On Themes of Tradition, Authenticity, and Chosen Identity in Moana, with Continual Reference to Rav Shagar


This short piece is in lieu of a much larger essay that I don’t have time to write exploring the topic of tradition, authenticity, and chosen identity in Disney’s “Moana,” by way of reference to ideas from the writings of Rav Shagar (even when I do not mention him explicitly). As such I will assume the reader’s basic familiarity with the film, and I will write briefly, without necessarily providing quotes or references.

The three terms I have mentioned are explored in two different arcs in the plot of the film, each fleshed out by three characters. Moana’s story is about the tension between authenticity and tradition, represented by her grandmother (Tala) and her father (Tui), respectively. The theme of chosen identity, on the other hand, is explored through the contrast between the giant crab, Tamatoa, on the one hand, and Maui and Tafiti/Te Ka, on the other. Notably, these two themes are roughly the two ways Rav Shagar understands the term “Accepting the Yoke of Heaven,” regarding which I have an essay forthcoming.


Arc #1 – Tui, Tala and Moana: Tradition and Authenticity

Starting at the beginning, the first song in the movie, “Where you are,” sets up the basic tension between Moana’s father and grandmother. The majority of the song is Tui talking about their island society and how everyone has their place in it, in an attempt to convince Moana to accept her life and role there. The basic message is that the answer to “who am I?” can and should be answered like recognizing your place in your society and tradition. If you’re a fisherman then you’re a fisherman, and if you’re a chief then you’re a chief. The song’s title, “where you are,” shows up a few times denoting how a person’s location in the space of the tradition and society is what defines who they are. Near the end of the song, however, Tala cuts in, identifying herself as the village crazy person who drifts too far outside the traditional social framework (and, notably, we always see her by the shore, on the physical fringe of the society), and arguing that who you are is actually a function of a voice within you, not your positioning in relation to those outside you. For Moana, as Tala herself, this voice seems to call her toward the ocean, in contrast to the tradition’s aversion to straying into open waters. Moana is thus caught between being authentic to the voice within her and filling her role as chief for which she has been designated by tradition and society, and her personal arc in the movie is about her learning to resolve the tension.. This topic was already discussed by Sarah Rindner in a relatively excellent article on thelehrhaus.com, but I don’t think it quite reached all the details of this theme, particularly when it comes to how exactly Moana resolves the tension.

A first watershed moment for Moana is discovering that her ancestors had once been sea voyagers. This enables her to challenge her tradition and is part of her being able to eventually strike out on her own. A second is when, in the process of learning to pilot a ship, she learns that in order to know where you are you have to know where you’ve come from. Perhaps tradition is not to be rejected entirely. The two come together when Tala returns in ghostly form during the song “I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors).” In this song, Moana identifies herself with the island, her father, and her future role as chief, as well as with the sea and her voyaging ancestors. She is staying true to to her inner voice, while still identifying with her tradition.

It is worth taking a second to note the specific manner in which she has done that. The voyaging ancestors provide a nexus where the sea and the island meet, where the voice of tradition and the voice of authenticity say the same thing. Moana essentially explored her tradition and found a previously unknown aspect that matched her inner voice. She found a space for herself within the tradition, which is more expansive that she had previously suspected. In traditional Orthodox language, she found her portion in Torah. This is significant because of what the other options could have been. What if Moana had never found the boats? She might have identified with her role as chief and still struck out on the waters in order to save her people. In doing so she would have added something new to the tradition, taking something from outside and introducing it into the tradition by virtue of her identification with it. This is the road not taken in Moana,where the emphasis is on finding one’s own place within their tradition. Moana remains entirely faithful to the pre-existing tradition, but it is broader than previously thought.

For reference, see “The Name of the Father” (על שם האב), a derashah for Pesah and Shavuot , published in שארית האמונה, where Rav Shagar confronts and works with the thought of Alain Badiou, and identifies Pesah with approach to resolution that Moana takes and Shavuot with the other possibility that I outlined here.

Bonus reference: see the earlier published essay “The Hearts of Fathers with their Sons” (לב אבות על בנים) from the book זמן של חירות, many sections of which were republished in “The Name of the Father,” and which gives a slightly different angle on the topic.


Arc #2 – Tamatoa, Maui, and Tafiti/Te Ka: Chosen Identity

There is a second thematic arc in Moana that directly contrasts to, and to some degree, undermines the first arc. It thus makes sense that the theme is expressed by Tamatoa, who is a villain, and Te Ka, who is certainly something like a villain, but it is also expressed in the story of Maui, one of the heroes. This is the theme of choosing, or perhaps constructing, your identity, as opposed to accepting an identity that you find within yourself or that your society defines for you, were there to be such a thing.

Tamatoa, the giant crab who has Maui’s hook, sings a song called “Shiny” about how he used to be drab and boring but now is shiny and glamorous. In the process he specifically mentions that Moana’s grandmother said to listen to your heart, to who you are on the inside, and that in this her grandmother lied. But in place of an inner identity the crab suggests not conforming to societal expectations but shininess, making yourself into who you want to be on the outside. In a fantastic lyric, he says that he has made himself shiny like treasure from a sunken pirate ship, and then says that the deck of the ship, the visible outer surface, should be swabbed until it is shiny; there is no treasure, but the outside is made to look like treasure. Tamatoa is arguing for the importance of the identity that you can create for yourself, that any sort of pre-existing essence is a lie (rav Shagar associates this model both with Sartre and Postmodernism).

Te Ka/Tafiti and Maui both express this theme via basically the same movement in their personal story arcs, if the former somewhat more subtly. At a glance, both arcs would seem to affirm the existence of a pre-existing self, namely, Maui’s hook and Tafiti’s heart, but a more comprehensive reading of each indicates otherwise. Maui starts off as someone who assumes his self is synonymous with his hook, and his whole arc is about unlearning this idea. He has to be ok with not having his hook, not having a specific pre-existing self, before he can achieve a new self, represented by the new hook he receives in the end. Only by recognizing that his hook is not his self, and letting it be destroyed, is he able to get a new hook to build his life around.

The same basic story holds true for Te Ka/Tafiti. The nature goddess Tafiti loses her heart and, as we discover at the end of the film, thus becomes the fire demon Te Ka. It would seem to be hard to have a clearer metaphor for a pre-existing self than a small rock called your heart, and thus it makes some sense that Te Ka is continuously upset about not being able to get her heart back, being landlocked on a tiny island. Te Ka’s violent frustration at being separated from her self is what causes the toxic seepage that Moana’s journey is meant to rectify. When she gets her heart back, she returns to her natural state as Tafiti, which would seem to argue for the “self as pre-existing” model. However, in the scene immediately before the restoration of Tafiti, Moana realizes who Te Ka really is and walks toward her singing the short song “Know Who You Are.” In this song, Moana recounts how Tafiti/Te Ka’s heart was stolen, but then says that this does not define Te Ka; Te Ka is not “Tafiti minus her heart.” Upon hearing this, Te Ka immediately calms down, and she and Moana rest their foreheads against each other. This moment is the resolution of the peak tension in the movie, the drama of the violent demon Te Ka, rather than the moment when she turns back into Tafiti. Then Te Ka takes up the identity of Tafiti out of calm choice, and the motion of face-to-face reconciliation is repeated. The story arcs of both Maui and Te Ka/Tafiti thus express the idea that you choose who you are and what your identity is, and that a key step in this process is accepting that whatever you thought your identity is, it is not inherent to you. Only once you accept this fact, the fact that Tamatoa was essentially correct, can you consciously choose to take up a new identity.

For reference, see Rav Shagar’s discussion of Rebbe Nahman’s story about the poor man and the diamond in “Self (?): A Study of One of Rebbe Nahman’s Stories” (עצמיות (?): עיון באחת מסיפורי רבי נחמן), published in נהלך ברג״ש.

Bonus reference: See the essay “Redemption and Accepting the Yoke of Heaven” (גאולה וקבלת עול מלכות שמים) in זמן של חירות and “Freedom and Holiness” (חופש וקודש) in לוחות ושברי לוחות.


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