Judaism and the Jedi: What Do Darth Vader and Jewish Mystics Have in Common?
“It’s true. All of it: The Dark Side, the Jedi. They’re real.”
These are the first words we hear from Han Solo, the former smuggler and member of the Rebel Alliance, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
It’s been almost 40 years since the original Star Wars film hit the big screen, but its stories in the theater, books, television, video games, and other media highlight themes that continue to resonate with us today.
In particular, the Star Wars mythology can be understood through a Jewish lens.
The Force, described by Jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi, is an energy field that surrounds all things and connects all living creatures; how we use the Force is what leads us on the light side path or the dark side path. In a 1999 interview prior to the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, director George Lucas shared that although he did not consider Star Wars to be innately religious, he recognized that the Force and the light and dark sides are universal concepts.
Jewish mysticism, specifically that of Lurianic Kabbalah (named for Isaac Luria, the 16th century rabbi who developed it), asserts that we live in a world fractured by fear, anger, hatred, and carelessness – emotions that drive us not to follow the mitzvot (commandments). The mystics charge us to reassert our energy to that of honesty, compassion, love, and intent, empowering us to follow the mitzvot and become closer to a God whose Divine sparks can be found throughout the living world. This tension between our evil inclinations, known as yetzer ha-rah, and our good inclinations, known as yetzer ha-tov, is the reason we are unable to fully appreciate and connect with God.
Star Wars addresses similar tensions. In the Star Wars’ universe, the light side of the Force serves as the key to overcoming the dominating dark side. As Jews, Star Wars heightens our awareness of a world fraught by the yetzer ha-rah and allows us to better understand the power of the yetzer ha-tov to overcome it.
Interestingly, though, Gershom Scholem writes in The Messianic Idea in Judaism, and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality that there were groups of mystics that believed the only way to overcome evil in the world is to embrace it. Indeed, Darth Vader, the main villain in the Star Wars series, chose the dark side, believing that in doing so, he could bring order to the chaotic galaxy.
In many respects, Star Wars also illuminates an understanding of keva and kavannah, two terms traditionally used to describe prayer. Keva, the order and structure of our liturgy, and kavannah, the intent behind the words we recite when praying, cannot be independent of each other if our prayers are truly to be accepted by God. I would argue that in some sense, the dark side of the Force has always been treated as the modality that can establish order, but it is the light side of the Force that challenges Jedi such as Luke Skywalker to hone in on intention to tap into its power.
At first glance, Star Wars represents a cosmic battle between good and evil, in which good seems to prevail. However, J.J. Abrams, director of the upcoming The Force Awakens, notes that the Star Wars mythology may not be as black or white as it originally appears.
The prequel trilogy tells the story of Anakin Skywalker and his journey to becoming Darth Vader. However, when Anakin’s journey to the dark side is completed, he expresses his concern and love for his wife, Padmé, and grieves her death. Furthermore, his son, Luke, senses the internal conflict present when Vader, even with his strong allegiance to the dark side, kills his own master and spares his son’s life. In both instances, love and compassion – qualities of the light side and the yetzer ha-tov – are found underneath the anger and hatred fueled by the dark side and the yetzer ha-rah.
The Force Awakens is predicted to be the highest-grossing film of all time, and tickets to the movie that will reunite us with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo are selling out quickly. We, as viewers, are unsure of the movie’s exact plot. Nevertheless, as Jews, the tension that exists between good and evil, order and intention, and the balance necessary for us to be mindful of our “Force” – God – and God’s presence in our lives certainly resonates with us.