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Reconstructing Star Wars

December 21, 2015

by Emily Cohen, RRC Rabbinical Student

“Should we say a shehecheyanu?” my classmate whispered.

We were seated in a darkening theater; previews were coming to an end. Half the audience happened to be rabbinical students. Two of us were dressed in full fan regalia, and the rest were just as eager, with soda and buckets of popcorn at the ready.

“Yes!” I said, along with several other voices.

“Baruch atah adonai eloheinu ruach haolam, shehecheyanu v’kiamanu v’hegianu laz’man hazeh.” Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Spirit of the World, who has brought us life, sustained us, and brought us to arrive at this very time.

And what a time it was. We said amen, leaned back in our seats, watched the screen display a number VII—a number we thought we would never see—heard that perfect brass intro that John Williams seared into millions of hearts nearly 40 years ago, and were whisked off to a galaxy far, far away….

This was a world we knew so well. Stormtroopers in impossibly shiny armor, a young hero barely getting by on a desert planet, a little droid with a big mission, a hotshot pilot willing to do anything for the cause, a masked man with evil intent and the power of the Force. And yet, all of it was new. Characters we had never met, planets unknown, and a stormtrooper who took off his helmet to reveal eyes holding all the conflict and fear any rebel’s would.

Star Wars Episode VII felt right. We were held by tradition even as we explored new heroes and villains, new galactic orders, new planets. This was a story we knew. And we Star Wars fans need that. We need touchstones. We Jews do too.

We Jews need tradition. Those traditions might look different person to person, family to family, community to community, but they are still present. As Reconstructionist Jews, we see it as our task to delve into our traditions and decide what stays and what is no longer relevant to the Jewish endeavor. Living in two civilizations—Jewish and American—we seek to find the best of both, a path that will sustain us and carry us from one moment to the next.

As I watched Star Wars Episode VII, I couldn’t help thinking about Reconstructionist Judaism. The traditions of Star Wars might not be millennia old, but they run deep nonetheless. For many fans, the prequel trilogy of Episodes 1-3 completely broke from those traditions—beautiful and cheesy and groan-worthy—that Star Wars had come to represent. In some ways, the prequels were all but unrecognizable to fans of the original three.

Episode VII was not a direct continuation of the original trilogy, but it did not ignore it. Instead, it took the best of the original traditions and adapted them, allowing the Star Wars universe to evolve to fit our civilization and times. Some things remained the same. Our rebel heroes, fleeing evil forces, tumbled onto none other than the Millennium Falcon. The audience gasped with glee as our fierce pilot tried to finagle the bucket of bolts into the air even as her new friend attempted to manage the guns (spoiler: they broke), and we knew without doubt that a new generation of heroes was coming into its own. After all, the Millennium Falcon is the place where it all started. It is impossible to imagine a galaxy without it or a group of new heroes rising without taking at least one bumpy ride. Some things were different. The mixed multitude of the Republic was actually mixed, with men and women of all races and alien species (this is Star Wars, after all) crowded into the war room and climbing into starfighter cockpits. The female hero was a hero in her own right, the recipient of not one but several well-intentioned-but-poorly-executed non-rescues by, well, men. There was no love triangle. Some heroes were old. The Force Awakens is a movie that we can watch and wink heartily to the past with one eye while gladly meeting the future with the other. It is a Reconstructionist take on a legend worth preserving. Like Reconstructionist Judaism, the film offers a new piece to a saga that proves itself, in every way, worth continuing.

Emily Cohen is a fourth-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Before deciding to become a rabbi, Emily received her B.A. in history from Macalester College, spent a year working with an educational NGO in rural China and serving with AmeriCorps in Minneapolis Public Schools. An avid musician, writer, and baker, she always seems to find time to sing with a chamber choir, work on her latest work of fiction, and make fresh bread.

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