The Blog Awakens

It’s been a while since I posted! It has been busy around here: between regular work, days off from work running around with Humanistic Jew, Jr., prepping for the two classes I teach at a local university, leading a Hanukkah celebration, being a rabbinical student, co-editing Humanistic Judaism, and trying to generally spend time with my family, I just haven’t had a ton of time to write.

And then, as I was falling asleep last night or waking up this morning (it’s all a blur), I thought of this goofy idea for a blog post. And so, without further ado:

I’ve not mentioned it on the blog, but I’m a big Star Wars fan. I don’t do cosplay (dressing up as characters), go to conventions, etc., but in many other respects, you know, yeah, I’m a fan. (I’m even officiating a Star Wars-themed wedding in March of this year. Can you say that your work required you to read comic books?!)

(SPOILER ALERT for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the “Star Wars: Vader Down” comics from Marvel)

As you almost certainly know by now, the latest Star Wars movie has come out, and Luke Skywalker is missing. He’s gone in search of the oldest, original Jedi temple, hoping that he can correct a horrible thing that has happened.

Probably not coincidentally, in a storyline in Marvel’s Star Wars comics series, and in an effort to eliminate Darth Vader (the series takes place before Luke learns that Vader is his father), Luke has stumbled upon an ancient Jedi temple (though apparently a different one from the one in the latest movie). As is wont to happen in Star Wars, Luke hears voices in his head telling him to run and that he is not ready to be at that temple.


Now, what does all this have to do with anything?

The revitalization of Star Wars, the rediscovery of comic books (in the guise of various Marvel- and DC-related series and movies, and the “reboot” phenomenon generally are of a piece economically and culturally. Economically, of course, it’s straightforward: these movies have lots of appeal to deeply loyal audiences, and to the extent they can tell a good-enough story with interesting-enough characters, they satisfy many in the general public.

But why is that happening? Why the reboots? To be fair, some of these comic book characters have been with us since the 1930s. Batman movies have been in relatively regular production since the late 1980s, and children of my generation grew up with a series of Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. Star Wars, which went from 1983 to 1999 without a movie, has been around persistently in novels, comic books, computer games, two computer animated series, etc.

But a “Ghostbusters” reboot? What’s that about?

In part, it’s about a generation that’s reached adulthood that loved Ghostbusters. (That’d be my generation, too. And don’t think for a second that the enormous affection in current pop culture for Bill Murray isn’t a product of my generation’s love of Ghostbusters, plus Murray’s makeover in the Wes Anderson movies that are also of a piece with my generation’s predilections.)

But why? Why the crawling back to remake the stuff we already love? (In the case of the latest Star Wars movie, I think this was absolutely necessary for Disney to be able to restore the faith of fans alienated by George Lucas’s tinkering and apparent obliviousness to what made Star Wars so beloved in the first place. Come on, there’s a Gotye parody called “Star Wars I Used to Know,” and it perfectly captures what many of us thought about Lucas’s stuff after 1997.)

I think we’re tinkering with things, rebooting things, because it’s comforting. Despite evidence that we’re in a world that is in many objective measures the best it has ever been–or is at least improving–we don’t generally feel that way in the United States. Economically things are difficult for people in ways they weren’t forty, thirty, or twenty years ago (though they are unquestionably better in many respects than they were 100 years ago). And that has occasioned, I think, some nostalgia–nostalgia that people will pay for.

I think that’s a part of why we’re seeing the reboots (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Really? And that’s getting a sequel, with its below-30% Rotten Tomatoes rating!) and the emphasis on movies that seem like sure-thing blockbusters. (Also, it may be part of why we’re seeing anti-vaccination ideas gaining footholds. Humans aren’t very good at overcoming their fear with reason.) When the world itself looks more risky, who wants to take a risk?

Along with all this, I’m always thinking about this question of tradition versus change; in fact, I’m thinking about it quite a bit more in relation to some of my editing work.

Our reaction to change is often fear, and fear can lead to adaptation and constructive change.

But it can also lead to reaction motivated by nostalgia, by the notion that things were better as they were than they can possibly be as a result of how they now are. This has even played out in critical reaction to the recent Star Wars movie: initial reaction among critics was largely quite positive, but that changed after a little while–the nostalgia was well-received given what Lucas had done, but now there’s a reassessment happening and complaint that it wasn’t original enough. (This is itself kind of interesting, since it’s nostalgia of its own type: for the newness of Star Wars when it first appeared in 1977. And FWIW, I think the movie did something necessary–shake off the dullness of the prequels and gratuitous CGI–and the series can now move forward without rehashing the same storylines. The strength of the original Star Wars trilogy was the amazing visual work accompanied by a well-done storytelling of an established cultural archetype, and part of the weakness of the prequels was that the storytelling of those archetypes was at best subdued if not virtually overcome.)

So, what’s all this armchair cultural criticism about?

In the Jewish world, one of the big events of the last few weeks has been the announcement by a graduate of the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat that she will use the title of rabbi instead of maharat, and that she has been hired as a rabbi by an as-yet-unnamed Orthodox synagogue. And, of course, there has been accompanying backlash. Coming along with this has been the backlash by at least one Reconstructionist congregation against the Reconstructionist movement’s decision to allow the ordination of rabbis in interfaith partnerships. (Also…hey, Apple, can we please get “Reconstructionist” added to the dictionaries? I’ve had to change the word from “Deconstructionist” constantly in the last few years due to autocorrect.)

Thinking about the nostalgia impulse in light of the rabbinical changes in the Orthodox and Reconstructionist worlds, I think one of the responses to the interfaith partner decision was interesting. A Reconstructionist congregation president said, in announcing her congregation’s planned departure from the movement, that the Reconstructionist movement had always been just a little more liberal than the Conservative movement, but now it was farther to the left than even Reform.

I suppose that was true thirty or forty years ago, when Reconstructionist rabbis were routinely placed in Conservative pulpits, but I don’t think it’s been true for at least twenty years. In any case, the response–this movement isn’t what it was–is understandable. But the thing it’s responding to–intermarriage–is a gripe that’s gone back in American Jewish life for more than 200 years. It’s like that old joke about whether the tradition is that congregation sits or stands during the Kaddish, and it turns out that the tradition is that the congregation fights over what the tradition is. (See, e.g., Rabbi Adam Chalom’s use of the joke.)

In fact, much of Jewish life is premised on the notion that what came before is better and that change is an accommodation. Most modern Jewish movements attempt to locate their present positions in some facet of the “true” Jewish past. Reform Judaism in the 1880s located itself as within the “true” message of Judaism–the social message of the Prophets. Conservative Judaism tries to walk a precarious line between social change and a traditional halakhic process. Modern Orthodoxy allows for going up to the line of violating halakhah, but no further; Haredi Orthodoxy keeps drawing the line more tightly.

Yet all of these approaches necessarily push back at social change; they identify boundary lines. For Reform Judaism, there is always–at least doctrinally–a continued investment in a biblically-informed Jewish notion of a god and in some notion of revelation. Even for Reconstructionism, there remains the notion of sancta–that certain things are not going to be touched too heavily because they are marks of core Jewishness.

What would it look like to say, “Well, what happens is what happens. If Jews do it, it’s quite possibly Jewish.”? I’m not sure. I think, in part, it looks like Humanistic Judaism–but we have our boundary lines, too.

But I’ll tell you one thing: just because George Lucas dumped the past, that doesn’t mean it’s right for Star Wars.