Tablet Magazine’s Liel Leibovitz, in his article “Reform Jediism“, puts forward the conjecture that The Last Jedi is the story of a community that abandons its religion for an ephemeral universalist creed, and it feels like a documentary about American Jews.
But I have to disagree.
I like where Leibovitz is coming from in terms of the moral, political, and religious ideas that he espouses. But he is way off base in his interpretation of the messages in the The Last Jedi.
No, Luke did not convert to “Reform Jediism”, and does not believe that “no study or observance [is] necessary” in order to master the Force.
Instead, he does say that the Jedi were wrong to believe that theirs was the only way to approach the Force.
The Force doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, Luke says, and anyone who wishes to can engage it — much like Chazal’s formulation of the open availability of Keter Torah. But, if one wishes to master it, then one must certainly study it. True, there are some people who have the advantage of an innate understanding of it even before study, and Rey is the paradigm of this, but note that even in Rey’s case, Luke still tells her that she needs a teacher.
“Page-turners they were not”, Yoda says of the ancient Jedi texts, chiding Luke for his failure to look past the books to see the bigger picture, as he tries to help Luke through his own personal crisis of faith.
Yoda explicitly acknowledges the “wisdom they held”, and does not call them “rubbish”, as Leibovitz suggests.
In fact, the film has a message that the ancient texts are not to be discarded, but rather preserved and studied.
Leibovitz can be forgiven for missing this particular message, because it was conveyed subtly, in a very brief shot that is easy to miss.
At the end of the film, Finn opens a drawer on board the Millennium Falcon, and in that drawer we can see the sacred Jedi texts — implying that rather than being destroyed (as Yoda allowed Luke to believe), the books were taken by Rey for study.
A far cry from Leibovitz’s “no study or observance necessary”.
I also take issue with Leibovitz’s characterization of the Resistance as craven appeasers or “J(edi) Street” types.
Contrary to his claim, they are certainly shown to be “fighting the malicious First Order with skill and determination”, and I see no sign that they engage in moral relativism; quite the opposite.
Yes, there is the scene where Rose sabotages Finn’s attempt at a suicide strike on the enemy’s cannon. But the context makes it clear that she did so because she loved Finn and wanted to save him; not because “violence is never the answer”.
That scene was a poignant portrayal of humanity, not a pacifist political message on the part of the film.
Rose herself did say that “we’re going to win… not fighting what we hate, [but] saving what we love”. But there’s no suggestion that this sentiment informs the Resistance’s tactics against the First Order — to the contrary, just a bit earlier, we saw Leia send her close friend Vice Admiral Holdo on a suicide mission. Holdo goes on to sacrifice her life in a daring attack on the First Order fleet.
Leibovitz denounces the film as portraying a “morally sophomoric cinematic universe, where not even the genocidal [Kylo] Ren is exempt from relativism’s muddled misjudgment”.
But is this really so?
Yes, Rey harbors the belief that Ren is still conflicted internally, and that he can be turned away from the Dark Side. After all, this was exactly what happened with Ren’s “Zayde” in Return of the Jedi — a film that, for some strange reason, is exempted by Leibovitz from the charge of moral relativism.
A central message in that film is in fact a very Jewish one: Even for a person who has sunk to the lowest of depths, the door is always open to teshuvah (repentance). This does not mean, however, that (a) anyone necessarily has the ability to convince an evil person to do teshuvah, or that (b) we should forgive an evil person for his terrible deeds.
When Luke confronts Ren, Ren asks, “Did you come back to say you forgive me? To save my soul?” To which Luke replies emphatically, “No”. As Luke told Leia just a few moments earlier, “I came to face him… I can’t save him.” Is this “relativism’s muddled misjudgment”? I don’t think so.
The Talmud relates that in the days of Rabban Gamliel, the President of the great rabbinic academy in Yavneh, only the most erudite scholars were allowed to attend the academy. Rabban Gamliel posted guards at the entrance, to make sure that nobody else would be allowed entry. But one day, Rabban Gamliel was deposed by the sages, and replaced with Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria.
Rabbi Elazar had a very different approach: The Torah, he said, does not belong only to an elite group of initiates, but rather to all those who wish to study it. So he removed the guards, and opened the doors of the academy to everyone. On that day, says the Talmud, they had to add hundreds of new seats in the academy.
When Rabban Gamliel saw this, he was terribly aggrieved, because he realized that his policy had prevented masses of people from learning Torah. Later, when he was restored to his post, he maintained R. Elazar’s policy of Torah for all.
If we are to compare the Force to Torah (as Leibovitz does in his article), then Luke in The Last Jedi is teaching the same lesson that was taught by R. Elazar ben Azariah: “That Force does not belong to the Jedi.” Rather, it belongs to anyone who chooses to partake of it.
At first Luke believes that the Jedi must end (an extreme position that he later recants) — not because he doesn’t want anyone to learn the ways of Force, but because he wants everyone to be able to.
This is not “Reform Jediism”, any more than R. Elazar b. Azariah is “Reform Judaism”. It is a healthy and proper return to basic values, authentic Jediism. And it’s the reason Rey takes the ancient Jedi texts from the tree on the secret island back to the galaxy: So that their lessons can be learned by all.
As Leibovitz says, “the old ways and the old texts still do matter —- both in the here and now and in a galaxy far, far away”. And that’s the very message the The Last Jedi teaches.