May the Force Be With You
Posted Wed, Jun 22, 2011

Critics of the now-defunct long-form census delighted in supporting their argument for abolition by noting that in 2001, some twenty thousand Canadians listed “Jedi” as a write-in answer to the census religion question. I suppose some respondents did this to protest against the alleged intrusiveness of this question but I would bet that the majority did so as a joke, to “spoil the ballot”, as it were.


But as a huge fan of the first Star Wars trilogy, I kind of understand why some people could sincerely respond in this way, and not just geeks out of central casting who live in their parents’ basement in their secluded virtual universe. Just to be clear, I can readily separate reality from the inspired imagination of George Lucas and, for the record, I answered “Jewish” to the religion question. But who’s to say that the Force couldn’t stand in for a spiritual notion of higher-power cosmology and that the Dark Side isn’t a reasonable, if somewhat simplistic, metaphor for evil in the world?

The thing is, unlike most religions we recognize, not everybody gets to be a Jedi. Even though the Force is omnipresent, only those “strong in the Force” can undergo the rigorous training needed to control its ways and become a Jedi. In this regard, the Jedi may be more akin to a priestly caste than a collectivity of adherents.

The scene in Episode V where Jedi hopeful Luke Skywalker is undergoing such training under the tutelage of diminutive Jedi Master Yoda, is instructive. Yoda directs Luke to use the Force to extricate his fighter plane out of the swampy pond in which it is submerged. Not fully trained, Skywalker can’t pull it off, and complains to Yoda that, “You want the impossible”. Yoda, of course, then proceeds to accomplish the task himself. “I don’t believe it,” Luke says in astonishment. “That,” replies Yoda, “is why you fail.”

For those of us who responded as I did to the census religion question, I wonder about the connection between belief and success as a Jew. The answer appears to be: Not much. There is no set of abstract concepts that Jews need to believe as part of membership in the Tribe. In fact, the opposite is true: We often speak of Judaism as a religion of “deed” not “creed” and it seems clear that actions aimed at observing mitzvot and creating a world of justice and fairness are paramount over dogma and prescriptive belief. The standard line about “Two Jews, three opinions” extends to the great philosophical and existential questions about the nature of God, the meaning of life and our place in the universe.

We recently celebrated Shavuot and the centrality of the Torah covenant that the holiday has come to symbolize. The Torah tells us at Exodus XXIV:7 that Moses “took the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘Kol asher dibeir Adonai na’aseh v’nishmah’” [‘all that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will hear’]. The “nishmah” is sometimes interpreted as “understand” or even “obey”, but never as “believe”. It may be that study can enhance understanding and thus inform the sanctity of the action, so that it is not done merely by rote, but it is the action in response to the Divine insight of Torah that binds us together and this we acknowledge first.

Perhaps the closest Judaism has to a canon of belief is Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. The first four deal with the nature of God: God exists, is one and unique, is incorporeal and eternal. We acknowledge the first two of these attributes in the Shema, perhaps the core prayer of Jewish liturgy. “Adonai echad” it ends, God is one, or perhaps, there is one God. Interestingly, though, just a short while later in the service the Amidah speaks of the God of each patriarch (and matriarchs in some liberal siddurs) individually: the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and so on. Given that the oneness of God may be the touchstone of Jewish faith, scholars ask why the prayer sets out these separate connections. The answer I like is the symbolism in the prayer that although God is one, we each have a unique relationship with the one God, a relationship that we nurture, along with the relationships we develop among our fellow human beings, once again not through belief but through our actions.

Interestingly, George Lucas acknowledges that one of his inspirations for the Force was an observation by Canadian filmmaker and cinematographer Roman Kroitor: “Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God.”

For Jews, we achieve that connection with God by our actions in putting into effect the guidelines of moral behaviour we accepted millennia ago at Sinai. That is our force and may it always be with you.

BY: Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress (evernon@cjc.ca)

ERIC VERNON

ABOUT THIS EXPERT
Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.
 

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