Beliefs Culture Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

How “Star Wars” teaches spirituality

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.


About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • “May the Force be with you.” = “May the Love be with you.”
    The Force, the Love, is what unites individuals through their recognition of what they share in common, which is of far greater significance than their individuating and mutually enriching characteristics. All darkness is the result of Love (Light) being blocked or distorted. This blockage is the result of blindness, ignorance, denial or defiance, all of which arise from falling under spell and control of the ego. “May the Force be with you” might better be rendered as “May you be with the Force” or, more simplistically, “Go with the flow,” with the flow being the flow of Love that permeates the Universe. In other words, be in harmony with the Love, the Force, that draws All and Everything together in Unity. When the Force of Love is distorted, there is still great power available to be manifested, yet it is ultimately not as strong as the Pure power of Love which constantly seeks to manifest Unity.

  • And this is why Christians such as yourself are always going to be inherently useless.

    No matter what kind of beneficial or charitable acts you guys perform, there is that passive aggressive bigotry simmering at the surface for those who do not believe exactly as you do.

  • People only go to hell, also known as Sheol and Hades, or the grave, if and when they die. God is the Judge of who will be resurrected from death/the grave, and who will not be resurrected from it (such as wicked ones). A place of eternal torment does not exist.

  • It’s an interesting article and Lucas himself has spoken about how he was influenced by a combination of Buddhism and his own Methodist faith. And of course Star Wars was directly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology which I’m surprised this article didn’t mention. One nitpick to make is that the correct phrase is, “No, I am your father” but for some reason people always get Darth Vader’s most famous line wrong when quoting it. People also constantly misquote The Wizard of Oz.

  • I haven’t seen the new movie, but I did see all of the old ones.

    These are some of the most morally muddy movies I have ever seen. Mass murder for mass entertainment. Luke’s moral choices condemn him, but redeem Darth Vader. The Force being neither good nor evil in and of itself was perhaps the only morally clear thing othe entire series.

  • I saw the first Star Wars movie during its initial theatrical run in 1977 in New York City. I found it to be so boring that I never saw any of the subsequent ones.

  • Kreia/Darth Traya believed the Force to be akin to some sort of deceptively sinister, indifferent god. She pointed to the numerous wars fought by countless Force users, as proof that the Force cared nothing for the lives it consumed, so long as balance was achieved. This philosophy emphasized the belief that neither the light nor the dark side was truly superior to the other, and that if people were to be truly free, the Force had to be eliminated from the galaxy. This was generally a very unpopular theory with both the Sith and the Jedi, and this practice disappeared with her death.

    If you go by the Force is God/Religion/Spirituality metaphor, then Kreia is definitely a critic of it. She is basically Ayn Rand in the Star Wars Exapnded Universe (now retconned to Staw Wars Legends due to the reboot cause by the seventh film).

  • Bob, Star Wars Expanded Universe actually works as a pretty good criticism of religions as my post earlier deals with Kreia and her view of the Force as being insidious.

    Kreia believed the Force to be akin to some sort of deceptively sinister, indifferent god. She pointed to the numerous wars fought by countless Force users, as proof that the Force cared nothing for the lives it consumed, so long as balance was achieved. This philosophy emphasized the belief that neither the light nor the dark side was truly superior to the other, and that if people were to be truly free, the Force had to be eliminated from the galaxy. This was generally a very unpopular theory with both the Sith and the Jedi, and this practice disappeared with her death.

    This is a great example of what an Objectivist would think of the Star Wars Universe. It’s also a great example of what if Ayn Rand and Objectivism were the subplot of a part of the Expanded Universe.

  • “If you seek to aid everyone that suffers in the galaxy, you will only weaken yourself… and weaken them. It is the internal struggles, when fought and won on their own, that yield the strongest rewards. You stole that struggle from them, cheapened it. If you care for others, then dispense with pity and sacrifice and recognize the value in letting them fight their own battles. And when they triumph, they will be even stronger for the victory.”

    “If a lightsaber loses its power, is it still a lightsaber? And if a Jedi loses her powers, is she still a Jedi?”

    “I use it as I would use a poison, and in the hopes of understanding it, I will learn the way to kill it. But perhaps these are the excuses of an old woman who has grown to rely on a thing she despises.”

    “There is no truth in the Force. But there is truth in you, exile. And that is why I chose you.”

    All these quotes show Kreia’s way of thinking on life and the Force. Several quotes are spoken to Meetra Surik, the…

  • “The “Star Wars” series captures a mythical longing that is at the very heart of our collective souls.” The tragedy for tradition is that the holding power of existing religious teaching is so unable to capture, fulfill and sustain that same longing. Self evidently something is missing which the theological construct of tradition is unable to imagine or provide. In the face of the star wars comparison, one might even have to concede a failure of religion and thus hard questions for the future of any pretension to understanding the mind of God.

  • I prefer to think of what Vader did at the end of Return of the Jedi as the beginning of his redemption, not the end.

  • CS Lewis on dualism is a good start to a better understanding of “dark” and “light”. There are some resonant ideas between Star Wars and Christianity (i.e. “good” and “evil” in the moral life) but Christians don’t believe in the dualism of Star Wars. This would be a misreading of Genesis.

  • GOD create Human body and soul
    Allah explain in Al Quran about the Soul of Human Being as following;
    QS 17:85. And they ask you about the soul. Say, “The soul is something from the command of my Lord, and you are not given from the knowledge but a little.
    QS 31:34 Verily the knowledge of the Hour is with Allah (alone). It is He Who sends down rain and He Who knows what is in the wombs. Nor does anyone know what it is that he will earn on the tomorrow; nor does anyone know in what land he is to die. Verily with Allah is full knowledge and He is acquainted (with all things).

    QS 39:42. Allah fully takes away the souls (of the people) at the time of their death, and (of) those who do not die, in their sleep. Then He withholds those on whom He had decreed death, and sends others back, up to an appointed term. Surely, in this, there are signs for a people who ponder.

    QS 23:114. He will say, “You ( soul ) did not stay but for a little. Would that you had understood (this at that…

  • Prejudice and Bigotry was so obvious when Jeffery didn’t once mention the latest and final version of Abrahamic faiths, 2nd largest and fastest growing religion of the world, Islam.

  • Neglecting to mention something doesn’t equate to prejudice against that something. And newer Abrahamic faiths exist. Why did you make your comment?

  • We likes us bein’ the victims. Whether we’re the dominant faith in the US, or the fastest growing faith in the world.

    Blessed are those who are persecuted for my name’s sake…

    And such like.

  • Karla, you left out crazy, which makes him not morally culpable for his actions.

    You left out legend, which makes the whole point moot.

    And you left out business model, which is quite possibly the case.

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