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.
rabbi-shagar

 

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.

On Proving the Divinity of the Torah

On Proving the Divinity of the Torah

When it comes to the divinity of the Torah, the first question we must ask is not whether or not the Torah is divine, but how we could know that the Torah is divine. Assuming it is true, how would such information come to us. Ironically, the most direct source of this knowledge is seemingly indirect; the divinity of the Torah is due to the divinity of its author, and thus to prove that the Torah is divine what we really have to prove is that it was revealed by the divine. Once that were proven, we could know from there that the Torah is divine.

At this point, it’s necessary to talk about the different types of truths that exist, and how we can know them. There are three different types of truths, and each can be known in different ways. Rational truths, such as math and logic, are known through the intellect. Let a person sit and think in a vacuum and he will uncover these truths. Empirical truths, such as physics and astronomy, are known through examining the world around us. Let a person study the fields ands the forests and he will uncover these truths. Historical truths regard the occurrence and qualities of historical phenomena (ex: The torah was or was not given, and it’s giver was or was not divine, etc.). Historical truths must be known through witness, either by witnessing it first hand or by hearing it from those who did. Otherwise, you would have no way of knowing that it occurred. However, as you get farther away from the phenomenon, either spatially or temporally, you begin to need a chain of witnesses, meaning a tradition. Thus there are certain phenomena which certain people could only know through tradition.

The divine giving of the Torah is like that for people today. The only way we could know it is through tradition. Anyone who believes that the Torah is divine came to that knowledge through hearing of it from a trustworthy source, who themselves presumably heard it from a trustworthy source. This does not mean that we have a tradition through which we could know definitively that the Torah was divinely revealed, or that there could be such a tradition, but it does mean we shouldn’t expect to prove it some other way.

The above division of types of truths and the way they can be known, which we have made use of up to this point, is slightly misleading. While it is true in the strictest sense, it ignores the way we corroborate different pieces of information with information derived from other methods. The most common proofs for the divinity of the Torah all fall under this category. The proofs can’t directly arrive at the knowledge that the Torah is divine, but they can strengthen the tradition-based claim.

There is, however, a distinct problem with this type of proof in this case. Such a proof requires knowing the characteristics of a divine text, such that if a text possessed those characteristics it is divine, and if it did not possess those characteristics than it is not divine. You could thus examine any text to see whether or not it has those characteristics and thereby determine if it is divine. Seeing as we do not possess a text which is incontestably divine, we have no way of determining what those characteristics might be, and we therefore have no way of proving that the Torah is divine. However, the flipside is that there is no way to prove that the Torah is not divine.

To illustrate this, it’s worth looking at a few examples. First, the approaches from history. People have suggested that the Torah is divine because it (whether superficially or through “codes”) successfully predicts historical events. People have also suggested that the Torah is not divine because it inaccurately describes historical events. The first approach is based on the the assumption that a divine text ought to correctly predict future events. The second is based on the assumption that a divine text ought to accurately and scientifically describe historical events. Neither of these assumptions is really based on anything, however, and so whether or not the proofs function is dependent entirely upon a personal choice regarding those assumptions.

Similarly, the divinity of the Torah is often disproved by showing that the Torah resembles documents with human authors. However, this is based upon the assumption that a divine text will not resemble a human text. Not only is this a baseless assumption, it is rejected by the midrashic hermeneutic concept that “the Torah speaks in the human language.” As this statement is adapted and developed by Maimonides, it becomes clear that the above assumption is particularly problematic, as a text that in no way resembles its audience will be incomprehensible to them, and thus a divine text intended for a human audience will be a very human text indeed.

This approach can be extended to pretty much every assumption people make about the Torah. The unfortunate side effect is that it empties the phrase “divine text” of all content. It makes no prescriptive claims about what a divine text would look like. “Divine text” becomes a label we simply apply to certain texts. This often feels less inspiring, but I do think it is more correct.[1]

In summary, the idea that the Torah is divine is not something that could be learned from logic, or from examining the world, or from reading the text itself. That knowledge must come to us through tradition. We can then strengthen the certainty of that knowledge through other proofs, but those will all be based on our own rather baseless assumptions about what a divine text should look like. However, this becomes less helpful when we begin to doubt tradition. Whereas medieval Jewish thinkers, such as Saadiah Gaon and Rav Yehuda HaLevi, took it for granted that knowledge derived from a tradition is trustworthy, this assumption fails to be compelling in the modern world. We don’t assume that information derived from a tradition is automatically false, but we don’t assume that it is necessarily true either.

The flip-side of all of this, however, is that it is equally impossible to prove that the Torah is not divine. The divinity of the torah exists in conceptual space beyond the reach of proofs or disproofs. Belief in the divinity of the Torah is thus an act of assent that involves a variety of factors, such as personal experience, identity, existential commitment, and a person’s understanding of tradition. It is something we ought to struggle with not just once over the course of our lives, as it is not something that can be settled definitively. But it is something that should have a radical and formative impact on our lives.

[1] Some important caveats to the idea that there is no content to the term “divine text”:
An exception to this might be morality. Seeing as we generally define God as perfectly moral, we would expect anything that issued from God, such as a divine text, to be perfectly moral, or at the very least not to prescribe things we think of as immoral. As opposed to other similar possibilities, Morality tends to override any relativist position.
The answer given to this is generally that the Torah was written in a certain historical context, and that this imposed certain limitations on the text. The text couldn’t be perfectly moral because the people of the time could not have accepted it. Whether or not this answer is compelling is a different question, but it works from a logical standpoint.
This flows directly from the idea mentioned above that “the Torah speaks in human language.” The Torah is now being said to be a divine text with very human limitations. Thus any analysis of it that reveals human characteristics, including undeveloped morality, is to some degree unsurprising.

Another caveat is that traditionally we assume a divine text will have a single author though this isn’t technically necessary. Thus a text that could somehow be shown to be composed of multiple parts, that should clearly be attributed to disparate times and places, this would prove that there were multiple authors and that the traditional divine authorship is incorrect. I am not at all confident that such attribution could be proved, but if it could then it would successfully challenge divine authorship. However, it’s also possible to suggest, less traditionally, that a divine author would make use of previously existing texts, combining them and perhaps adding to them to create the text we call divine, and this would solve this challenge to divine authorship.