Major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker below. Also, major spoilers for the Bible.
I don’t mean to make you jealous, but my rabbi isn’t just any rabbi. He’s a cool rabbi. Jon Leener, age 31, is the spiritual leader of two organizations in the Brooklyn Jewish world. One is a community organization called Base Hillel, which brings 20- and 30-something Jews (and the Judaism curious) together for study, Sabbath dinners, and worship on the holidays, among other programming. More recently, he became the rabbi for Prospect Heights Shul, a congregation I regularly attend for services and to which I am currently applying to become a member (wish me luck). While outwardly maintaining the appearance of a mature, professional Modern Orthodox father of two and husband of one, Rabbi Leener also happens to have the heart and enthusiasm of a kid when it comes to Star Wars.
Last night, we both saw Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, albeit separately — look, he’s my rabbi, but we don’t do everything together, all right? Afterward, and well into this morning, I found myself furious about the film, which I found to be a barely coherent collage of nonsense and nostalgia. However, Rabbi Leener wrote on Facebook that he loved it so much, he ranked it as his fourth-favorite Star Wars movie of all time (for context: he ranked The Last Jedi dead last and didn’t even include Solo or Rogue One). I generally respect Rabbi Leener’s intellect and taste, so I reached out to him this morning in a state of spiritual desolation to get his thoughts on the flick and where it fits in the world of Jewish thought. I have included annotations for the Hebrew and Yiddish terms, so fear not, Gentiles.
So it appears that you liked the movie.
Totally! Well, one of my friends who has no idea of anything about Star Wars was like, “Why are you going?” Like, “Why do you have to go the first night, so late, and see it in theaters?” And when I was coming home, I was like, Y’know, it’s kinda like going to shul versus davening at home. The experience, I feel like — especially for Star Wars — to see it in theaters with other people is so much a part of the entire shtick. People were cheering when the opening screen came on with the credits rolling. People were cheering at certain times. You could hear gasps and whatnot.
We’re coming at this from different mind-sets because I’m a bitter cynic and you’re not. I actually prefer to watch Star Wars on my own because when a lot of people in a crowd are hooting and hollering, I’m reminded of the ways Disney controls our emotions. I feel like I’m being manipulated. But I feel bad saying that because it might harsh your vibe.
No! I think the whole Disney takeover complicates its legacy to some extent. But I don’t know. I love J.J. Abrams. I’m a huge Lost fan also. So I trust him, I guess. Obviously, he’s gonna make a movie that is commercial and people will go see, but I feel like, at the same time, he has some sort of respect for what has happened before.
Did you watch Star Wars a lot as a kid?
Totally. Actually, I was talking about it in therapy the other day. [Laughs.] I told her I was going, and she was like, “What does Star Wars mean to you?” And yeah, I have all these memories of my parents going out on Saturday night and a babysitter coming, and I would watch the trilogy all in one night.
So what did you like about the movie?
What did I like about the — well, I hated The Last Jedi because I thought it didn’t take itself seriously; it had all these stupid jokes, and obviously all Star Wars movies have some kibitzing element to bring you back down to earth a little bit. But I felt like it wasn’t willing to go all the way. But with this movie, I feel like it was very bold. That was my initial thought.
What do you mean by bold?
I felt shades of Empire Strikes Back in terms of the raw darkness of it. And I guess I appreciated that.
“The raw darkness”? You thought this was dark?
There were some pretty intense scenes, no?
Yeah, but the end is so cheery!
I guess when I think of Empire Strikes Back being dark, it’s because the good guys lose.
What did you think of all the shout-outs and nostalgia? A lot of people disliked that, including me. You know, like, when Han shows up as a “memory” or whatever, or when Luke comes back as a Force Ghost despite having had such a definitive-seeming send-off in The Last Jedi. I found it irritating insofar as it felt like a bunch of suits telling me, “Hey, you liked this thing! Now it’s back for no good reason!” But it sounds like that didn’t bother you.
The only time it bothered me was when Luke’s plane came out.
Yeah, the X-wing. That, I felt, was a little over-the-top. But it’s all about how you’re viewing Star Wars. Like, are you going into it as, This is a cinematic experience, and you’re judging it the same way you would judge, like, The Irishman? Or are you going in and being like, This is a whole universe that spans decades? You have to have different principles to judging the movie.
What Jewish texts would you compare Star Wars to?
The whole thing?
Well, let’s start with this new one.
How about this: I view the original three as the five books of the Torah.
The Chumash. They’re untouchable. They’re min hashamayim. [Laughs] Kinda like, divinely inspired to an extent. It’s not debatable in terms of how you’re gonna view those movies. And then everything after is kinda up for grabs. Some books in the Prophets get more airtime than others; some people like the Book of Jonah, and others think it has a ridiculous ending, y’know? I think that happens with some of the Star Wars movies.
This one, Rise of Skywalker — was there a book of the Tanakh it reminded you of?
Or a story or an anecdote, anything Jewish.
I feel like all the movies are very biblical. Especially this one in terms of the characters themselves. All the characters are the people you’d least expect to be a leader or to be the driving force and redeemer of the world, so to speak. And that’s arguably the most popular biblical trope you find: The underdog is actually the savior. Right? Like in the Torah, every single firstborn son gets pushed down by the younger, weaker son. And think about it: Moses, who redeems the Jewish people, is a slave, comes from a slave family. That’s the premise of a lot of Star Wars characters.
That’s a good point! Anakin is enslaved. Rey isn’t exactly enslaved, but she’s stuck on the bottom of society as this scavenger. And Finn! Finn is enslaved by the First Order at the beginning of The Force Awakens, then in this one, he meets other people who had the same experience of slavery. So I guess there is that.
And that may be part of their psyche in terms of their compassion toward others and believing so deeply in freedom. I also think of the characters — especially in this one — in terms of Jacob. Especially in the sense of self-realizing. Jacob starts out hesitant to claim his role as one of the patriarchs and he literally wrestles with himself. And that was a big theme of this movie, I think. Fear of confronting yourself.
I guess Rey does that a lot here, and so does Kylo Ren to an extent. What did you make of the way the movie handles teshuvah?
Okay, one, I would say I felt the movie itself did teshuvah for Last Jedi. Obviously, most people don’t see that. But in my head, even half an hour into the movie, I was like, Whoa, this is full teshuvah for what happened previously. But I think that’s the deepest message of Star Wars, ultimately: teshuvah. The fact that Darth — going back to the earlier ones — that Anakin and Darth Vader can, however far they may have fallen and been consumed by evil, they ultimately can return. Even if it’s their last, dying breath.
People think that’s a Catholic concept, but it’s very Jewish as well, this idea that, even if it’s with your dying breath, you can repent and be welcomed by God.
A hundred percent. Yeah. I’m trying to think about the characters in this. Who did you think represented teshuvah in this?
Mainly Kylo Ren. He realizes he has done all these awful things. I thought it was handled in a very chintzy, simplistic way, where Rey heals him and abruptly he’s like, I have to be a good person now.
You know what was interesting? He had a name change, which, in the Torah, is always significant.
Oh! Good point!
Because a name is not just a name. It’s their spiritual DNA. It’s emblematic of their essence. His name actually changed. At the end, they call him Ben Skywalker.
Wait, did anyone actually call him Ben Skywalker? I guess the Emperor sorta did.
I can’t remember.
But he goes by Ben now.
And in the Talmud, it goes, shinui shem, changing your name, is basically like changing … it’s the fullest realization of teshuvah because you are in effect becoming a new person. “I am no longer recognized as that person, and I am now this.” And it’s true with Darth Vader and Anakin. It’s not a coincidence when people refer to him as Anakin, because this person was Darth Vader, and now he’s something else.
Maybe this is reading too much into it, but they call Kylo Ben, which could be short for Benjamin, which is English for Binyamin, which is Hebrew for “son of the right hand.”
What does that name mean, really? I know the literal translation but not anything else.
Rachel, his mother, names him something a little different: Benoni, “son of my pain.” And Jacob actually renames him.
Okay, so that works for Ben Solo! Anyway, I guess I’m just mad at the way Disney owns my childhood dreams at this point, which I know is a common refrain, but last night, I was thinking about the fact that they’re gonna keep focus-grouping these things until the end of time and never take real risks. That just frustrates me.
I’d say on a meta level, viewing the whole franchise, comparing it to rabbinic works and the Torah and whatnot, I have the same fear. I feel that the Torah and even the Talmud, to some extent, become canonized, meaning there’s nothing going in or out. There’s a notion of completion. There’s definitely people commenting on the Torah and the Talmud, but there’s a notion of not needing to continually reinvent something incredible that was given to us. It’s done. They’re not remaking the Book of Jonah. And in the Talmud, the rabbis debate about which … I mean, the Book of Esther, it gets debated whether it should even be included in the Tanakh. They say, “So what is a defining element of a book that can be in the Bible?” Because the Book of Esther, for example, doesn’t have any mention of God’s name. So somebody wrote on my Facebook wall, “What about Rogue One and Solo?” And I said, “That’s not part of the canon.” Right? Not in the same way. To me, a defining feature of Star Wars is John Williams has to do the music. I think I read an article that said they specifically didn’t have Williams compose the music for those two so as to show that its holiness, so to speak, wasn’t on the same level as the other movies.
Last night, there were all these times when classic Williams themes would play at moments I hated, and I was like, get that man’s music out of your mouth.
When, like, Force Ghost Luke lifts the X-wing out of the muck and the dulcet tones of “Yoda and the Force” start playing, I was like, oh, screw this. I’m sounding like such a whiny fan here. Maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way. A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who’s Modern Orthodox, and I was like, “You spent your childhood studying Torah, and I spent mine studying Star Wars and I had the losing bet.”
But as we’re seeing here, they have more in common than we thought.
I didn’t like the prequels, but I do like the idea that the Jedi are punished for being idiots. They do a lot of stupid stuff, and they experience a total collapse. In that way, the prequels remind me a lot of the Book of Jeremiah, where you have the holy Children of Israel being punished with calamity because they did bad things. Judaism really isn’t afraid to blame the victim.
Every religion can associate how they want, but I think to some extent Judaism, or Jews, I would identify as being the Jedi, because the movies make it clear they’re not superior to anybody else — so much so that you don’t have to be born into it. It’s not necessarily passed down through biology.
Except in the prequels, with the Midi-Chlorians, but that doesn’t really count.
For the most part, the main entry point is a closeness to the Force. That’s definitely the same thing in Judaism. We have different sects — Kohanim, Levi’im — and those go through the mother or father. But for the most part, people’s greatness is achieved by their own abilities and has nothing to do with where they were born.
I will say, you’re convincing me that there’s more to the new movie than I thought in my cynical reverie. So thank you.
Yeah, just think about the last scene: They had the faith of leading that final attack and hoping people in the galaxy would come. That is a deeply spiritual notion, having faith in yourself and other people, the faith that goodness will ultimately drive people. I was also thinking about the Dark Side a lot, and the yetzer hara.
I was just about to say.
Or kinda the Sitra Ahra, which is defined as “the other side.” And there are places in the Talmud that say everyone has a yetzer hara. The Talmud says the greater a person is spiritually, the greater their yetzer hara will be. There are also places in the Talmud that say our yetzer hara sustains the world to some extent.
Like having sex, impulses like that sustain the world. It’s not making a distinction so much between the sides of the Force in that way.
I should see the movie again. Whenever I see a Star Wars or Marvel movie for the first time, it’s so hard for me to enjoy it, because those mythologies meant so much to me when I was young and they’re such products now. But I guess they were always products. When you’re a child, you don’t know about commerce, so you think everything is pure art.
Last question: Who’s the most Jewish Star Wars character?
Of all time?
Hmmm, let me think about that.
I’m gonna go with Yoda.
Someone said to me the other day that Yoda sounds a lot like yodea, which is Hebrew for “know.” But actually, I think Jewish characters are ultimately measured by their change and evolution, and for however long you see Yoda, he remains stagnant. At a very high level, he’s not changing as much. And Luke, he had the most potential to be Jewish, but at the end of his life, being out on that island and secluding himself is the most non-Jewish thing to do, in terms of being away from people. I would say it’s Anakin.
It goes back to teshuvah. He has so many comparisons to Moshe, too.
Yeah, it’s very similar: He’s born into slavery, like Moshe, then he gets elevated to the highest levels of civilization — he’s being raised in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant in the upper echelons of the Republic and being told he’s this great chosen one, so it’s not unlike Moses being raised in Pharoah’s house. And, like Anakin, he’s deeply tempted by his anger.
Yeah, think about what he does when he hits the rock, or when he kills! I actually think a lot of the characters in Star Wars, even the Emperor or Luke or Anakin — all the great, high characters — don’t have good relationships with other people, really, which is a familiar biblical trope. Like the prophets being isolated. There’s an element of, if you’re so close to God — or, in this case, the Force — where does that leave people?