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.

Eruvin 54a – Hedonism, Death, and Non-Being

Before you is an aggadah from Masekhet Eruvin that seems almost hedonistic on a textual level, but I think the motivation behind the hedonistic statements is almost more interesting. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי, דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך, שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה. ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on [lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink, since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself, for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming. And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man[or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’. (translation from halakha.com)

This gemara has a broader context that would certainly be worth looking into for anyone interested, but it’s not so important for the purposes of analyzing these two statements, which I will now examine piecemeal.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי,

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on[lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink,

Shmuel’s statement to his student Rav Yehudah, to take and consume, and quickly, seems to express a hedonistic sentiment that we’re not used to seeing in religious text. The contrast is so stark that several commentators argue that the various forms of hedonistic pleasure that appear in aggadah all refer to learning Torah and performing mitsvot (Meiri, Sefat Emet). Despite this, Rashi is quite clear that the simple, hedonistic, meaning of the gemara is the correct understanding. Interestingly, the Maharsha comments throughout the aggadah, noting how consistently the aggadah reflects themes and ideas found in Sefer Kohelet, if not always as intensely. What makes this particularly interesting is that there is a rabbinic statement in Kohelet Rabbah to the effect that “every time Kohelet discusses food and drink, it is in reality referring to Torah and Mitsvot.”[1] This then suggests that perhaps the approach of the first commentators we mentioned is not so wild after all. Certainly, it shows how the commentators often relate to the Gemara the same way Hazal related to the Biblical text.

What is, to my mind at least, more interesting is the explanation Shmuel invokes for why Rav Yehudah should consume so voraciously.

דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

The most obvious connection between this argument and the instruction to hedonistically consume is the statement that the world we live in is like a celebratory feast. The clear purpose of such a meal is to enjoy it, so the argument based on that would just be “the world is for enjoying yourself, so enjoy yourself.” But there’s more to it than that.

Rashi explains that the “wedding feast” image is meant to convey the rapidity with which our tenure in this world ends. Much as a wedding feast is over in the course of a night, so too we all one day wake up much closer to the ends of our lives than we’re comfortable admitting. This also means that the wedding feast section of the argument is of one cloth with the section of the argument that we had skipped until now.

The first part of Shmuel’s argument is actually in the term he uses to refer to the world we live in, “the world from which we must depart,” or perhaps more literally, “the world from which we are departing.” Our time in this world is measured in sparse seconds that slip through our fingers ever fast the more we try to hold on to them. Our existence is not static; we are inexorably moving toward the ends of our lives, leaving more and more of this life behind us. Taken this way, Shmuel’s argument is strikingly reminiscent of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s idea that existence is “dasein,” a term which literally means “being there.” Heidegger argued that to exist to is be “thrown” into this life without a choice in the matter, and to be inexorably moving towards death. Moreover, human existence in particular is marked by consciousness of this inevitable process. Shmuel may thus be best understood to be saying, “this life is short and fleeting, so make use of it while you can!” Whether you understand that as physical or spiritual pleasure is up to you.[2]

And now to turn to the second section of our aggadah.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך,

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself,

Rav’s instruction to Rav Hamnuna opens, as with Shmuel’s to Rav Yehudah, with a simple and seemingly hedonistic instruction: “according to thy ability do good to thyself.” If you have it, enjoy it. Once again paralleling Shmuel’s statement, Rav then provides a reason for this instruction. His reason, however, differs from Shmuel’s in ways that I think are significant.

שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה.

for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming.

In She’ol, an ancient and murky term for the afterlife, there is no enjoyment or physical pleasure. Moreover, not only is there no pleasure after death, but death is fast approaching. Thus it is imperative, Rav seems to argue, to get your pleasure now, while you can. Once again, there are commentators who understand this to refer to the pleasure of Torah and Mitsvot, rather than more hedonistic satisfactions, but Rashi is consistent as to hedonism being the plain sense of the aggadah.

This explanation differs from that of Shmuel in its consciousness of life after death. Shmuel simply argues that this life ends. Being disappears into Non-Being.[3] Rav, in contrast, is arguing that Being continues after death, only qualitatively differently. It is this qualitative difference that motivates his instruction to Rav Hamnuna. Death is coming and She’ol fast on its heels. We leave this life and and move to one without pleasure, spiritual or physical. It is thus incumbent upon us, argues Rav, to seek out this pleasure while we can.

 ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man [or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’.

Perhaps the most immediate, natural, response to “If you have it, enjoy it” might be, “Can’t I share it?” Most particularly, what if a person wants to share what they have with their children, an act that manages to be caring for another person while simultaneously caring for oneself. This could be material wealth, or the knowledge and ability to succeed in Torah and Mitsvot, as per the consistent debate we have seen among commentators.

Rav preempts this response, suggesting that it fails on two counts. First off, it’s all very nice to say that you want to leave behind something for your children. However, Rav argues, what you really care about is their experiencing whatever you left for them, and you will have no way of knowing about it after you have died. Second, when a person leaves something for their children, it is generally with a specific idea in mind of how they want their children to use it, how they want it to affect their children’s lives. But after you have died, says Rav, your children will continue to grow without your supervision, and you will have no way of controlling how they develop. So it is pointless to deny yourself enjoyment, be it spiritual or physical, for this reason.

We have thus seen two distinct but similar reasons provided by sages to pursue some sort of pleasure in this world. Shmuel, whose reason I will call “Non-Being,” focused on the end of Being as we know it. This world is for pleasure and it ends, so you better use it quick. Rav, whose reason I will call “Death,” focused on not the end of this life so much as the beginning of a new way of Being, one which differs significantly from this one. In that existence, in She’ol, there is neither pleasure, nor knowledge of pleasure occurring in this world. And She’ol comes sooner that we expect.

While they differ in their discussion of Being after this life, Death and Non-Being share the same sense of the end of life as a crisis. There is something about this world that ends permanently, that cannot be regained or recalled even in the afterlife. This sense of loss is quite powerful, and moreover is a stark contrast to ideas we may be more used to hearing, such as how suffering in this world is compensated for by reward in the next, and how this world is just an entry-way to the more real existence in the next world. These ideas aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but it is a stark contrast. Other ideas from Hazal that indicate that death is a crisis might be Lo’eg LeRash, the idea that the departed are bothered by their inability to perform mitsvot. This is clearly the same idea as “Death” that we have looked at here, where there is a distinct form of existence after this life, but it is missing a crucial aspect of this life. So too the mishnah in Avot (4:17) which states that one moment of good deeds in this world is better than all of the next, though that also states that one moment of bliss in the next world is better than all of this one, and is thus more complicated.

As with my piece on the subversive aggadah about tefillah in Masekhet Berakhot, I don’t have a specific point I’m getting at with this piece. I just think that it’s an interesting and somewhat surprising viewpoint to find in Hazal, and it’s worth talking about. I would to hear any questions or comments.


[1] Sourced in the second chapter of Moshe Halbertal’s “People of the Book,” in a discussion of interpretation and the Principle of Charity.

[2] The ever-scholarly David Nagarpowers has pointed out to me that both historically and content-wise, Epicurus may be a more apt comparison than Heidegger. However, I’ve chosen to stick with Heidegger due to the sense of movement inherent in both Shmuel’s “the world that we are departing from” and Heidegger’s “being-towards-death.”

[3] This isn’t to say that Shmuel denies the existence of the afterlife. It simply does not feature in his argument.