This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Force is With Us*

News Item:

January 1997--Twenty years after its original release, George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy returns to the cinema screens in an enhanced version.

"They fought from heaven," sang Deborah in the Bible, "The stars in their courses fought."

Well, I have finally gotten around to seeing the movie "Star Wars," even if it took me twenty-five years to do so, and I thoroughly enjoyed the technological swashbuckler.

I am certainly not the first to comment on the religious dimensions of "Star Wars." Though some of its motifs are patently un-Jewish ("Obi-Wan died so that others might live," observed a writer in another newspaper last week), there are nonetheless some tantalizing affinities with traditional Jewish themes.

Most remarkably, its depiction of the epic struggle between the cosmic forces of Good and Evil evokes some well-known themes from Jewish mystical lore.

The notion that the battle against evil should involve the rescuing of a captive princess from the dark forces is a commonplace in Kabbalistic literature. For our mystics, the princess is a personification of the Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, who has become separated from her divine "bridegroom," and now participates in the sufferings and exiles of the people of Israel. In keeping with this perspective, redemption demands that she be freed from the clutches of the Dominion of Evil and restored to her proper place in the celestial hierarchy.

Needless to say, this motif is not uniquely Jewish. It has furnished countless plots for chivalrous romances, Germanic fairy tales and computer games, even as it has inspired the allegorical parables of the Zohar and Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.

Another interesting twist of the "Star Wars" story is the idea that in order to achieve ultimate liberation from evil, the powers of virtue must actually descend into the realms of darkness. This is an idea that also has a venerable history in the Kabbalah, symbolized for example in the descent of Abraham, Jacob and Moses into the metaphysical immorality of Egypt. This theology was stretched to radical extremes when devotees of Shabbetai Zvi interpreted their messiah's conversion to Islam as his own penetration of the "Deathstar" in order to purify evil itself, in what was anticipated to be the ultimate stage of the redemption.

All in all, I discerned the most remarkable parallels to Jewish mystical concepts in the idea of the "Force," that spiritual power that permeates the universe, and which can be channeled to moral objectives by the upright Jedi knights. The belief that an understanding of the divine creative process can allow humans to manipulate that power is undoubtedly central to Jewish esotericism. However the similarities do not stop there.

What I found particularly fascinating about it all was the premise that the Lord of Evil, Darth Vader, was himself an adept of the Force, a former Jedi knight--who had learned to cultivate the "dark side" of the Force.

Now the perception that Evil constitutes the flip side of Holiness is a distinctively Kabbalistic response to the classical philosophical conundrum of how evil can exist and thrive in a universe controlled by an omnipotent and beneficent deity. Religious thinkers have wrestled with this question for millennia, offering a plethora of unsatisfying answers. Some traced the sources of evil to a cosmic satanic power that acted in defiance of God; whereas others tried to argue that evil is merely an illusion, an "absence of God" or an optical illusion created by our inability to see the larger picture.

The Kabbalah, however, teaches that evil is not so much tolerated by God, as it is an essential ingredient of the metaphysical structure of the cosmos.

Although there are different opinions about exactly how evil fits in to the larger scheme of things, most Kabbalistic authorities acknowledge that it is closely related to the divine attribute of Justice, the aspect of God that is responsible for keeping the universe under control and maintaining the limits and borders between the different domains. This necessarily involves the creation of destructive capabilities so that sinners can be deterred or chastised. Once the arsenal of destruction has been set loose in the universe, it can scarcely be restrained. These impure realms are known in Kabbalistic terminology as the "Other Side" (Sitra Ahra).

In the theology of Rabbi Isaac Luria the very existence of the universe would have been impossible were it not for those powers of repulsion and separation, since they issue from the same ultimate principle that separates God from his creation. Were it not for them, God would be indistinguishable from his world, and there could be no creation.

The Kabbalistic imagination populated the invisible world with vast armies of demonic soldiers serving under the satanic command of Samael, a nefarious host far more horrific than "Star War's" Imperial Storm Troopers.

Jewish religious history also knew its share of individuals whose obsession with the occult led them to the "dark side." The Talmud relates that Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, the notorious "Other," was induced by his mystical pursuits to forsake his faith and his people.

And there was the case of the fifteenth-century Spanish Kabbalist Rabbi Joseph Della Reina who become so caught up in messianic frenzy that he was impelled to conjure up Samael himself with a view to forcing his hand at hastening the Messiah's coming, but was instead tricked by the arch-demon into worshipping the evil powers, with disastrous consequences.

Predictably, the cautionary legends that evolved around Joseph Della Reina came to incorporate motifs from similar stories in other cultures, including the anti-hero's involvement with the "queen of Greece," likely a borrowing from the tale of Dr. Faustus' preoccupation with Helen of Troy.

Indeed, who knows how long it will take before episodes from "Star Wars" began to be cited as "midrash" from our synagogue pulpits?

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers


Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, March 6 1997, pp. 10-11.
  • Bibliography:
    • J. Dan, The Hebrew Story in the Middle Ages, Jerusalem, 1974.
    • M. Idel, Kabbala: New Perspectives, New Haven and London, 1988.
    • Y. F. Lachower and I. Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, Oxford, 1989
    • Gershom Scholem, Kabbala, New York, 1974.
    • G. Scholem, "Le-ma'aseh yosef della reyna," Zion 5 (1933), 124-31.
    • E. Urbach, "The Traditions about Merkaba Mysticism in the Talmudic Period," in: Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem, Jerusalem, 1967.