From Hasidut to “Avatar”
BY: Adam Hertzberg.
In the film “Avatar,” written and directed by James Cameron, we are introduced to a species of humanoids called Na’vi who inhabit the planet Pandora. We are introduced to them through the eyes of avatars, which have human minds but are contained in Na’vi bodies. The avatars are sent to Pandora by a company looking to mine a mineral called “unobtanium” and are instructed to infiltrate the Omaticaya tribe of Na’vi to learn about their lifestyle, as well as to instruct them in the ways of humans and teach them the English language as well as human culture. Through the lens of one avatar, Jake Sully, who becomes ensconced in the habitat of these creatures, the audience learns much about the culture, lifestyle and religion of the Na’vi. When watching the film, one familiar with Hasidic ideas cannot help but see the similarities between the philosophical underpinnings of the religion of the Na’vi and mystical strains of Judaism, especially Hasidut. As R. Benjamin Blech, a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and author of a number of books, put it, “I had the feeling that if Cameron never went to Hebrew school he surely had to discuss his work with a rabbi. The connections with Torah, Midrash, and Hebrew words are just too frequent and striking to be accidental.” What is most striking is the resemblance between their respective theological beliefs as well as their connection with the natural world.
One of the most pervasive themes in the movie is the connection between the Na’vi and their deity, Eywah. As one of the main characters explains, Eywah is “their deity, their goddess made up of all living things. Everything they know.” Their theology appears to be one of pantheism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pantheism” is defined as “the belief or doctrine that God and the Universe are identical; the doctrine that God is everything and everything is God.” This philosophy believes that God and the world are one, that God does not exist outside this world.
However, there are at least two characteristics of their faith that would indicate that the Na’vi may not believe in pantheism. Firstly, in general, pantheism is not limited to just living things. It usually includes the belief that everything is God, including inanimate objects. The Na’vi practice a more naturalistic form of pantheism, believing, namely, that God consists of all living things. Additionally, one could see the theology of the Na’vi as more similar to paganism. Throughout the film, the characters often say that they are acting for the sake of Eywah and pray to Eywah with the hope of efficacy. According to the principles of pantheism, however, it seems that prayer should not be efficacious, for the course of life is just the natural world of God unfolding; God cannot intervene in world affairs and disrupt the progress of nature, for God is one with nature.
Still, there is a scene in the movie that seems to suggest that the theology of the Na’vi is most similar to pantheism. Towards the end of the film, Jake Sully, as an avatar, is preparing for a battle between the humans and the Na’vi. He realizes how desperate the situation of the Na’vi is and goes to pray at the Tree of Souls, the central place of worship for the Na’vi. As he finishes his prayer, imploring Eywah to help them, Neytiri, Jake’s Na’vi mate in the world of Pandora, am, pproaches him and tells him that the will of Eywah will happen regardless. She says, “Our Great Mother does not take sides. She protects only the balance of life.” This is like Baruch Spinoza’s pantheism, according to which the events of nature are just a manifestation of God unfolding. As Matthew J. Milliner of the Witherspoon Institute, a graduate student studying Art History at Princeton University, puts it, “When the film’s main character, Jake Sully, implores divine assistance, he does not pray to a tree. He prays, almost sacramentally, through a tree to the deity.”
“Avatar’s” pantheistic elements have been the talk of many media in the last year. Ross Douthat of The New York Times says, “‘Avatar’ is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism – a faith that equates God with Nature.” Milliner, on the other hand, points out that there is more theism in the movie than Douthat gives it credit for. He notes that the deity, Eywah, does seem to intervene in the end. However, one could posit that the divine intervention was naturalistic, just the history of the world unfolding, consistent with pantheism.
Another journalist, Tam Hunt, on the other hand, maintains that the religion depicted in “Avatar” is more of a panentheistic religion. As he defines it, “Panentheism holds that the universe is within God but not identical with God.” This is to say that the world exists within God, but God’s existence is not limited to the world. He understands Eywah in “Avatar” as a network of energy inhabiting the world that the Na’vi believe they can access. Hunt sees Eywah as an allusion to Hinduism and its belief in the divine entity, called “Brahman,” which, in his words, “is the source of all things.” As a result of the similarity between Eywah and Brahman, Hunt theorizes that the Na’vi theology is in fact panentheistic, just like Hinduism. He said, “‘Avatar’ does not really describe pantheism; rather, it describes a panentheistic way of life, made very real for its people due to the actual physical connections the Na’vi enjoy with Eywah.”
The current pope, Benedict XVI, was quoted as referring to the film, not as pantheistic or panentheistic, but as portraying “neopaganism,” warning against turning nature into a “new divinty.” Likewise, John Podhoretz of The Weekly Standard criticized the religion of the Na’vi as “mindless worship” and “pagan rituals.” R. Blech, in his article, calls the Na’vi “pagans” as well.
Where does Hasidut fall in this picture? Jay Michaelson, of The Huffington Post, believes that the religion portrayed in the film resembles Hasidut. He says that the Na’vi philosophy “is a bit of pantheism, a bit of nature mysticism and a surprising dash of monotheism, as well. In other words, it’s Kabbalah, as filtered through the Hasidism of the 19th century and the neo-Hasidism of the 20th and 21st.”
There has been much uncertainty as to the nature of the theology of Jewish mysticism, and specifically of Hasidut, stemming from the fact that Hasidic literature can be read in different ways. While some understand it to express a pantheistic theology, others view it as panentheistic material. For instance, there is a parable found in the Degel Mahaneh Efrayim, written by the Hasidic master R. Moshe Hayyim Efrayim of Sudilkov, that allows for both possible readings of Hasidut. The parable is about a king who sets up his palace in such a way that there are many barriers one needs to pass in order to see him, and behind each barrier there are scattered treasures. Some people are immediately deterred by the barriers. Others pass a number of barriers, collect some treasure and then return to where they came from. But the son of the king, who desires to see his father, will pass through all of the barriers in order to do so. So, too, God exists in this world, as if beyond a number of barriers that block access to Him. Some will not even attempt to see Him; others will attempt, but will be distracted by everything else in this world and lose sight of Him. But he who is truly God’s son desires to see Him, so he will do whatever it takes to do so. It is clear that this parable emphasizes the extreme immanence of God in this world. It is not entirely clear, though, whether the parable implies that God only exists in this world, or, on the other hand, that God exists in this world but beyond as well. What is certain, however, is that God can be found in the physical world, whether in the model of pantheism or of panentheism.
The question as to whether Hasidut is a pantheistic or panentheistic philosophy is similar to the debate over the nature of the theology found in “Avatar.” While the prevailing opinion is that the theology of the Na’vi is pantheistic, or possibly pagan, there are those who maintain that it follows more of a panentheistic philosophy. On the other hand, most consider Hasidut to be more likely a panenthesitic ideology, due to the fact that a strictly pantheistic philosophy is religiously troubling, but, at the same time, there are those who assert that it comes closer to pantheism. As such, Hasidut and Na’vi theology are similar in that they both flirt between the lines of pantheism and panentheism, while possibly finding themselves on different sides of the spectrum.
What follows from a philosophy of pantheism or panentheism, for the Na’vi, is a strong connection with nature. The Na’vi view their planet Pandora as one network of energy flowing through all forms of life, and their deity, Eywah, is, as one of the humans studying them puts it, the “network of energy that flows through all living things.” The Na’vi care very much about all of the creatures of the forest and are described by the humans as having a “deep connection” with them. They live in harmony with the animals and vegetation of the forest, trying not to disturb the equilibrium of nature. At one point during his training, Jake Sully must kill one of the animals in the forest. He prefaces his action by saying to the animal, “I see you and thank you. Your spirit belongs to Ewyah.” Here, he acknowledges the eternal connection of all living things through Ewyah and therefore thanks the being that he is killing in recognition that although the body will be no longer, the spirit will remain as part of the network of energy. This conscientiousness fosters an extremely environmentalist society.
While Hasidut has similar notions of a connection to nature, it differs in its overall philosophy. Elliot R. Wolfson, the Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, describes Kabbalah and Hasidut as belief systems that understand this world as mirroring the world of the Divine, in a Platonic type of way. Hence, while such a theology does not ascribe any divinity to this world, per se, it establishes that this world is created as a model of the divine world.
However, Arthur Green, an educator and scholar of Jewish mysticism and Hasidut, understands the connection between God and this world to be a much deeper one, more similar to the theology of the Na’vi. He says, “The understanding that God is the innermost reality of all that is, and that God and the universe are related not primarily as Creator and creature, but as a deep structure and surface, is key to the Judaism of the future.” Furthermore, he thinks that Kabbalah and Hasidut provide that connection. He notes that Kabbalah and Hasidut have become more appealing in recent years, for people have become more environmentally conscious in the last few decades and are looking for a religious basis for their newfound conscientiousness. Green discusses the process of Creation as God transfusing Himself into his creations. He speaks of the letters of the Tetragrammaton transforming into the word “havayah” (“being”), or God becoming the beings that He formed. In this way, Green believes that Kabbalah and Hasidut represent the idea that this world is divine and contains God in it. This, accordingly, leads to a strong attentiveness to one’s environment, which is the manifestation of God in this world. Although Man is a higher form of being than all other creations, each creature embodies the life-energy and hence the presence of the One, and even though other creations are at Man’s disposal to use, “we still seek a life of harmony and balance with them.” Hasidut represents the idea of God’s manifestation in this world. This world is divine and contains God in it. This, accordingly, yields a strong attentiveness to the creations of God and the environment in which one finds oneself. In this way, Green portrays Hasidut as an eco-friendly belief system, very similar to the Na’vi religion in “Avatar.”
What can be seen from this discussion is a close resemblance in theological outlook between the culture set forth in the movie “Avatar” and the philosophy of mystical Judaism, and specifically Hasidut. They are similar in their theological outlook. Both present a strong theology of divine immanence and dance between the lines of pantheism and panentheism, stressing a strong connection to nature due to its divine quality and, as a result, according value to nature and life in this world.
Adam Hertzberg received his B.A. in Philosophy from YC and is currently studying for semikhah at RIETS, as well as for an M.A. in Jewish Philosophy at BRGS.
 Mystical Judaism refers to the general category of Judaism that deals with more mystical ideas, including Kaballah. Hasidut refers to the specific ideology of mystical Judaism that was founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov and his followers.
 “The Witherspoon Institute is an independent research center that works to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies. Located in Princeton, New Jersey, the Institute promotes the application of fundamental principles of republican government and ordered liberty to contemporary problems through a variety of research and educational ventures.” Source: http://www.winst.org/index.php.
Ross Douthat, “Heaven and Nature,” The New York Times (December 21, 2009), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/opinion/21douthat1.html?_r=1.
 Milliner, “Avatar and its Conservative Critics.”
 Tam Hunt, “‘Avatar,’ Blue Skin and the Ground of Being,” NoozHawk (January 16, 2010), available at: http://www.noozhawk.com/local_news/article/011610_tam_hunt/.
 “Vatican Critical of Avatar’s spiritual message,” CBC News (January 12, 2010), available at: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/film/story/2010/01/12/avatar-vatican.html.
 John Podhoretz, “Avatarocious,” The Weekly Standard (December 28, 2009), available at: http://weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/017/350fozta.asp?pg=1.
 Blech, “Avatar and the Jews.”
 Jay Michaelson, “The Meaning of Avatar: Everything is God (A Response to Ross Douthat and Other Naysayers of ‘Pantheism’),” The Huffington Post (December 22, 2009), available at:
Jay Michaelson is a columnist, activist and recent professor at Boston University’s law school.
 Based on a classroom discussion with Dr. Jonathan Dauber, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University (Spring 2010).
 Elliot R. Wolfson, “Mirror of Nature Reflected in the Symbolism of Medieval Kabbalah,” in Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (ed.), Judaism and Ecology: Created World and Revealed World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 305-331.
 Arthur Green, “A Kabbalah for the Environmental Age,” in Judaism and Ecology: Created World and Revealed World, pp. 3-15.