I did something I have never done before yesterday.
I went to a movie by myself.
Now I was not meant to – my son couldn’t come at the last minute so I tried to find someone, but in the end no one could join me. However, I wasn’t going just for enjoyment. This was a research trip. You see I had heard and read some fascinating stuff about this film and I thought before I speak or write on the issue I should go and see it – so I did.
The film was ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ and what is remarkable about the film is the tremendous split between the fans and the critics. The critics have loved it while the fans have slated it. It has been called the ultimate Marmite movie – the question is why?
The answer takes us to another major marmite event in the Jewish community – Limmud.
Now again, with Limmud, a lot of people think it is amazing, the highlight of the Jewish educational year and UK Jewry’s greatest export. Others think it is appalling and a disaster for the community. Again – the marmite effect.
What is remarkable about Star Wars and Limmud is that the marmite effect is actually caused by the same problems – let me explain. (Many of these ideas are taken from an excellent article https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/251727/reform-jediism by Liel Leibowitz).
So, what had I heard about Star Wars? I had heard and read that it had been relaunched by Disney as a 21st century PC cultural mess. The main focus of the fans ire was the complete abandonment of the classic ideas about the Jedi and the force.
As a Jew, the idea of the force and the Jedi were very positive. Jedi’s are the chosen ones who can channel The Force but only if they spend years studying its secrets and unlocking its mysteries. This concept of study and application linked well with our ideas of acquiring Torah and the need to spend time and work on the acquisition. However, in this movie, that is simply not the case. The Force is everywhere and for everyone, no study or observance necessary.
Leibowitz then adds powerfully ‘The ancient sacred Jedi texts, we are told later in the film (though by whom will remain a surprise until you make your way to the multiplex), are boring rubbish, and the ancient Jedi practices—the very ones Luke himself had spent so much of the earlier films trying to master—are a waste of time. To be a Jedi, according to Reb Skywalker, you only need to feel like a Jedi, …., which everyone can achieve just by being, you know, a good person. Toss in a few bagels, and you can say that Jediism, really, isn’t a religion but a culture or something..’
Every Thursday, I go to Rav Eliyahu Silverman, our Mizrachi Mechanech, for his excellent Parsha shiur. While sitting there, my eyes are often drawn to the wall where he and his children have put up a remarkable project. It is basically the Mesorah – our tradition. It highlights how from Matan Torah it has moved from the Elders to the Neviim to the Tanaim (Mishna) then the Amoraim, (Gemara) the Geonim, the Rishonim, the Achronim and the later Achronim. An unbroken chain of Torah transmission for over 3000 years. The highlight of the chart is the final pictures – of his children learning Torah, the message to them, they are the next link in the chain. We are still learning, still studying those books, yes we are living in the 21st century but we have links to our past.
The upset of the Star Wars fans is they rightly feel that Disney have thrown away the traditions, kept bits of it, but the central tenets, the core ideals and values that it was all based on have been rejected. The upset towards Limmud is similar. So much of the education there is non-Orthodox, are Judaisms that reject the Mesorah. To tweak my line from above. The main focus of the Orthodox Jews ire is the complete abandonment of the classic ideas about Torah and Halacha.
Now I have been to Limmud twice, and I must say it is remarkable. Thousands of people coming together to learn, that is impressive. The question is what are they learning? It is important to understand why people are anti-Limmud, they are simply upset at the non-orthodox ideologies that exist there. To them, Orthodox Judaism (whether Modern or Charedi) is the only authentic Judaism and anything else is outside the definition of Judaism. The defence of Limmud is that it is not there to promote one ideology, but everyone can teach. Personally, I hear both sides and that is why I have gone, to make sure the Orthodox voice is heard.
So what’s the answer? How do we deal with it? We turn to the parsha.
Vayechi details the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe who in some ways become the paradigm for Jewish children and the blessing we give to our boys on Friday night. What was it about these two boys that Yaacov saw a uniqueness and bequeathed on them such honour and grace? It could well be that Ephraim and Menashe are who we wish our children to follow – brought up in an alien land, with alien culture all around them they identified as Jews and refuses to barter away their Jewishness. As Rabbi Hertz beautifully puts it – Every Jewish parent may well pray that his children show the same loyalty to their father and God as did Ephraim and Menashe.
However, there is further connection between Ephraim and Menashe and the blessings we give to our children. On Simchat Torah – when we call up all the children Kol Haneairim who are not yet barmitzvah, who cannot have their own Aliyah, we sing to them the very blessing that Yaacov gave to Ephraim and Menashe in this weeks Sedra. Ha Malach Ha Goel – may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land.”
Why did he bless them to multiply like fish? Keeping Kosher is not easy – certainly outside of a major Jewish centre. The main staple of Kosher eating is kosher meat. There are many laws which need to be adhered to for the meat to be kosher. The animal has to be a kosher animal, it has to be shechted in a prescribed manner, it then has to be checked to see that it has no signs of terminal illness, then it has to be soaked to remove the blood, the hind part removed and finally it can be declared Kosher.
Fish are entirely different- go down to a river anywhere in the world, thousands of miles from any kosher butcher or restaurant, catch a fish – check it is a kosher fish – fins and scales – and that’s it.
When it comes to a Jew it is the same – check they are a Halachic Jew – and that is it – no need for any exams or inquisitions about how religious they are – a Jew is a Jew whether he or she keeps everything or keeps nothing. Whether they believe or don’t believe – they are part of our people.
Yaacov is bequeathing a blessing to Ephraim and Menashe and in some ways to all Jewish children yet unborn – whoever you are – you are part of our people. Obviously, Yaacov hoped that his future children would respect the traditions of our people, commit themselves to its observance and endeavour to transmit to the next generation – but, like fish, even if they did none of the above – they were still part of the Jewish people.
Towards the end of the movie, one of the heroes says ‘Don’t fight what we hate, save what we love’. I disagree. It should read. ‘Fight what you hate in order to save what you love.’ Judaism is so precious to me, it is our lifeblood. In order to save it from assimilation and apathy we must fight in a positive, meaningful way to show that traditional Torah Judaism can be lived in the 21st century – loyal to the Mesorah but engaging with the world around us. Creating a Modern Orthodoxy that is inspiring, passionate and relevant. We have seen in America how outside of Orthodoxy, intermarriage rates have climbed to almost 80% and simple observances such as lighting Shabbat candles have collapsed (99% of Orthodox Jews and only 10% of Reform Jews).
Our upset at the non-Orthodox is not fuelled by hate or anger, it is fuelled by sadness and a realisation that Judaism will only survive if we understand what Torah is and what it is not and have the confidence and the ability to promote it to the wider community. Yes, we must love every Jew, but we don’t have to love every Judaism – I have said it many times before, but it needs to be said many times again. To finish with Leibowitz. ‘The old ways and the old texts still do matter—both in the here and now and in a galaxy far, far away’.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw