February 26, 2020

Han Solo and the Torah of Living Between Tensions

Han Solo’s perfect blend of charisma, kindness and cockiness make him everyone’s favorite sidekick. But Han’s real magic is a Torah secret of learning to live between two tensions in “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”

In the part of the movie that will most resonate with Jews, Han is given the surname Solo. In a scene reminiscent of Jewish immigrants being given secular-sounding surnames at Ellis Island, a border agent gives Han his last name because he is literally traveling solo. It’s the only time, however, he will travel solo in the film.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is Han’s coming-of-age tale. At the beginning of the film, Han is a bit too happy-go-lucky and far too reckless. By the end, he is patient, savvy and crafty. He got there because of one line in the movie that goes to the heart and soul of Judaism.

On Shavuot, I participated in a learning session with Rabbi Adam Kligfeld and Rabbi Ari Lucas moderated by Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin. Each rabbi staked out a position in defining the revelation at Sinai. Rabbi Ari Lucas posited that Judaism is a carefully curated group of teachings and rituals passed from generation to generation, called transmission. Rabbi Adam Kligfeld argued for transgression — that true Torah and religious meaning are products of breaking the Torah.

We must have winners and losers. But in real life, the object is to live in the tension between winning and losing.

I believe transmission and transgression are two destinations on the same path. Judaism is the process of going from transmission to transgression, and the tension between the two is where true Torah lives.

Similarly, as Han finds himself diving deeper into a dangerous adventure with higher stakes, his childhood friend Qi’ra says, “It’s not that kind of game. The object isn’t to win. Just stay in as long as you can.”

We all have a bias toward zero-sum games. We like winners and we dislike losers. We must have winners and losers. But in real life, the object is to live in the tension between winning and losing.

Qi’ra’s pithy advice hits its mark and changes the way Han thinks. It makes his many adventures into small battles instead of individual wars. Han embraces this kind of thinking and it becomes his superpower. By the end of the movie, Han and Chewbacca are off to seek adventure, with the focus not on the beginning or end of that adventure, but rather the space in between. 

Han Solo lives in the tension between good and evil, virtue and vice, friend and foe. That is why we love him and his character endures. Han Solo is no leading man, but he is a complex man who embraces the tensions of life. That’s what leads him to greatness.

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