by Aaron Dorman
I HEREBY DECLARE Luke Skywalker an honorary mentsh!
I will be watching the new “Star Wars” film, The Last Jedi — Luke Skywalker’s first “talkie” in over thirty years —with great interest and great trepidation. That’s because, more than ever, he may be our only hope.
We live in an age devoid of heroes. Our current president is a badly-acted Bond villain, and most of the country believes that the woman who didn’t actually lose to him, Hilary, is either a crazed killer or merely the architect/beneficiary of a very complicated plot to control the DNC. Every day, it seems, another male celebrity is exposed as being a serial abuser of women (or girls/boys/men). I need not repeat the already extensive laundry list, and we all know it has room to grow. At least some pundits are now asking if there are any “good guys” left.
Don’t look for any answers in popular culture right now. Our computers, televisions and movie theaters are crammed full of dystopias and “deconstructions,” the hellscapes of Game of Thrones or Blade Runner 2049 or Bojack Horseman, where there no heroes, just varying degrees of degenerate drug-addled cynics fighting for survival. Even our heroes from yesteryear are now brought back as brooding “reimagined” losers: 2015’s poorly reviewed Batman v Superman featured the two superheroes fighting to the death under dubious circumstances.
Enter Luke Skywalker. Wait, first enter Judaism. Or cultural Judaism. Because we know Luke Skywalker is not a Jew. But he might be a non-Jewish Jew.
In his series of essays collectively titled “The Non-Jewish Jew”, Isaac Deutscher defined such a character (you can read more about his history and writings in the Autumn issue of JC, courtesy of Michael Mirer). My aim is to fit Luke Skywalker within the tradition of this identifiably Jewish heroic stereotype.
Deutscher, a passionate Marxist, was proud of the Jewish tradition of intellectual heroes who, he wrote, “represent the sum and substance of much that is great in modern thought . . . the most profound upheavals that have taken place in philosophy, sociology, economics, and politics in the last three centuries.” From that, one can develop an axiom: Not all progressive heroes are Jewish, but most Jewish heroes are progressives.
Furthermore, Jewish progressive heroes are visibly so. Freud, Marx, Einstein, Bernie Sanders…each and every one a nebbish bookworm even among people of the book.
And doesn’t it look, from the promotional photo at the top of this piece, as if Luke Skywalker has been up to some library studies of his own?
He may fight for the Rebellion, but his poise and persona are rather atypical for the action/adventure genre. As a Jedi, he’s more wizard than warrior. He’s not exactly a hard-body, either, and this has not improved with time. He has a lightsaber sword, but as he matures into a “knight” it becomes increasingly symbolic — he even drops it passively as a show of strength at the end of his confrontation with the evil emperor. And as far as career longevity goes, Mark Hamill is the Sandy Koufax of superheroes; his most significant post-Star Wars work has involved television cartoon voiceovers.
SO OLD LUKE Skywalker is now a paunchy curmudgeon. But there’s a lot more to being Jewish than reading books and looking like you’ve eaten too many bagel schmears. Deutscher explains part of the experience of being Jewish, historically, is crafted out of the Jewish community’s relationship to the surrounding dominant culture. Being born into a certain kind of Jewish community (more on this later) is a helpful pre-requisite towards greatness, but it does not signify greatness in and of itself. “I do not believe in the exclusive genius of any race; yet I think that in some ways they [non-Jewish Jews] were very Jewish indeed. They had themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and of the Jewish intellect. They were a priori in that as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions and national cultures…they lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations. Each of them was in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it.”
Would it be a stretch to say the Jedi knights are modeled on some concept of Judaism? It’s pretty obvious that their aesthetic is drawn from Eastern religions and samurai culture —reluctant feudal warriors who draw their strength not from violence but rather an innate ability to tap into the mystical and esoteric “ force.” The history of the Jedi, however, seems very Jewish. Obi-Wan Kenobi introduces it to Luke in almost messianic terms, explaining that the Jedi were guardians of “peace and justice” but were exterminated or expelled by the dominant imperial powers of the day. Thus the Jedi were banished to their own diaspora, and to identify with the Jedi is to part of a tradition whose influence extends beyond their meager numbers. To be subject to persecution from “the dark side.”
The goal of the Jedi is not to pursue power, wealth or status of any kind, really, but to carry a virtuous mantle. They are space rabbis, touched with some kabbalah-style mysticism.
(Note that this reading of events requires us to sort of ignore the less heralded, tackier “prequel” trilogy…call me an ‘Old Testament’ Star Wars fan.)
MINE IS NOT just an academic attempt to misread “Star Wars” (the khutspe!). We need heroes like Luke Skywalker: reluctant champions, male “allies” whose strength is not derived from capacity for violence. Luke Skywalker is not driven by revenge, promises of glory, or a quixotic psychosis (think Batman’s damaged childhood, or Beowulf’s aggressive egotism). He made out with his sister, but that was before his God, George Lucas, had even decided they were related. Other than that, Luke Skywalker is remarkably under-sexed. Think of other high-profile fantasy series: Harry Potter gets a girl (and kids, off screen) in the end. Even Frodo and Sam have produced gay panic memes. We won’t know until December 14 whether Luke has produced any offspring in the interim between Episodes 6 and 8, but the rumor mill hasn’t dug up anything. All indications are he craves not the company of men or women, or at least, he’s not worrying about it. Jedi’s have more important Jedi business to conduct, apparently.
By the end of the original trilogy, his goal is simple and altruistic: He merely wants to restore compassion in his father and reunite their “family.” The climactic moment for Luke is not his fight, but his self-sacrifice in opposition to evil. His passage into knighthood is paved by loving ones enemies (although it helps if the enemy is your father). It is a belief he is willing to die for,which he doesn’t have to, because it’s a Hollywood film. Besides, who doesn’t want to see an evil dictator chucked down an infinite space void?).
Luke Skywalker is not perfect — he gets angry, is called out as too “reckless” and “old” for Yoda’s bar mitsve lessons — but that only makes him more relatable. He doesn’t abuse anyone and he’s not an indiscriminate killer. We can “deconstruct” heroes without destroying them. As we mature, our childhood idols become more human and fallible. But there is a difference between discovering the human flaws of someone we idolized and discovering they were actually a monster all along. When creating fictional heroes, sometimes writers don’t know how to allow their character to grow without turning them into something unrecognizable.
JEWS NEED better Jewish heroes, too. On one side of the Atlantic, Jewish power in America has led to standing inside, not against, the worst of the “evil empire.” Meanwhile, Israel continues to erode whatever moral foundations it began with in favor of an apologetically racist and jingoistic form of righteous behavior. The Israeli government has sided with Trump and his puppeteers’ ideology in a bid to further legitimize their own worst impulses. This favoring of the strongman, for good or ill, is not new: Founding Zionists and first generation of sabras were eager to shed the mantle of feckless Shylocks, in favor of a new, heartier archetype. That’s not altogether a bad thing: The first big-screen Wonder Woman was portrayed by a Amazonian Jewess Gal Gadot. But then there are government goons like Dany Danon or Neftali Bennet, might be considered second-rate thugs if they were born somewhere other than Israel; instead they get book deals and prime real estate in the editorial section of the New York Times.
I recently discussed this with a non-Jewish friend. We both talked about whether or not “cultural Judaism” has any meaning, and she laid down the gauntlet: What is special, she asked, about the Jews in America? Don’t all groups, once they shed their minority or marginalized status, adopt all the antagonisms of the existing power structure? As Deutscher also challenges us to ask: Is there anything great about being Jewish once Judaism is stripped of its historical context? Within Judaism itself, plenty have voiced concern over the years (Peter Beinart’s book was a recent example) about “losing” Judaism to the crazies, due to assimilation or what-not. So we need role models who can inspire us to be proud Jews, if not in letter, than in spirit. Luke Skywalker was not raised to be Jewish. But then again, neither was Moses (for the record, Mark Hamill was raised a Roman Catholic).
IT IS MY INFERENCE that the Disney Corporation/Lucasfilm company was very concerned about bringing Luke Skywalker back to the big screen, and didn’t quite know what to do with him. How could an aging-Luke Skywalker be portrayed without being ruined? The first new sequel gave him less than a minute of non-speaking screen time.
Yet I’m cautiously hopeful about Luke Skywalker’s portrayal in The Last Jedi. Although some people are worried that he has fallen to the dark side, indications are that this film instead finds Luke in something of a mid-life crisis, haunted by some past failures and, like his own mentors, having copied the Jedi tradition of self-imposed exile. From that place he looks poised to become a (reluctant?) mentor to the “new” audience surrogate and Jedi apprentice, Daisy Ridley.
It has helped, too, that Mark Hamill himself has emerged from the literal shadows to show himself as a champion for progressive positivity, a welcome discovery when so many actors or celebrities are dropping their façade only to be exposed as misogynous monsters.
All of this is not to say that all heroes should be depicted as such. Writers and filmmakers aren’t wrong to try create or reframe some heroism for a more cynical age. We don’t need heroes to fall into specific guidelines. Considering the fantastic nature of stories, we don’t need heroes need to be good or even likeable! But we do some heroes who are more archetypal and idealistic, if not in real life, than at least in the stories we tell, our literature and film, etc. We need them in the same way we need visions of the future that don’t involve the total destruction of our biosphere: as an inspiration for what can be possible. As demonstrations for the different ways in which we can self-actualize. As #metoo and the Trump Administration is proving every day, finding villains is easy. Finding heroes is the tough part. Let’s not let go of the good ones.
Aaron Dorman is a freelance writer/reporter focusing on environmental and science communication.