Star Wars Themes Aren't Jewish, and They Need Not Be for Us to Appreciate It

Just like we're compelled to ask if every news event is 'good for the Jews,' it seems we feel the need to make Star Wars our own.

Fans dressed as Star Wars characters pose for a photograph ahead of the first public screening of Walt Disney Co.'s 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' at TOHO Cinemas Roppoing Hills in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015.
Bloomberg

When Star Wars Episode VII was announced, there was no question that I would see it at midnight on opening day. Since I saw my first Star Wars film, I’ve been hopelessly captivated by the series, and since seeing the latest installment I haven't been able to get it out of my head. I’ve read countless articles about the latest film; about its quality, cast, politics, and a growing handful about its Jewish influences. While I can appreciate the value of analyzing culture through a Jewish lens, I have found that efforts to particularize something as universal as Star Wars have only detracted from its artistic core.

One piece in particular, by Liel Leibowitz at the Tablet, perfectly illustrates why. Leibowitz argues that Star Wars should be a call to arms to Jews around the world to embrace “the old religion” against the gathering darkness of anti-Semitism and governments around the world who tolerate it, just as the burgeoning Jedi do in the latest film. He asks his Jewish readers if a story of scattered heroes reclaiming their old faith to fight evil “sound[s] familiar.” Of course it does, but not for the reasons he thinks.

What makes Star Wars resonate for Jews is exactly what makes it resonate to others: It’s a quintessential retelling of the age-old story of a hero’s journey. George Lucas, Star Wars’ creator, was deeply inspired by the so-called “myth of a thousand faces,” the idea that a far-flung, reluctant hero takes up the mantle of leadership and goes on an adventure to hone their talent and defeat evil. Joseph Campbell, who identified this phenomenon, claimed that variations of this story have cropped up in myths as part of cultures around the world.

Star Wars is one of the most instantly recognizable iterations of the hero’s story today. The new film, which clings tightly to the form of the original, reimagines the hero’s journey with a strong cast of women and people of color in leading roles. This further expands the accessibility of its immensely relatable narrative, making Chapter VII familiar to lots of people, not just the Jews. And that’s the point (as well as being one of the reasons for its wild success): That Star Wars has such widespread appeal is what makes it Star Wars.

Yet Leibowitz’s analysis – and many others like it – posits that Star Wars is somehow about Jews, a Jewish call to arms against the rest of the world. That’s anachronistic to the film’s appeal. For better or for worse, Star Wars speaks a fundamentally human (or at least Western) language, not a particular religion's one.

It has become a running joke that after a major cultural or global event, someone inevitably asks if it’s “good for the Jews.” While it’s sometimes useful and interesting to examine culture from a Jewish perspective, there’s a danger in appropriating something so universal into a uniformly Jewish worldview. In the case of Star Wars, it detracts from the film’s central, almost juvenile appeal to the universal struggle of good against evil, and the universally recognizable story that comes with it. Part of appreciating Star Wars means appreciating how many people can identify with the story; talking about the Jewish, Muslim or secular connection to it without suggesting that it belongs to any one group.

We Jews are, of course, not alone in analyzing Star Wars through our own religion's lens, but we – like others – should know that we don't need to make it Jewish to justify our deep and abiding connection to it. Star Wars is not a work that needs to be overly particularized to be appreciated. So much of my American Jewish experience lies in being able to live out Judaism proudly, as part of the vast, diverse American tapestry. We should be secure enough to recognize that liking something because it speaks to all different kinds of people doesn’t threaten our Judaism.

We should be able to hold Judaism in one hand and a host of other identities in the other. They’re in conversation with one another, but they’re not the same thing. As Jews, we don’t need to make Star Wars Jewish to appreciate, or even embody its message and ethos. Watching it, enjoying it, and relating to it as human beings are enough.

Benjy Cannon is the Mikva Fellow at J Street and a former president of J Street U. He holds a BA in Government, Politics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon.