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We are All Avatars

Guest Columnist
Alan D. Krinsky


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With its seeming worship of nature in general and trees in particular, one must ask whether or not James Cameron’s blockbuster new film, Avatar, is idolatrous.

In truth, you can find a bit of almost anything in the film: pantheism, environmentalism, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, rebellion and revolution, war, action and adventure, high technology, and, of course, a love story. Overall, Avatar tells a good story, is well-presented and well-acted, and is quite beautiful, especially in IMAX 3D, but there are few, if any, big surprises or unexpected reversals; if the film sets a precedent or at least raises the bar for special effects and 3D, the story itself is far from path-breaking.

Nonetheless, given the many possibilities and multiple interpretations, can one really claim that Cameron’s epic promotes idolatry? Or, perhaps, can we even find some Jewishness in Avatar?

At first glance, with its suggestion of nature and tree worship, the story appears to be wholly contrary to Judaism. Cameron’s alien world, Pandora, is one where all life-forms are intimately connected with each other, both in a general sense and with a novel invention, the ability of beings, humanoid, animal, and plant to bond physically by means of tendrils extending from the hair or branches. A humanoid rider and her steed (often, a large bird) function as one; the guidance is accomplished by unvoiced thoughts.

What, then, in this ostensibly pantheistic world could possibly speak to Judaism?

To begin, the notion that all life is connected is not necessarily a pantheistic idea, but can be understood in monotheistic terms as well. Okay, we do not believe that nature itself is God, but we do recognize the source of all life in one God, and God’s perhaps paradoxical transcendence and immanence. That is, God is beyond this world, outside of time and space, and yet, God is here, there, and everywhere, as the children’s song goes. This is a paradox beyond our understanding—and yet arguably central to Judaism.

Furthermore, the respect for life displayed in the film in the form of hunters offering a prayer for and an apology to the animals they kill is echoed by the Torah’s profound respect for animal life and all life, the prohibition of consuming the life-force of blood, the laws of kashrut and shechitah, which constrain the slaughter and eating of animals within a context of respect for life, and the requirement of reciting blessings before and after eating, lest we take it for granted.

Second, inasmuch as the story is one of the oppressed rising in revolt, Avatar is also a Jewish story. If the movie points to the repression of Native Americans by European settlers, the triumph of the underdog over adversity is, nonetheless, a repeated Jewish theme, from the Exodus out of Egypt to Purim and Chanukah, to the blossoming of the State of Israel only a few years after the Churban (Holocaust) in Europe.

A third point, of great importance, is the central conceit of the movie, proclaimed in its very title: the avatar. An avatar is, basically, a body controlled remotely by a person in an entirely different place. It is a term used on the internet for such fantasy worlds as Second Life, where participants can create and then act and speak as characters in that world, where a person can play at being someone else. In the movie, the “drivers” in some sense inhabit the bodies of the avatars. That is, the neural connection functions as a sort of virtual reality, where the user can experience the full range of the senses of the avatar.

This idea of the avatar resonates with Judaism, and no doubt with some other religions, in working as a metaphor for the soul inhabiting the body. If we believe that our essential beings are Nishamot, or souls, we might justifiably conceive of our bodies as vessels, or avatars, on loan from God. We do not truly own our own bodies. This movie, therefore, provides us with the opportunity to contemplate what it means for our souls to dwell in our bodies.

Finally, and perhaps most strikingly in terms of Judaism, Avatar is at heart a conversion narrative. It is reminiscent of the story of Ruth and her embrace of a people and nation. Without giving away too much, let me just say that the movie says something about being caught between two worlds and suggests how completely a conversion experience can transform a person, body and soul.

Alan Krinsky, PhD, MPH, a resident of Providence, RI, works in health care quality improvement and writes a monthly column for the Rhode Island Jewish Voice & Herald.

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