German assault troops used in both World Wars. Even if you dismiss the other points of comparison as mere coincidence, there’s no way around that last one.
“Okay, that’s all very cute,” you might be thinking, “but what about the core teachings of the Jedi and the…Jehudi? Are there any deeper connections?” Okay, first of all, wow, you are hard to convince. Secondly, while Jediism isn’t a theistic religion per se, its practitioners do teach of a Force that, in the words of Reb Obi-Wan Kenobi “…is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” That almost sounds like some sort of Chasidic teaching—just replace “energy field” with “entity” or “consciousness,” and “created by,” with “that creates,” and what you have starts to come across less like new age hippie talk, and more like an intro to Kabbalah.
Another aspect of Jedi belief, perhaps the concept that struck this writer most immediately, is the notion of balance, the idea that the Light Side and the Dark Side are both aspects of the same Force seeking equilibrium. The religions that branched off from Judaism tend to show the Creator and Satan, or “The Devil,” in an adversarial relationship, almost a sort of de facto dualistic theology with a God and an anti-God, if you will. Of course, classical Judaism maintains that the Satan (lit. “Accuser”) is the angel associated with temptation, and prosecution in the Heavenly Court. He’s basically Slugworth to God’s Willy Wonka. He’s got a dirty job to do, but in the end, we’re both serving the same Boss. Judaism also teaches that the source of Light and Darkness are One and the same, as it says in the prayer book (it’s just before the morning Shema, for those of you reaching for your Artscroll siddurim): “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates all things.” The source for this line of liturgy can be found in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 45:7: “Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil; I am the Lord, Who makes all these.” Mind blown yet?
Incidentally, one of the traditional names for God—invoked particularly by the Jewish mystics—is HaMakom, literally “The Place.” The deeper idea conveyed by this name is that the Creator does not exist within the universe; the universe exists within Him.
So if you happen to be a Jew or philo-Semite and you’ll be seeing the new Star Wars movie, directed by Jeffrey Jacob Abrams (who couldn’t sound more Jewish if his name was “Saul Cohen” or “Herschel Rosenblatt”), perhaps you’ll be able to seek out and appreciate the surprisingly Jewish flavor of the Star Wars universe.
And if you’ve enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign for “Maccabæus,” a graphic novel (and perhaps one day, major motion picture) based on the shocking true story of the Hasmonean Revolt referenced above above. It’s not Star Wars, but Mattathias the Priest, who kicked off the rebellion, probably would have felt completely at home on the Jedi Sanhedrin, I mean, High Council.
The Kickstarter campaign will be going live on or shortly before Chanukah. In the meantime, readers can follow our progress on Facebook (Facebook.com/Maccabaeus) or Twitter (@MaccabeeFilm). It’s being written by yours truly, and illustrated by the talented Mark Strauss, who also created that fun sketch of “Rabbi” Yoda, complete with his tallit and kippah.
Happy Chanukah, and may the Force be with you!