The Torah Awakens

In honor of inyana d’yoma – “the topic of the day” – this post is about Star Wars and Torah.

If you’re not a Star Wars fan, my apologies. Also, if you really were mostly interested in the astronomy part of my posts: again, my apologies; it will return in future posts – this is just a timely post l’chvod the release of the new Star Wars movie. There’s still actual Torah to be learned here, though…

There’s Torah, everywhere – it surrounds us, binds us together… So there is Torah to be found in Star Wars as well. And if you don’t believe me, just ask ben Bag-Bag, famous rabbi of Pikei Avot (whose initials just happen to be suspiciously similar to a certain new starring droid, I’ve heard of…):

[מסכת אבות ה,יט [כא

בן בג בג אומר, הפוך בה והפך בה, <והגי בה> דכולא בה

Avot Ch. 5, Mishnah 22:

Ben Bag-Bag said: turn it [i.e. Torah] over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein.

We find many statements of a mussar (ethics) nature that are found in the Talmud (or Bible) and have interesting parallels or similarities in Star Wars movies, usually from Yoda or Obi-Wan.

If you really love such things, you can do (there is no try!) this quiz:

I should also mention that I’ll be giving a class with a bit more focus on more of those, and more, this coming Monday at the DC JCC, for those in the DC Metro area.

Aside from many such statements, there are some larger overarching themes in the Star Wars stories that are dealt with in aggadah in the Talmud.

Turning to the Dark Side

One particularly troubling thing – particularly, at least, for my 5 year old – is how Anakin Skywalker can turn from being the good guy hero to the evil villain, Darth Vader. (Perhaps, as moviegoers, this was less troubling to those of us who grew up with Darth Vader as the villain, before ever “meeting” Anakin… but the philosophical question is still valid.)

The author leads Younglings in meditating on the Force
The author leads younglings in meditating on the Force and philosophical questions of good and evil

The Talmud in Tractate Brachot, deals with a similar individual, perhaps…


b. Brachot 29a

Abaye said: We have a tradition that a good man does not become bad. But does he not? Is it not written, “But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness and committeth iniquity”? — Such a man was originally wicked, but one who was originally righteous does not do so. But is that so? Have we not learnt: Believe not in thyself until the day of thy death? For lo, Johanan the High Priest officiated as High Priest for eighty years and in the end he became a Sadducee? Abaye said: Johanan is the same as Jannai. Raba said: Johanan and Jannai are different; Jannai was originally wicked and Johanan was originally righteous. On Abaye’s view there is no difficulty, but on Raba’s view there is a difficulty? — Raba can reply: For one who was originally righteous it is also possible to turn away.

מסכת ברכות דף כט,א גמראאמר אביי גמירי טבא לא הוי בישא ולא והכתיב (יחזקאל יח) ובשוב צדיק מצדקתו ועשה עול ההוא רשע מעיקרו אבל צדיק מעיקרו לא ולא והא תנן אל תאמין בעצמך עד יום מותך שהרי יוחנן כ”ג שמש בכהונה גדולה שמנים שנה ולבסוף נעשה צדוקי אמר אביי הוא ינאי הוא יוחנן רבא אמר ינאי לחוד ויוחנן לחוד ינאי רשע מעיקרו ויוחנן צדיק מעיקרו הניחא לאביי אלא לרבא קשיא אמר לך רבא צדיק מעיקרו נמי דלמא הדר ביה

Here we have a philosophical and ethical debate connected to a historical story: Can a tzadik – a righteous person – turn evil?

Abaye says “no”, despite a verse from Ezekiel implying that it is possible. Rava [Raba] says “yes”, it is possible for a righteous person to turn bad.

The Talmud challenges Abaye’s opinion with the example of Yochanan [Johanan] the High Priest, who, after serving faithfully in that office for eighty years, became a heretic. (A Sadducee; historians might have varying views of the Sadducees, but there is no doubt that from the point of view of the rabbis, they were evil heretics!)

Abaye counters with the claim that Yochahan was really one and the same as Yannai, King Alexander Jannaeus, who was apparently known to have always been evil. Thus a good person did not turn bad in this story – he was “always bad”. (This does disregard a generally positive view of Yochanan in many other places in the Talmud.)

Rava disagrees. He says Yannai and Yochanan were two different people. Yannai was always bad; Yochanan was originally good. However, this leaves Rava with no proof that a tzadik could possibly turn bad, but Rava adds that even an initially righteous tzadik can possibly turn evil.

Now, historically speaking, Yannai and Yochanan were definitely not the same person. Yochanan (a.k.a. John) Hyrcanus I, was Yannai’s father. Both were high priests and political rulers of the Hasmonean Dynasty, the son and grandson of Simon, the last survivor of Judah Maccabee’s brothers.

Yannai/Jannaeus is generally portrayed as a bad guy, both in rabbinic literature and other historical sources. Yochanan Hyrcanus, not so much so; there is a story in Josephus that he switched allegiances to the Sadducees, similar to this talmudic mention, but otherwise, he is frequently portrayed positively.

Nevertheless, the dispute here between Abaye and Rava seems to not be mindful of the historical facts, these seem to be less important than the ethical discussion… Or maybe Rava and Abaye are just speaking figuratively to illustrate their question: were they one and the same person and is it possible that a tzaddik went bad? (after 80 years!)

This is quite reminiscent of a heroic jedi knight such as Anakin Skywalker turning to the dark side: Are Darth Vader and Anakin really  the same person? Or did Darth Vader really betray and murder Anakin Skywalker… from a certain point of view? (A very loosely figurative point of view, perhaps… clearly, there is narrative continuity of one to the other.)

Obi Wan Kenobi seems to agree with Rava, from a certain point of view…

The Teshuva of the Jedi

Teshuva literally means “return” and I think this is a most appropriate translation in the context of the title of Episode VI, Return of the Jedi. I say Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker is actually the Jedi of the title, not just Luke, and the reference is to his doing teshuva: returning to do good – to being a Jedi – at the end of the movie, which is also the end of his life.

Now, one might ask, does repenting/returning on one’s deathbed, essentially, from a life of evil, really “work” – is that real repentance? The Talmud has several stories that address this sort of question, and they all end up with the same thematic idea: יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת – “there are those who acquire their world [i.e. portion in the after-life] in a single moment.”

Perhaps the most famous of these stories is the one about the martyrdom of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, killed by the Romans, and his executioner – who “wins” his portion of the world to come with a small amount of mercy he shows to the dying rabbi.

Bavli Avodah Zarah, 18a

On their return, they found R. Hanina b. Teradion sitting and occupying himself with the Torah, publicly gathering assemblies, and keeping a scroll of the Law in his bosom. Straightaway they took hold of him, wrapt him in the Scroll of the Law, placed bundles of branches round him and set them on fire. They then brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them over his heart, so that he should not expire quickly.

The Executioner then said to him, ‘Rabbi, if I raise the flame and take away the tufts of wool from over thy heart, will thou cause me to enter into the life to come?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Then swear unto me’ [he urged]. He swore unto him. He thereupon raised the flame and removed the tufts of wool from over his heart, and his soul departed speedily. The Executioner then jumped and threw himself into the fire. And a bathkol [heavenly voice] exclaimed: “R. Hanina b. Teradion and the Executioner have been invited to the world to come”. When Rabbi heard it he wept and said: One may acquire eternal life in a single hour, another after many years.


תלמוד בבלי – מסכת עבודה זרה  דף יח,א

… ובחזרתן מצאוהו לרבי חנינא בן תרדיון שהיה יושב ועוסק בתורה ומקהיל קהלות ברבים וס”ת מונח לו בחיקו הביאוהו וכרכוהו בס”ת והקיפוהו בחבילי זמורות והציתו בהן את האור והביאו ספוגין של צמר ושראום במים והניחום על לבו כדי שלא תצא נשמתו מהרה

אמר לו קלצטונירי רבי אם אני מרבה בשלהבת ונוטל ספוגין של צמר מעל לבך אתה מביאני לחיי העולם הבא אמר לו הן השבע לי נשבע לו מיד הרבה בשלהבת ונטל ספוגין של צמר מעל לבו יצאה נשמתו במהרה אף הוא קפץ ונפל לתוך האור יצאה בת קול ואמרה רבי חנינא בן תרדיון וקלצטונירי מזומנין הן לחיי העולם הבא בכה רבי ואמר יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת ויש קונה עולמו בכמה שנים

A less well known story, but one perhaps more similar to the end of Return of the Jedi, is the story of Ketiah bar Shalom (which might have been a pseudonym, not his real given name). He sacrifices himself to save the whole Jewish people, not just to make a single person’s death a little less painful.

Bavli Avodah Zarah, 10b

What about this Keti’ah b. Shalom? — There was once a Caesar who hated the Jews. One day he said to the prominent members of the government. ‘If one has a wart on his foot, shall he cut it away and live [in comfort] or leave it on and suffer discomfort?’ To which they replied: ‘He should cut it away and live in comfort’. Then Keti’ah b. Shalom addressed them thus: ‘In the first place, you cannot do away with all of them, for it is written, For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven. Now, what does this verse indicate? Were it to mean that [Israel] was to be scattered to the four corners of the world, then instead of saying, as the four winds, the verse would have said, to the four winds? It can only mean that just as the world cannot exist without winds, so the world cannot exist without Israel. And what is more, your kingdom will be called a crippled kingdom.’ To this the king replied: ‘You have spoken very well; however, he who contradicts the king is to be cast into a circular furnace’. On his being held and led away, a Roman matron said of him: ‘Pity the ship that sails [towards the harbour] without paying the tax’. Then, throwing himself on his foreskin he cut it away exclaiming: ‘Thou hast paid the tax thou wilt pass and enter [paradise]’. As he was being cast [into the furnace] he said: ‘All my possessions [are to go to] R. Akiba and his friends’. This, R. Akiba interpreted according to the verse, And it shall be unto Aaron and his sons [which is taken to mean that] one half is Aaron’s and one half his sons’. A bat-kol then exclaimed: ‘Keti’ah b. Shalom is destined for [eternal] life in the world to come!’ Rabbi [on hearing of it] wept saying: ‘One may acquire eternity in a single hour, another may acquire it after many years!’

עבודה זרה  דף י,ב

קטיעה בר שלום מאי <הוי> [היא] דההוא קיסרא דהוה סני ליהודאי אמר להו לחשיבי דמלכותא מי שעלה לו נימא ברגלו יקטענה ויחיה או יניחנה ויצטער אמרו לו יקטענה ויחיה אמר להו קטיעה בר שלום חדא דלא יכלת להו לכולהו דכתיב (זכריה ב) כי כארבע רוחות השמים פרשתי אתכם מאי קאמר אלימא דבדרתהון בד’ רוחות האי כארבע רוחות לארבע רוחות מבעי ליה אלא כשם שא”א לעולם בלא רוחות כך א”א לעולם בלא ישראל ועוד קרו לך מלכותא קטיעה א”ל מימר שפיר קאמרת מיהו כל דזכי <מלכא> [למלכא] שדו ליה לקמוניא חלילא כד הוה נקטין ליה ואזלין אמרה ליה ההיא מטרוניתא ווי ליה לאילפא דאזלא בלא מכסא נפל על רישא דעורלתיה קטעה אמר יהבית מכסי חלפית ועברית כי קא שדו ליה אמר כל נכסאי לר”ע וחביריו יצא ר”ע ודרש (שמות כט) והיה לאהרן ולבניו מחצה לאהרן ומחצה לבניו יצתה בת קול ואמרה קטיעה בר שלום מזומן לחיי העוה”ב בכה רבי ואמר יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת ויש קונה עולמו בכמה שנים

We have seen two stories showing someone who “rebels” against an evil Empire or Emperor. In both, there is someone who previously served the Empire/Emperor but turns against the Empire to do good to save (or at least slightly help, in the R. Hanina b. Teradion story) Jews – and pays for it with his life and both are announced/invited to a portion in olam haba – the world to come.

It would almost be redundant to point out how similar these sound to the end of the Darth Vader story: He too turned (back) to do good after a career serving the evil Emperor and Empire, in order to save both an individual Jedi – Luke – and the whole galaxy. He also sacrifices his own life in the process of  “returning” and then is shown to have secured a place in the afterlife (being one with the Force, alongside Yoda and Obi-Wan.)

There is another such story, about one ר”א בן דורדיא – R. Elazar ben Durdaia, who also repents from a lifetime of sin just before dying, and also is “invited to the World to Come”. (For space reasons, as well as to maintain a PG-13 rating, I won’t quote the whole story here. See b. Avodah Zarah 17a to read it for yourself.) Again, the story is punctuated by Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] crying and saying:

בכה רבי ואמר יש קונה עולמו בכמה שנים ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת ואמר רבי לא דיין לבעלי תשובה שמקבלין אותן אלא שקורין אותן רבי

Rabbi [on hearing of it] wept and said: One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour! Rabbi also said: Repentants are not only accepted, they are even called ‘Rabbi’! (b. Avodah Zarah 17a)

However, unlike the previous such stories Elazar ben Durdaia’s sins (licentiousness…) and repentance are purely personal and do not save others. His story also shows that no one is too far gone to return, even at death’s door, and even if you don’t save the whole Galaxy or Jewish people in the process. However, in an interesting twist, the Talmud adds on the (otherwise undeserved) posthumous title “Rabbi” – much as the title of Episode VI returns the title Jedi to Sith Lord, Darth Vader, in recognition of his final act of return.


I hope you enjoyed this brief foray into Torah and Star Wars. There is, of course, much to learn… Did I mention my upcoming class – of the same title as this post – at the DC JCC for those of you in the DC Metro area – Monday Dec. 21 at 7:30:
Enjoy the new movie, and…

Remember, The Torah will be with you, always…


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