Friday, December 10, 2010

Exploring the Jewish roots of Avatar

It’s Friday and time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories and Facts (IJS&F). Today, for a change, let’s go to the movies!

My Torah study class this week had a guest teacher who took us on a little celluloid adventure, exploring the blockbuster hit Avatar and its links to Judaism. Sandy, a retired educator, has spent hours studying James Cameron’s sci-fi adventure and spotted numerous references to Jewish beliefs and rituals.

At the top of the list of, um, coincidences is the name of the indigenous people living on Pandora. The aliens are svelte and blue with big, luminous eyes and sparkly bits of glitter across their other-worldly features. Their name, Navi, is the Hebrew word for prophet.

The film’s hero, Jake, who joins the Navi as, well, a pseudo-Navi, becomes part of the tribe, clinging eventually to the “Tree of Life”. That tree, Sandy shares, is a perfect metaphor for Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life that Jews embrace – the Torah.

In one memorable scene, Jake is learning his way around Pandora and flailing about in his efforts to follow Neytiri, his teacher and, eventually, lover and mate. Neytiri easily maneuvers across a small and trembling branch, high above the forest floor – an area, btw, that could easily be mistaken for the Garden of Eden.

Jake follows Neytiri, struggling to maintain his balance and fearful that he may soon plunge to his death. Sandy sees in this scene a playing out of one of the most famous lines and bits of Jewish philosophy about life and how best to live it.

“All the world is a narrow bridge,” Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlev said. “The crucial thing is not be afraid.”

Well, maybe Cameron, Avatar’s producer, director and writer, was thinking about Rabbi Nachman when he created the scene. Then again, I could just as easily make the argument that the creator of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was thinking Jewish thoughts when he had Butch and Sundance wiggling across a tiny ledge before they plunged into a river hundreds of feet below.

You’ll recall one of the film’s most famous and funny lines come just a moment before the two jump when Sundance confesses he can’t make the leap because he doesn’t know how to swim and fears he might drown. Butch responds: “Hell, Sundance, you don’t have to worry. The fall is gonna kill you!”

It was an entertaining hour. The bits of information and trivia about Avatar were interesting and fun. There was even – drum roll, please – a mini-revelation that captures something truthful, I think, about the human condition, faith and belief. Sandy pointed out early in his presentation something oddly familiar about the spiritual beings – the jellyfish like spores – that float and glow around Jake and the forest.

Dangling beneath all this spiritual energy, is a glowing “Star of David”, Sandy said. He was playing a segment of the film at the time and, in all honesty, I couldn’t spot the Magen David. Sandy pointed out the star several times during the class, but it all seemed a blur to me.

The lesson, perhaps, is that the Star of David – like much that is hidden away in the Torah, the Bible and other sacred texts – is there, waiting to be found. It’s all a matter of faith and the freedom to choose what we want and need to believe.


  1. Well, I am sorry that I missed it! I haven't seen the movie, but your essay makes me want to check it out. Shabbat shalom!

  2. I think it's a stretch to infer the existence of specifically Jewish themes and subtexts in Avatar, the Na'vi and their "I see you" greeting notwithstanding (for what is a prophet, after all, but a seer?). The victory of the few over the many and the righteous over the evil is mirrored in both the Chanukah story and Avatar... but it's a theme that is also apropos to the struggle of the aboriginal Americans against the white man, which I think is the real inspiration of the film. It is, in my eyes, more of a pagan Earth-Mother-themed movie than it is anything remotely Jewish. Of course, that's just my opinion: I could be wrong.