This post is both a sneak-peak at my teaching for Tues. night at Congregation Agudas Achim’s community-wide Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (night of Jewish learning) and also an invitation to be involved in actually shaping that teaching. Please read ahead and offer your comments. I’d love for my session to connect to people’s actual interests, whether you can be there or not.
Below is what I wrote as a description of my shiur (lesson):
Popular culture’s comic book and science fiction heroes and mythologies are filled with classic archetypes that address core spiritual issues. These ideas, including concepts of destiny or purpose, good versus evil, temptation, repentance, and communal redemption are also found in our own religious teachings. We will use the entertaining avenue of some of our beloved modern myths to begin an exploration of the sacred Jewish story and the possible obligations that come with it, especially in terms of the concept of revelation (of Torah) that we celebrate at Shavuot. While our starting point will be some fun comparisons of Jewish teachings to secular stories, the deeper task will be to determine what, if anything, about Torah remains unique and if Torah can have the same (or stronger) hold over us that these more modern tales have had in captivating the modern imagination. We will examine texts from Torah and the Rabbis (Talmud and Midrash).
So, I still need to choose some actual texts and points of comparison. What inspires your Jewish neshamah (soul) when you think about the themes and images from Star Wars or Superman?
If we think about the three-fold perspective of religion as addressing issues of Creation, Redemption, and Revelation, I think the secular mythologies tend to focus more on the 1st 2, and mostly the second. Redemption is explored on both a personal and communal/universal level, particularly in Star Wars. Creation tends to come up not so much in terms of the universe as a whole but in terms of the origin stories for the major characters, and in terms of the Force (especially in Empire Strikes Back) with our relationship to the rest of Creation as it exists right now — regardless of explanations of how it all got here. But what about revelation?
The main experiences of revelation in Superman and Star Wars seem to be on a personal level, directly to the hero. In some ways, the revelation is specifically about the hero’s origins and the larger story he is a part of, and we can see a parallel there in Torah, which begins with a whole book and a half of narrative before we get to revelation of will or law. The big difference, however, is that Torah’s revelation is to an entire nation, and I don’t see that in these secular stories — I’m also curious where (if at all) they exist in any other cultures.
Getting back to the revelations in Star Wars and Superman, they also include instructions — What is my purpose? How am I supposed to use my powers? What is desired of me? How can I repair my world? — and they come from fathers (Jor-El) or surrogate father figures (Obi-Wan). Luke of course later receives a much more shocking revelation about his own origins from his actual father, and I’m not sure how to compare that to any revelation we see in Torah, except perhaps in the Rabbinic notion of the 2 yetzarim (inclinations) within all of us.
In terms of revelation as we tend to think of it as the revealing of Law, we can compare the mitzvah system, halachah, as a way of walking with God or in step with God’s will to the Jedi’s efforts to respond to the Force, to live in harmony with it. But how do the Jedi know the proper response(s)? Is it intuited (“Trust your feelings”)? Trial and error? Is that so different from what probably has played out in reality throughout Jewish history? What about the prophecy about one who will bring balance to the Force? Is prophecy harnessed from the Force in the same way Biblical prophets gain access to it? Obviously the films don’t explain this at all, so it’s open to interpretation.
How about the evolving nature of halachah as celebrated in the Rabbinic tradition as compared to new discoveries about the Force? Qui-Gon Jin is the first to preserve his identity outside of his body, and Obi-Wan is the first to make his body disappear. It was understood that Luke’s destiny was to kill Vader (presumably this would fulfill the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force) but he innovated and found a different solution, allowing Anakin’s goodness to reemerge. Even the earlier Jedi value of detachment (which leads to Anakin’s failure as a Jedi) is ultimately proven to be inadequate compared to the power of love (of Luke for his friends and sister, of Anakin for his son). So the Force continues to reveal itself in new ways over time. Can we say the same for Torah?
I think what might be most valuable is the way that many rabbis have tried to keep the idea of Revelation alive for Jews throughout time — the notion that every moment of awareness is a standing at Sinai, that mindfulness of Divine will achieved through performance of the mitzvot or through engaging the wonder of Creation, or tikkun olam, etc. is an opportunity to reenact the miracle of Sinai. The moments of clarity or personal redemption for our heroes in these other mythologies are quite similar. (It’s just that, again, within those mythic systems, the personal revelation seems to stand alone — there doesn’t seem to be an earlier shared memory of a mythic communal revelation.)
Any thoughts? Looking forward to a conversation both here and at synagogue on Tuesday night (but the former can help shape the latter!).