Is Avatar good for the Jews?
There’s no doubt that it’s very good for James Cameron who is making box office history. His latest sci-fi spectacle has amassed the biggest worldwide gross for any film, beating Titanic, the previous feature film also produced by James Cameron.
With so many people seeing it, discussing it, and analyzing every last nuance in it, it’s relevant to ask the question that serves as the punchline for the old Jewish joke when the little boy ecstatically tells his immigrant father, “The Yankees won,” and the old man with bewildered expression responds, “But tell me, is it good for the Jews?”
For religious viewers there are many subtle messages in the film that beg for a theological response, be it pro or con. Not surprisingly, the spiritual overtones of Avatar were of interest in Vatican City, where the film was reviewed by Gaetano Vallini, a cultural critic for L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of the Holy See.
In his quite negative review, considered so important that it was reprinted in Catholic journals and newspapers round the world, Mr. Vallini wrote that for all of the “stupefying, enchanting technology” in the film, it “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” Its implied heresy overrides any other reasons to warrant approval for viewing.
Of course I can’t speak for everyone (two Jews, three opinions), but this rabbi thinks it’s a film you won’t want to miss, precisely because of its myriad positive Jewish references and insights.
If Cameron never went to Hebrew school he surely had to discuss his work with a rabbi.
Watching it I had the feeling that if Cameron never went to Hebrew school he surely had to discuss his work with a rabbi. The connections with Torah, Midrash, and Hebrew words are just too frequent and striking to be accidental. And if anyone thinks I and the many others who have spotted the biblical allusions and the Jewish associations are reading too much into the story, seeing more than what’s there, it shouldn’t escape us that as one of those rare films meant to be watched ideally in 3-D, it literally begs to be viewed in every dimension, with keener vision and deeper understanding.
In the theater we have to put on glasses to better grasp the producer’s message. That is a perfect metaphor for our need to come prepared to “see” with what is often called “our third eye” – not just with the sight of our eyes but the insight of our minds.
It is a thrilling intellectual experience to note the little clues to Cameron’s intentions scattered throughout the movie.
The name of the heroic people who live in the Garden-of-Eden-like planet of Pandora is Na’vi. I’ve had people tell me this couldn’t have anything to do with the Hebrew word navi that means prophet. After all there is no suggestion that these primitives were able to predict the future. But the truth is — and it seems Cameron knew this — the root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others. And that is exactly the point of the story.
With all of the technological prowess of the earthly invaders, the humans who came to despoil this new-found planet simply could not see what the far simpler and “less civilized” inhabitants recognized so clearly. The Na’vis worshipped not themselves or their achievements but a higher supreme power. And could it be mere coincidence that the name of the God they revered, eywa, is but the re-arranged letters of the Tetragrammaton, the holy four-letter name for the Almighty that Jews do not even dare to pronounce as written?
Man vs. God
The hubris of man who confuses technocracy with wisdom is a theme that continues to haunt Cameron, just as it was the pivotal premise for Titanic. “This is the largest ship ever built. It is a testament to modern man’s genius. It is indestructible. We have finally and fully conquered nature. We are the masters of the universe.” That’s what the builders of the Titanic repeatedly boasted before the luxury liner’s maiden voyage. But the iceberg was stronger. God’s creation bested man’s. Human arrogance was tragically humbled.
It was man the technocrat, in the age of the first industrial revolution of history, who proclaimed God as no longer relevant.
Titanic was a contemporary retelling of a powerful biblical story. Its theme goes back to the book of Genesis and the rebellion against God by the builders of the ancient Tower of Babel. Mankind had just learned how to build bricks, how to erect structures strong enough to withstand forces of nature. With the arrogance of man’s first demonstration of his ability not to be totally subservient to the whims of his environment, he fooled himself into believing that he was nothing less than godlike. That was the generation that sought to build a skyscraper so tall that they would reach up and “pull God from his throne.” It was man the technocrat, in the age of the first industrial revolution of history, who proclaimed God as no longer relevant; the genius of human creators was deemed sufficient for ruling the world.
One of the biblical commentators of the 17th century even suggests that the builders of the Tower of Babel were smart enough to build a spaceship that could soar into the heavens, and in that way literally pull God off the seat of his power. That is almost precisely paralleled by what happened when the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, returned from his orbit of the earth and mockingly said, “There is no God. I was in the heavens and I did not see him.” Human arrogance rooted in scientific achievement led to the mistaken assumption that the power of man exceeds that of the Almighty.
With Avatar, Cameron takes this selfsame message one step further. Man’s ego, man’s greed, man’s indifference to the purity of nature and its creator is a threat not only to earth but to all of the planets that surround us.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Cameron explained that he saw his movie as a metaphor. “We’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the brains, we therefore are entitled to every thing on this planet and beyond. That’s not how it works and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth.”
That’s a message so crucial to our survival that the Torah repeats it in countless ways. Every seventh year the land is to remain fallow to remind us that we are merely its guests, not its owners. Every 50th year is the Jubilee when every Jew is to spend his time not in work but in study, to reflect upon our spiritual responsibility to ourselves, to our families, and to the world. If we are forced into waging war against our enemies, we are commanded not to cut down the trees of a city. (Deuteronomy 20:19)
The utter rapacity of the human alien invaders in Avatar is forcefully illustrated by the cruel disregard of the magnificent natural setting of Pandora. And yes, they even destroy “the holy tree” worshiped by the Na’vi. A planet like the Garden of Eden with a holy tree — what a remarkable reminder of the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis which is off-limits to man to teach that God’s knowledge is superior to ours.
The Na’vi in Pandora have a mountain that “hangs over their heads.” The only parallel I can think of is the famous midrash that tells us when the Jews stood at Sinai and made their commitment to abide by God’s laws, the mountain was lifted over their heads to tell them that the consequence of disobedience would be their destruction.
The Na’vi in Pandora even have a mountain that “hangs over their heads.”
The human aliens in Avatar are mighty, with awesome weapons of warfare. The Na’vi defend themselves with primitive bows and arrows. And yet they succeed. And that too is a biblical message: “Not with might and not with strength, but with my spirit says the Lord” (Zechariah, 4:6).
The savior of the Na’vi and the film’s hero is, remarkably enough, a man with a physical disability. In the Bible it was Moses, “heavy of speech and heavy of tongue,” who was sent as deliverer. In spite of his impairment, he got across the message. In the movie it is a Marine who cannot walk but who nonetheless leads the Na’vi to successfully defend their way of life and to walk in the way of their ancestors.
Yes, the Na’vi religion with its worship of nature is a little too close to the pantheism of Spinoza to make Jews feel comfortable. Yes, the Na’vis are still pagans, and like the church I freely acknowledge there are ideas in Avatar that are not in accord with our own belief system. But at long last I am grateful for a movie that can serve as a powerful springboard for valuable discussion, for a deeper clarification of Torah ideas and for an analysis of issues that go to the core of our search for spiritual perfection.