September 23, 2018

Jedi-ism and Judaism

The loudest noise coming out of Hollywood this holiday season is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Even if the last thing you want to do is see another “Star Wars” movie, you might be interested to know about the secret message embedded in this film that the Jewish people have known for 2,000 years.

Everyone knows from the title that it’s a story about “the last Jedi,” but even if you’ve seen the film you may not know that saving Jedi-ism is a lot like saving Judaism. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi was the first thing I thought when the Jedi master made his surprise appearance in an iconic scene.

Luke Skywalker, the Jedi hero who saved the galaxy, is broken by the destruction wrought by rogue Jedi warriors. Menacing torch in hand, Luke approaches the Jedi Temple and its small library of ancient texts. Suddenly, Master Yoda’s ghost appears.

Everyone in the theater expects Yoda to stop Luke. But director Rian Johnson does exactly the opposite of what we would expect in a “Star Wars” film. Yoda incinerates the Jedi Temple with a bolt of lightning. Cackling, Yoda reminds Luke that Jedi wisdom is more than a temple and books. Luke will not be the last Jedi.

For 1,500 years, Judaism was organized around the Temple. Around 2,000 years ago, that Judaism broke. Hanukkah celebrates a brief return to the glory of Temple-centric Jewish life. But within a few generations, the Hasmonean dynasty was more Roman than it was Jewish. The Temple was inaccessible to most Jews, its authority a corruption magnet. Tragically, we were exiled as our Temple burned to the ground. Judaism should have ended in the Temple’s smoldering wreckage.

The rabbis saved Judaism by moving Jewish life from the Temple to the Talmud, reimagining Judaism as a decentralized, wisdom-based, accessible religion — the secret of Diaspora Judaism.

Johnson (and Yoda) did the same to the Jedi religion by burning the Jedi Temple to the ground.

The soul of every conflict in “The Last Jedi” dances around this question: How to reconcile the past, the ancient, calculated and wise with the future, the fresh, impulsive and creative?

To Luke, The Force is broken. Jedi-ism is a failure — it must end forever. Yoda disagrees because The Force and Jedi wisdom are eternal, with or without a building or books. The Jedi will live on through a new Jedi hero — Rey.

Very rabbinic.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was supposed to tell us Rey’s story. The postmodern Jedi warrior who reawakened The Force with her courage and kindness in the previous film was an orphan. But surely her parents were special in some way? Luke Skywalker was an orphan until he discovered his father was Darth Vader, in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Rey is a Luke Skywalker–type hero. Surely, Rey would discover the identity of her parents in “The Last Jedi,” the second of a trilogy.

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi.

Instead, Rey’s nemesis, Kylo Ren, divulges that her degenerate parents sold her for beer money. Rey is literally no one from nowhere. Yet, Rey is a gifted Jedi. “The Last Jedi” tells us that there is no birthright to The Force and Jedi wisdom. They are accessible to all.

Before the final credits, we glimpse the ancient Jedi texts stowed aboard the Millennium Falcon. Apparently, Rey took the books before Luke and Yoda burned down the temple. When I saw those books, a new thought popped into my head.

Yoda was rabbinic, but he was wrong. The Jedi religion would disappear if it relied entirely on an oral transmission from Master to Padawan. Yoda was stuck in the same stagnant vision of the Jedi religion as Luke.

Rey is the Jedi hero we have been looking for. Ancient wisdom must not be discarded nor can it be entrusted to our fickle collective memory. Wisdom must be portable and flexible enough to take on our journey. The great rabbis of post-Temple Judaism knew this and turned us into the People of the Book.

Yoda would have been a great rabbi. But Rey is the visionary rabbi who preserves the past by reimagining a place for ancient wisdom in the future.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Why scientists are fighting about the origins of Yiddish – and the Jews

Science has finally provided evidence of what Jewish “Star Wars” fans long suspected: Yoda is a member of the tribe — or at least he speaks like one.

The bad news is the science has been widely dismissed as junk.

The Yoda reference appears in a video in which a a 36-year-old Israeli linguist at Sheffield University in England argues that Ashkenazi Jews and the Yiddish language originated in Turkey.

The study joins a number of others published in the past 15 years that challenge the prevailing theory that Jews originated in the Mediterranean Middle East and that Yiddish was developed among Jews in Europe. The research is controversial not only because its critics say it is scientifically weak, but also because it is seen by some to weaken Jews’ claim to the Land of Israel — and is used to this end by some who oppose the Jewish state.

In  a video released in April, geneticist Eran Elhaik explains that Yoda, like Yiddish speakers, uses words from one language, but follows the grammar rules of another. The little green guru speaks strangely constructed English the same way that Yiddish uses German and Hebrew words, but Slavic grammar.

The video is an effort by Elhaik to explain and publicize his study on the origins of Yiddish and Ashkenazi Jews, coauthored by Tel Aviv University linguist Paul Wexler and others and published in March in Oxford University Press’ prestigious journal Genome Biology and Evolution.

According to their theory, the original Ashkenazi Jews lived in a “Slavo-Iranian confederation” and over time developed Yiddish as a secret language to “gain an advantage in trade.” Though they used German and Hebrew words, they kept the Slavic grammar.

As evidence, Elhaik’s study cites a genetic analysis tracing Ashkenazi Jewish lineage to ancient trade routes in northeastern Turkey.

Along the routes  were villages with names that “may be derived from [the word] ‘Ashkenaz,'” according to the study.

The findings made headlines around the world, including in The Independent, Language Magazine and Science Daily.

But some of the world’s most prominent scholars in the fields of both Yiddish and on Jewish genetics quickly rejected the study and condemned its outsized claims as reflective of deteriorating scientific standards and the politicization of research questions about Jewish history.

Shaul Stampfer, a professor of Soviet and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University, said of Elhaik’s research in an email to JTA: “It is basically nonsense.”

Prof. Dovid Katz, founder of Vilnius University’s Yiddish Institute and an author of several books on the language, savaged the study’s linguistic analysis.

“The authors have melded accurate but contextually meaningless genetic correlations with laughable linguistic theories that now proliferate, sadly, as a consequence of a much weakened Yiddish academic environment internationally,” he told JTA. “There is not a single word or sound in Yiddish that comes from Iranian or Turkish.”

A dialect of Yiddish “thrived before there even was a single Slavic-derived word in the language,” he added. “The paper is a fine example of genetics as smokescreen for off-the-wall linguistics.”

In response, Wexler called Katz’s criticism “totally false” and ignorant — and “more of an emotional tirade than a scholarly statement” by someone he said made research breakthroughs in the 1980s “but did not live up to his promise.” Yiddish features “hundreds and maybe even thousands of covert and overt Iranianisms,” Wexler said.

Sergio DellaPergola, a Hebrew University professor who is among the most prominent demographers of the Jewish people, called the study a “falsification” and “one of the big canards of the 21st century.” He criticized its “exceedingly small” sample size and non-inclusion of Sephardi Jewish genes, which he said would have undermined the findings.

A 2014 analysis by Bennett Greenspan, the American founder of a genetic testing company, compared the profiles of nearly 15,000 Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish men to non-Jews in the Middle East and Europe. He found a “nearly perfect genetic match” between 75 percent of the Jews and the non-Jewish Middle Easterners.

Had a Sephardic-Ashkenazi analysis been included in Elhaik’s study, it would have shown greater similarity between the two groups of Jews than between Ashkenazi Jews and Turkish non-Jews, DellaPergola predicted. Like most scholars, DellaPergola believes Ashkenazi Jews descend from those who migrated from the Middle East to Europe hundreds of years ago.

“Studying the DNA of non-Ashkenazic Jews would not change the DNA of Ashkenazic Jews nor the predicted origin of their DNA,” Elhaik told JTA. He said his study is “the largest genomic study on Ashkenazic Jews tovdate and the first of its kind on Yiddish speakers.”

Elhaik has ruffled academic feathers before by challenging the accepted notion that Jews originated in the Middle East. In 2013, he published another poorly received study in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution that supported the theory that the Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazars — an extinct multi-ethnic kingdom of Iranians, Turks, Slavs and Circassians — who converted en masse in the eighth century.

Popularized in the 1970s by Hungarian-British author Arthur Koestler in his book “The Thirteenth Tribe,” the Khazari theory was championed again in 2008 by Shlomo Sand, a Tel Aviv University historian specializing in cinema, in “The Invention of the Jewish People.”

The theory has little genetic evidence to support it and is regarded as a myth by most scholars.

Whereas Sand and Koestler’s use of science to sell books hardly required a rebuttal, Elhaik is a geneticist being published in prestigious journals, DellaPergola said. He accused Genome Biology and Evolution of failing to critically review the study ahead of publication.

The journal’s editor-in-chief, William Martin, said he “cannot agree to any allegations that the authors … approached the data or the analysis with any element of dishonesty.”

The last word, it turns out, may belong to Yoda. “Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view,” the Jedi master said  — in perfect English.