Torah and the Force

“A Nerd Reconsiders Star Wars Philosophy”
Liel Leibovitz

Tablet Magazine
January 24, 2012

It is far too easy to dismiss Tablet as a publication of cultural Judaism as opposed to one of Torah Judaism, but that is hardly true. While the topics covered are primarily arts, culture, news, and politics, there is a healthy debate about religion in the publication, and this more than anything else draws me time and again to its pages.

Leil Leibovitz’s essay on the ethos of George Lucas was the most recent payoff for my effort to catch up on my RSS feeds. I absorbed Jedi culture before I knew exactly what the Talmud was, and while I never took it quite seriously as a faith, I appreciated the imagination that went into its creation.

Leibovitz points out that George Lucas’ ethos (or, more exactly, Joseph Campbell’s worldview as interpreted by George Lucas), has wormed its way into the popular consciousness over the past 35 years, and that is troublesome. Campbell’s work, interpreted generously, offers an opportunity to unite peoples and mitigate conflicts by showing how, beneath the specifics, we all share similar hopes and dreams. Leibovitz calls this “the monomyth.” Interpreted less generously, however, Campbell offers fodder for moral relativists. This is part of what appears to bother Leibovitz.

Campbell certainly had his dazzling strengths as an erudite and engaging scholar of comparative cultures, but his lack of understanding of faith and its machinations is astounding. In an 1985 interview he gave to In Context, a humanist journal, he called the Bible “the most over-advertised book in the world,” dismissed its claim to moral authority, and argued that the violence the Israelites visited on the peoples of Canaan precludes their scriptures from shining an ethical light unto the nations. Any religion, Campbell argued, is nothing more than an invitation to sectarianism and hate.

Campbell’s mistake is that he seeks the similarities and dismisses the nuances and differences that set the faiths apart. Too many atheists, particularly the recent crop of radical secularists, make this error as well. Few bother to dive into the specifics of each faith, choosing either to condemn faiths based on the behavior of outlying extremists, or to assume that if one religion is bad, the whole lot are.

Lucas’ fault is that he builds from Campbell a world where the good are really good, the evil are really evil, and moral ambiguity evaporates. That’s nice for mythology, but it has no attachment to the real world, and it perhaps suggests why the cultures built on mythologies either tossed them in favor of religions that addressed moral ambiguity, or were subsumed by cultures that did.

How many people out there, though, profess themselves atheists yet believe some version of, in Leibovitz’s words, “if we only open our hearts and understand people are all the same and all good we’d be enlightened enough to lift rocks with a tilt of our heads.”

I think this is why I never became the kind of hard-core Star Wars fan my demographic profile and personal interests suggested I should be. Lucas makes beautiful movies, but the philosophies that lie beneath them, like their dialogue, leave much to be desired.

Though Leibovitz goes no further, I will.

The truly great filmmakers of the past century have been those who have eschewed monochromatic morality and presented us with stories and characters designed to make us uncomfortable. One of the best films of the past decade, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for all of its eye-candy, grabbed moral ambiguity by the throat, shook it in our faces, and demanded that we confront choices that test the principles by which we think we lived. One wonders how long the world will remember a director who chose to serve us moral pabulum rather than confront us with human nature.

Or maybe I’m giving film as a craft too much credit. Maybe the moving pictures we watch in the dark, however impressive, should never be tasked with confronting these issues. Maybe the hard questions should be left for the synagogue, the schiur, the schmuss, and literature, thus kept out of the cinema entirely. After all, the goal of the rabbi or the bar teshuvah is to draw himself/herself and the world closer to Hashem. The goal of the auteur, however, is to draw closer to Mammon.

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