As you embrace — or brace yourself for — the latest "Star Wars" invasion, consider the powerful educational tool the new George Lucas film could provide for our society. Yes, "The Phantom Menace" is a costly, stylized sci-fi flick surrounded by incredible hype, but it has a theology worth examining, particularly for Jews who feel validated when they find the values of their heritage endorsed by icons of American culture.
That could be Madonna praising the spiritual benefits of Kabbalah, the source of Jewish mysticism, or PBS devoting a television series to the Book of Genesis, or Adam Sandler singing a silly song about Chanukah. The message for some Jews is that if these people are taking Judaism seriously, or at least giving it such high profile, maybe I should, too.
Lucas, the creator of the "Star Wars" series, is not Jewish, and he does not discuss his films in terms of specific Jewish values. But anyone who read the lengthy conversation between Bill Moyers and him in a recent issue of Time would be struck by the themes and echoes of Jewish teachings and rituals in Lucas' words.
The two men talked about good and evil, the search for God and meaning and the need to find a belief system. While Lucas said that he doesn't view the "Star Wars" films as "profoundly religious," he does see them as "taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct — that there is a greater mystery out there." He added that it is important to believe in God and to have faith.
For all of his films' cosmic settings and futuristic characters — human, alien, mechanical and half-machine — Lucas noted that he is basically dealing with themes of light and dark, good and evil, and the struggle between greed and compassion.
"The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things," Lucas says, "is the opposite of compassion — of not thinking of yourself all the time."
This is the essence of a Jewish value system based on viewing God and one's fellow man as the center of the world, not one's self, as is so prevalent in our culture today. Our rabbis teach us to imitate God. Just as He is merciful and compassionate, so should we strive to be merciful and compassionate in our daily encounters with others.
Lucas said he put the Force (a God-like energy) into the movie "to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people — more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery."
Indeed, Lucas has created a kind of 21st-century Haggadah, a cultural ritual intended to instill in children a sense of wonder, interest and, ultimately, belief.
Another key theme in the new movie is friendship, and "your obligations to your fellow man, to other people that are around you," Lucas told Moyers. Here we are reminded of the Torah's commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself," the core of Jewish belief. Though we have come to interpret this as an obligation to care for each person as we would ourselves, the rabbis explain more realistically that the Hebrew word kamocha does not mean "as yourself" but "similar to you." So the command is to love your neighbor who is as yourself — created in the image of God.
Perhaps most importantly, the underlying message in the "Star Wars" films is a simple yet profoundly Jewish one: We all have to choose between good and evil. Relativism may be popular in American culture, this notion that all lifestyles and beliefs are of equal value. But it's a luxury the "Star Wars" characters cannot afford to retreat toward; they must choose sides and act, and they do.
These ideas and images do not make Lucas a singular theologian, nor does he claim to be anything more than the filmmaker he is. But our rabbis and educators, knowing full well that countless Jewish youngsters will be flocking to see the latest "Star Wars" episode, would be wise to utilize and underscore the core value lessons of the film, connecting them to Jewish teachings and applying them to our daily lives. Reinforcing the concepts of compassion, friendship, goodness and the quest for faith could not be more timely when we are questioning our society's consumerism, selfishness and emphasis on violence.
We can't all be Luke Skywalkers, saving the universe from evil and destruction, but Lucas is reminding us we can all be heroes, doing our own small part to make this world a better place.