Yoda Was My First Rabbi

The wise and powerful master of the Force raises his hand, focuses, and commands the tree trunk to lift into the air, the waters of the river to flow backwards, the stones to shift as if weightless. And because of who I am, even though the force master here is Rabbi Eliezer and the story takes place in the Talmud, there’s a soundtrack: John William’s ethereal Yoda’s Theme.

I’m a Jewish educator. My students read from the book of Exodus, Judges, Samuel I. We also watch Black Mirror, The Matrix, and obviously, Star Wars. I’m a child of the 70’s and 80s. My first cinematic thrills were X-Wings and At-Ats. I forward pieces like Who Said It: Yoda or Jewish Sage to my rabbinic friends. I barely skimmed “From Jediism to Judaism” because yes, I already know that Yoda’s name is a permutation of the Hebrew “Yada”—he knew, and that Yoda’s statement, “You must pass on what you have learned” is prefigured by the Rabbinic line “All your children shall be taught about the Force, and great shall be the peace of your children.” Okay, so I took some liberties with translation. I’m allowed to: I’m a Torah nerd. But long before that, I was a Star Wars nerd.

***

Growing up on the edge of a small rural town in Wisconsin, I felt a bit like a moisture farmer on Tatooine. I had seen almost nothing of the galaxy, but I sensed there was something else out there. That calling for more ignited as a ten year old when Return of the Jedi first blew my mind. I then chased the Krayt Dragon, so to speak, with a steady adolescent diet of Sci Fi and Fantasy. That eventually led me to an Ultra Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem.

While many of my classmates snuck off to the pubs of The Holy City, I had been hoping to find the oldest, wrinkliest Rabbi to reveal the esoteric secrets of Judaism. I felt the ache to sit in the presence of a bona fide, wizened sage. Star Wars had taught me an otherwise counter-cultural notion: old stuff could be cool, and really, really old stuff could be really, really cool. As a liberal college student, I’d sensed that we too often dismissed the older generations as stiff and stuck in their ways. Luke, I’d seen, was the one who needed to “unlearn what he had learned.” The young man could barely lift a stone. The wizened sage could float an X-Wing.

Ready are you? What know you of ready? For 800 years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained! A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one, a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away to the future, the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Adventure. Heh! Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things. Yoda, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

One Friday at midnight, my friend and I snuck into a very old school Yeshiva to find ourselves in the midst of the thunderous stomping of hundreds of young men, chanting and jumping rhythmically on risers, singing in praise of the Sabbath and of their holy rebbe. And at the end of the long table, wrinkled and shriveled, in a kind of glorious splendor, barely moving and old as the mountains of Alderan: their rebbe.

We held onto the bleachers for dear life as it rocked from side to side, and after the singing was over, we lined up at the table to receive a blessing, which came in the form of a dry piece of cake from the Rebbe’s plate—a tradition known as “lekach.” I felt a little like Luke, taking that first bite of Yoda’s mysterious root-leaf stew. It was my first taste of that new, old world.

At the time, it didn’t weigh on me that as a male, I was privileged to have partial access to this world, while my female friends were shut out. My yearning propelled me on Friday Nights through the dark streets of Meia Sha’arim (an ultra orthodox neighborhood with a very Star Wars name) seeking Jewish secrets, five more years of intensive Jewish study: I was captivated by the story of Rabbi Eliezer and his apparent use of force-like powers to settle a legal debate. And the story of Rabbi Akiva, whose soul projected across space and time, to witness his own legacy. And Rav Acha, who slew a demon through a series of unarmed prostations. But most importantly, I heard Yoda’s raspy backwards voice in the sacred teaching; “A master, assume for yourself, a friend, acquire for yourself, and every person, judge on the side of merit.”

I was not alone in my admiration for the little, green Rebbe. Many of the students at the ultra-orthodox Yeshiva, then the much more liberal Machon Pardes, had grown up inspired by Yoda’s proclamation: we are not beings of crude matter, but rather, we are formed “B’tzelem Elohim”—made of the light and shadow of God. We wove George Lucas and Litkutei Moharan together. Some of us went on to become Rabbis. Some became very religious and disappeared into other more traditional, even fundamentalist communities. For me, like Luke, hearing the urgent call of his friends, and very much against the warning of some of my teachers, I fled Dagobah — I followed my instincts all across the spiritual galaxy: from the Sufis of Cairo and Konya to the Tibetan refuge of Dharamsala and back to Jerusalem.

I shipped off to America before my training was complete. Even 5 years isn’t enough to become a full fledged Jewish Jedi. However, it was enough to become a Jewish educator. I’ve taught Biblical literature through a psychological, sociological, and literary lens to high school students for almost 15 years,and rather than say that I bring contemporary Sci Fi texts to illuminate and enrich the Biblical text, I’d say quite the opposite: I handle the ancient texts with the excitement of a ten-year-old, watching The Empire Strikes Back for the first time.

***

The thing about kids and spirituality is that things don’t exactly add up: religion is about spirituality, and spirituality and Mysticism are neighbors. Mysticism is next to Magic. Kids devour magic as fast as they can find it, and much of the magical lore that they consume (Looking at you, Harry Potter and Star Wars) is saturated with spirituality. George Lucas himself said: “I put the Force into the movies in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people.”

To be sure, there are plenty of “church kids” out there—kids who cannot get enough weekly worship, bible camp, and youth group. But most of my peers, (and many of my current students) had a deeply ambivalent (if not outright antagonistic) relationship with religion, and with God.

In his book, Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam illustrated (in a way that seems gravely understated, given the way things have been moving in our society) the way in which collective social capital has dropped. Even without a pandemic keeping us in our homes, decade by decade, people seek out community less, join clubs and fraternal organizations less, spend less time with friends face-to-face, going to church, and, yes, going bowling. Some of this change might not be a bad thing, but we’ve thrown the Bantha out with the bathwater. Now, it’s all about screens, streaming, and personal choice: extreme individuality. Hailing from the loneliness of our 21st century childhoods, we may gravitate to the apparent isolation of the Master/Padwan relationship, forgetting that Luke entered into this one-on-one bond in the greater context of the communal responsibilities of the Rebellion, and part of a chain of tradition (in Hebrew, called a mesora). This brings new meaning to that verse from Pirkei Avot: “A master, assume for yourself, a friend, acquire for yourself, and every person, judge to the side of merit.” (Pirkei Avot 1,6). I read this as “friends, acquire for yourself” (Hebrew syntax sounding very Yoda-like, indeed) — meaning the solitude of the Master and Apprentice can be dangerous without strong social grounding. Young people have lost their taste for bowling. They have also lost their taste for community. As a result, and understandably so, young people have the same imagination, the same yearning for magic, the same resonance with the Force they always have. But the communal responsibilities and expectations seem incredibly uncool.

The result: spiritual loneliness. Loneliness can lead to the Dark Side.

***

The plunges I took in my twenties into mystical encounters were stimulating, inspiring, but ultimately unsustainable. Real life sagely encounters were often a double edged light-saber. In the Jewish world, the more secretive and magical the community, the more problematic the social realities. Likewise, I grew suspicious of gurus of all sorts; their followers seemed like brain-dead sycophants and the gurus themselves didn’t have Yoda’s gravity, his quiet wisdom, his seeking nothing, his distaste for power and attention, his vision for the Universe. I was done roaming from country to country, culture to culture, looking for sages. I was done with sages.

I returned to life in America with a degree in Jewish Education from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a new goal: to help Jewish teenagers to find little sparks of magic in their own heritage and their culture. Not secret sparks or esoteric, hoarded knowledge, but the magic of togetherness. The secret wisdom I teach is that old things can be really really cool, but reading them in a new way is even cooler.

***

In writing my novel, Turtle Boy, I knew that the main character, Will (his name a kind of anagram of my own first name, Matt) needed mentors in order to help him out of his shell. Very early drafts matched him up with an old, mysterious Rabbi, part Yoda, part Mr. Miyagi, to teach Will the secrets of Judaism. But this didn’t draw from my learned experience, and in time, I concluded that the most important dyad for Jews is not the master disciple, but two study partners, a chevruta pair—coming from the word “Friend.” For that reason, Will’s Rabbi evolved not into a mysterious sage, but into a Hostess ding-dong chomping, Grateful Dead t-shirt wearing, gay bear Rabbi whose main powers are not levitation and lightsaber wielding, but perception and listening. But the person who really brings Will to his spiritual capacity, his friend RJ, teaches him not the esoteric magic of the Force, but rather, the truly available magic of music and friendship.

***

This is not to say that I have lost my love for my very first rabbi. When the 9th and final installation of the Star Wars franchise hit theaters, I was on a different planet than when it all began. No longer a kid, starving for real magic and light sabers, and no longer a twenty-something seeker, wanna-be mystic vagabond, I was now a dad and husband who’d negotiated a three-hour furlough from my duties as such to see the conclusion of a fantasy that began forty years ago. As we all know, that six prequel/sequel journey went through some cinematic low spots, but by film nine, we had circled back around, with new hope, so to speak.

What I found while watching it was a kind of peace. While some fans in the lobby clearly had strong feelings about why the film did this or that, I found that I was floating above it, looking down with a kind of appreciative love. I don’t need things to be magic anymore, not even Star Wars. The magic wasn’t the movie. The magic, the thing that made me tingle, was that at home, I had a two year old, who, in a handful of years, will be ready to see Star Wars. The magic was I had written a novel—creating a world with words alone. The magic was that I had inspiration in my marriage, my job, my life.

What Yoda said about the nature of my existence was true: finally, I felt like the luminous being he’d always said I was. But not because of years of training in esoteric knowledge, nor any rare and precious sensitivity to the way this Force surrounds me and binds me. It was because I’d been up all night with a teething baby, a baby I love, in a marriage I love, in a life that I love. Through my life choices, through growing and evolving, I had effectively burned the Temple of my old life: no longer sequestered in the yeshivas of Jerusalem, nor sitting in the Ashrams of India, I done what Yoda needed to do. “Pass on what you have learned,” the voice told me. “Strength, mastery… folly, failure also. We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” The Force, I now understood, was not something I needed to uncover in the swamps of Dagobah, nor hoard in an ancient, gnarled tree. Rather, the Force was, to quote Pirkei Avot, an “ever-flowing fountain,” welling up within me, as it does in all of us.

M. Evan Wolkenstein is a high school teacher and author of YA novel Turtle Boy (Random House, May 2020). He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Hebrew University, and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. His work can be found in Tablet Magazine, The Washington Post, Engadget, My Jewish Learning, and BimBam. He lives with his wife and daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area. He tweets at @EvanWolkenstein.

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