By Marley Weiner, RRC Rabbinical Student
I’ve been watching the Star Wars films since I was a small child, and I’ve always been enamored with Princess Leia. She was smart and scrappy and always looked fabulous while fighting evil. She knew how to handle a blaster and commit intergalactic espionage. She was my first model for a woman who was capable of kicking just as much butt as the boys, both as fighter and as tactician.
However, there is the infamous scene in which she is captured by Jabba the Hutt and made to wear an embarrassingly scanty outfit – the iconic metal bikini. Of course, even then, she manages to save the day. But that particular outfit has stuck in the public consciousness in a way that every other look of Leia’s - except, perhaps, the ear buns - never has, and never will. Princess Leia, although she is a brilliant, sarcastic loudmouth, is primarily evaluated by many fans and by her male compatriots for her beauty. It was a dangerous lesson to learn as a child: fighting and cracking one-liners is all well and good, but most people will overlook that in favor of a pretty face.
Princess Leia’s character arc reminds me a great deal of the stories of Yael and Judith from Jewish tradition. (Yael’s story appears in the Book of Judges, and Judith’s is depicted in the extra-Biblical Book of Judith.) Both Yael and Judith are strong, independent women forced into the roles of seducer and assassin. Yael puts a tent peg through the head of a Canaanite general after getting him drunk, and Judith cuts off the head of a Greek general after promising to marry him. Both are models of beautiful Jewish women unafraid to kill in order to bring down tyrants and aid their own people. And yet, they exist in Jewish imagination as femme fatales, forced to deploy their sexuality to fight evil.
Leia also reminds me of the story of Beruria, the brilliant, scholarly wife of Rabbi Meir and one of just a handful of women quoted as a sage in the Talmud. While most of her stories in the Talmud celebrate her wit, she ultimately meets an untimely end. Her husband grows jealous and encourages one of his students to seduce her; the shame is more than she can bear, so she kills herself.
The feminist movement, led in America by many Jewish women, is, in many ways, an ongoing fight against this objectification. It is all well and good to portray a woman as adept with a sword or a blaster, or clever in the study hall. But when that is wrapped up with a focus on her sexuality and looks, how are we to see her as a full person independent of the men in her life?
Luckily, a lot has changed in the past 2000 years—even the past forty. In Jewish literature, pop culture and in galaxies far, far away, women are now often portrayed as full characters outside of the male gaze. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Leia returns as a seasoned general. Her character arc is primarily about her mission to save the galaxy, and the heartbreak she endures fulfilling that mission. We also see a new central female character, Rey, who gets to have all the romance, challenging decisions, and lightsaber battles of the original trilogy, without being constantly objectified. As a woman and a feminist, I was gratified to sit in the audience watching these two heroines, looking forward to the day when I could teach the next generation of Jewish children by their example.
The story of Reconstructionist Judaism is the story of giving more people a seat at the table. From women, to LGBTQ folks, to Jews of color, to non-Jews who have thrown in their lot with the Jewish people, our movement is multi-vocal. We tell our stories on our own terms, independent of others who would seek to fold our experiences into the dominant narrative. And, like the Star Wars universe, our story is all the richer for opening up and allowing those people to have fully realized narratives, rather than just existing as archetypes.
Marley Weiner is in her fourth year at RRC. She currently works as the rabbinic intern at Temple University and as a Hebrew High School teacher at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County. She has just returned from a year abroad in Jerusalem, where she studied full time at the Conservative Yeshiva. She has seen Star Wars Episode VI: A New Hope, at least twenty times.