> Holidays > Chanukah > Themes > Deeper Themes

Star Wars and My Search for Spirituality

December 19, 2017 | by Gabriel Ethans

The Last Jedi, Chanukah and the battle between the forces of light and darkness.

When I was four years old, my father took me to the movies for the very first time to see the original Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The epic space odyssey captured my young imagination just as it did for millions of people. But unlike other kids my age, it wasn’t the Millennium Falcon hurtling through the galaxy at hyper speed, the cute fuzzy Ewoks on the Forest Moon of Endor, or the slimy mob-boss Jabba the Hutt that captivated me. To me, the Star Wars universe was a world of magic, mystery, and faith. It was my entrance into the realm of spirituality.

Luke’s Child

What made my connection to Star Wars even better was the fact that I attended a private nursery school in Manhattan with the son of Mark Hamill, the actor who plays Luke Skywalker.

I was too young to understand that Mark Hamill was only an actor so I thought I was friends with Luke Skywalker’s son!

I spent many afternoons, playing with Nathan Hamill. I will never forget how on my birthday Mrs. Hamill opened up her closet loaded with Star Wars merchandise and let me chose any two action figures.

I was too young to understand that Mark Hamill was only an actor. I believed that I was friends with Luke Skywalker’s son! I begged my playmate to convince his father to teach us the powers of the Force.

The One True Force

The Force - the “one, all-powerful force controlling everything” (in the words of skeptical Han Solo) – was my first encounter with the concept of a supernatural power.

Luke’s mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi, explains that “the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. . . It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together." The concept of a unified spiritual “Force” affected the way I saw the world. From early childhood I longed to connect to a deeper metaphysical power.

And that's what George Lucas had in mind. In a 1999 interview with Time Magazine, Lucas said:

I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct… I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.

When I began to learn about Jewish spirituality from an adult perspective, I was blown away by the similarities between the Jewish understanding of God and the idea of an all-powerful, omnipresent Force. The notion that God is a man in the sky comes from the images of Greek and Roman gods who found their way into Christian art during the Renaissance. According to Jewish mysticism, God is Infinite, possessing no physical parts or attributes. Similar to the Force, Judaism teaches that God’s oneness simultaneously surrounds and permeates all things. God is not only the Source of all existence, infusing every single molecule of matter with life force, but He is also the space in which the universe exists.

Judaism eventually became a way for me to bring my childhood passion for Star Wars into real life.

Judaism eventually became a way for me to bring my childhood passion for Star Wars into real life.

The Inner Battle

Rian Johnson’s new installation of the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, takes the Jewish themes to a new level. The main story line pits Force-sensitive Rey against Jedi-gone-bad, Kylo Ren, in a powerful psychological battle.

Rey yearns to uncover the truth about her past, to connect to her parents, and to risk everything for her friends in the rebellion. She senses the good within Kylo and longs to connect to him and bring him back to the light side of Force. Kylo, on the other hand, is willing to destroy everyone who ever loved him – including his parents and teachers – in order to achieve his own diabolic quest for ultimate power. He proposes that Rey “let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That's the only way to become what you are meant to be.”

The battle is one of opposite values: dedication to others, versus utter selfishness. The dark side of the Force is the drive for selfish survival and power; the light side is the drive for self-sacrifice, giving, and connection. In the words of First Order Supreme Leader, Snoke, “darkness rises and light to meet it. I warned my young apprentice that as he grew stronger his equal in the light would rise.”

Judaism teaches that these two forces exist within everyone. On one hand, we each possess an animalistic body that cares only about its own selfish survival; on the other, we possess a spiritual soul, which yearns to give and connect to others in a meaningful way. On the physical level, we need to compete over a limited amount of finite resources in order to survive. Survival of the fittest dictates that ultimately the most selfish species wins. On the spiritual level, however, we are all a part of God’s unified masterplan and there’s more than enough to go around. The soul is compared to a candle: you can share it with others without ever diminishing your own light.

Darkness versus Light

Nowhere in Judaism are these themes most clearly expressed than in the Chanukah story.

Unlike the Egyptians, Persians, or Nazis, the Greeks did not want to physically exterminate the Jewish people. Instead they wanted to destroy the Jewish spirit. Their goal was to persuade us to abandon our values and our heritage and accept Greek ideology and culture.

The Midrash refers to Greece as darkness.

What did popular Greek culture stand for? The Greeks championed the idea that the human body is the pinnacle of perfection and beauty. Until today, we continue to work out in gyms modeled after the Greek gymnasiums – gym meaning naked in Greek, as the Greeks used to exercise unclothed. The Hellenists at the time of Chanukah wanted to erect a gymnasium in Jerusalem to spend time admiring and preening the body. The Greeks also forbid circumcision as a blemish on the perfect human form. They also brought us the Olympics. In the world of the body, competition is literally the name of the game. Finally, the Syrian Greek king Antiochus erected a statue of Zeus in the holy temple in Jerusalem. The Greek gods were essentially all-powerful, immortal humans – gods made in the image of man.

These Greek values stand in direct opposition to Judaism. The Torah teaches that true perfection and beauty comes from that which is within – the soul – not the external body. Unlike the Greeks, Judaism emphasizes the value of dressing modestly so that others connect to you for who you are on the inside – not for how your body looks on the outside. We clothe the physical body to enable the soul to shine forth. The message of circumcision is that the body is not perfect; instead the selfish drives of the body must be channeled to serve a higher purpose. True competition is ultimately against yourself - to develop and refine your character by overcoming your base drives and revealing the inner light of your soul.

The Eternal Flame

Our miraculous defeat against the Greeks was not because of our great might, numbers, military prowess, or intelligence. Rather it was because of the power of the soul. That is the message of the Chanukah candles. The eternal Jewish flame continues to burn as a message to all the ages that the power of spirituality reigns supreme.

One of the great Chassidic masters pointed out that it’s very hard to fight darkness head on. Light a candle instead. Do a mitzvah. A small kind deed or spiritual act pushes away the darkness of materialism, selfishness and greed. “That's how we're gonna win,” rebel engineer Rose tells Finn. “Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love."

The film ends with the message that just a small band of rebels, willing to stand up for truth against all odds, can defeat the mightiest empires. In the words of rebel leader, Poe Dameron, “We are the spark that will light the fire that'll burn the First Order down.”

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