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How “Star Wars” teaches spirituality

"Star Wars" is the American religion. We could do worse.

Credit: TeeRoar, courtesy Shutterstock
Credit: TeeRoar, courtesy Shutterstock

Credit: TeeRoar, courtesy Shutterstock

Spoiler alert: “Star Wars” is an actual American religion.

Consider the number of people who saw “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” during its opening weekend.

That would be a gazillion times more than the number of people who attended religious services that same weekend.

And why? The “Star Wars” series captures a mythical longing that is at the very heart of our collective souls.

One example: the constant theme of the old teaching the young. We ache for the wisdom of elders, who are frequently missing from our lives. (Think: Yoda and Obi-wan as rebbes, gurus, whatever).

Imagine that the seats in those movie theaters were actually pews in a church.

What could you learn in “The Church of Star Wars”?

Or, “Congregation Beit Star Wars”?

“May the Force be with you.” That’s like “may God be with you,” isn’t it? Isn’t “the Force” just another way of speaking about God?

Well, maybe. The Force is defined as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us.”

It sounds like how the modern Jewish thinker, Mordecai Kaplan, imagined God — as “the Power that makes for salvation.” “God is the sum of all the animating organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos,” he wrote.

It is tempting to think that a force is impersonal. But, remember the scene in the first movie, when the Death Star eradicates the planet? Obi-Wan says: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

It is a Jewish idea. The ancient rabbis imagined that when the Temple was destroyed, God actually went into mourning. God is actually vulnerable. God has needs.

Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader. Ever notice that Darth sounds like “dark,” and Skywalker contains the word”sky?”

That was intentional.

“Star Wars” uses one of the most ancient religious motifs imaginable: the battle between light and darkness, and goodness and evil.

In Judaism, that becomes the battle between the good inclination and the evil inclination that exist within each person.

In Christianity, it becomes God vs. Satan (cue the old SNL “Church Lady” routines).

In the United States, it was cowboys vs. Indians, and America vs. the Communists (and other enemies, real and imagined).

In Iran, it’s Iran vs. the Great Satan (the United States) and/or the Little Satan (Israel).

It’s called “dualism.” Its Taoist cousin is the notion of ying and yang.

And, since we just mentioned Iran, let’s remember that this is where the whole idea started. It is the ancient Iranian religion — Zoroastrianism, founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), and which emerged sometime around the sixth century BCE. In Zoroastrianism, the forces of good and evil are constantly at war with one another. It is the essential mythic structure of the Western world. No wonder we line up to see those movies.

Which is to say: Iran might be officially Muslim, but when you consider the “great Satan/little Satan” stuff, the country is still totally Zoroastrian.

The dark side of the Force. The Zohar, the cardinal text of kabbalah, teaches that God enters the world through the sefirot — ten divine emanations that contain God’s essential qualities. The most important of those are justice and mercy, which must always be kept in balance.

But, “stuff” happens. Let’s say that there is an overdose of divine justice, and not enough divine mercy.

That screws up the whole system. It gives birth to the Sitra Achara –“the other side” — the domain of evil,  Judaism’s very own “dark side of the force.”

But: even “the other side” has a spark of holiness within it. The realms of good and evil are commingled.

That’s the way it is with the Force. It is very powerful — so powerful, that it contains both good and evil.

Which is how we got Darth Vader saying: “Luke, I am your father.” Evil can come out of good, and vice versa.

(Which gets me thinking: maybe all religions have their good sides of the “Force,” and their bad sides. All religions contain the potential for good, and the potential for evil. It all depends on who is doing the teaching, and when, and why.)

Keep those stories coming. The “Star Wars” franchise produces a never-ending supply of characters.

Those characters will need back stories. “Where did that character come from? What was his/her childhood like?”

That means at least ten more movies.

That is called midrash — interpretations of those stories. That is how Judaism kept biblical texts alive. The ancient rabbis, and their contemporary heirs, produced legends and back stories about biblical heroes. (My favorite midrash is why God chose Abraham to be the first Jew — because he broke his father’s idols. I think that it is the most important Jewish story ever told.)

You want some religious lessons from “Star Wars?” It’s a cinematic comparative religious seminar: Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Judaism. I am sure that there are other religious systems there as well: gnosticism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is every great story that humans have ever told — rolled into one 3D epic.

That is why we lined up to see it. Because it is about us.