Moana and the Call of Jewish Destiny
Animated Disney films, with all of their fantasy and froth, often contain some deep ideas or archetypes. Moana, the latest offering from Disney studios, is no exception. Moana, the protagonist whose name means “ocean” in several Polynesian languages, is a girl who is destined to assume leadership of the fictional South Pacific island of Motunui. Yet she feels drawn to the sea. She undertakes a series of adventures along with a demi-god “trickster” named Maui in order to restore equilibrium to their increasingly imperiled natural environment. All of this is set against a mash-up of pre-modern Polynesian traditions and myths that, according to scholars and critics, is accurately and respectfully depicted. The film’s animation is gorgeous—like Moana, the viewer also feels the call of the shimmering Pacific ocean and expansive sky. All in all, it is an enjoyable film, setting aside some of the pagan elements which go with the territory.
More interestingly, the film also breaks from, or improves upon, the typical Disney formula whereby a princess is stuck in some sort of repressive environment but yearns to break free. The central expression of this trope in Moana is the song “How Far I’ll Go,” composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame:
I‘ve been standing at the edge of the water
‘Long as I can remember, never really knowing why
I wish I could be the perfect daughter
But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try
It is a catchy number, positioned to be a hit, and it is a reiteration of the classic Disney “I want” song (a la The Little Mermaid’s, “Part of my World,” and Frozen’s “Let it Go”). Yet, Moana includes two more mature songs, each of which contain conservative tropes that are less commonly expressed in popular culture. In the opening sequence’s “Where You Are,” the islanders communicate to Moana some of the beauty of their shared heritage:
The dancers are practicing
They dance to an ancient song
(Who needs a new song? This old one's all we need)
The song repeats the refrain that “happiness is where you are”—in other words, true satisfaction does not involve seeking out new vistas and breaking with your past. Appreciating the richness of your heritage is itself an exciting and absorbing task with its own beautiful music: “This tradition is our mission/And Moana, there's so much to do.”
An even stronger expression of the way in which tradition can both literally and figuratively orient a community appears in “We Know The Way,” a modern adaptation of a traditional Polynesian song. In a flashback sequence set hundreds of years before Moana’s time, we see her wayfarer ancestors navigating the Pacific ocean:
We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze
At night, we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are
The song draws on navigational principles, that we can only find our way by keeping our point of departure in mind, in order to make a broader point about how the collected wisdom of the past is necessary in order to guide us into the future.
We set a course to find
A brand new island everywhere we roam
We keep our island in our mind
And when it's time to find home
We know the way
Ideas like “we know who we are,” and “we know the way,” are not often ones that make it into the collective pop-unconscious, which overwhelmingly celebrates individualism and breaking free from restraints. The triumph of the film is that Moana discovers that her individual yearnings and obligations to her wider community are not actually in conflict. In fact, she can satisfy her inner voice specifically by remaining loyal to her people in the deepest sense. Moana learns that what calls her away from her native island and toward the sea is not some arbitrary desire to follow her heart, rather it is the latent life-force of her nation.
Indeed, historians point to a long break in Polynesian wayfaring that took place before the first millennium CE, dubbed “The Long Pause.” Western Polynesian islands such as Fiji and Samoa were settled by seafaring peoples around 1,000 BCE. It would be about 2,000 more years before descendents of these original settlers would extend their reach to Central and Eastern Polynesia. Therefore, a civilization that had initially oriented its culture around seafaring shifted gears at a certain point toward a more landed agricultural existence. Subsequently, after a long period of time, their descendants returned to their wayfaring roots. No one really knows why this pause and shift took place, but Moana provides a vision of how a civilization might undergo these upheavals while still remaining connected to its past and its members still linked with one another.
There is, of course, something quite Jewish about the idea of a civilization that starts off in a certain fashion, then shifts gears for 2,000 years only to have its members return to their roots and realize their destiny in a marvellously moving manner. The Jews, once rooted in their homeland of Israel, wandered in Exile for generations only to return to their national patrimony with the founding of the modern State of Israel. The parallel with Moana is there, if inverted, as in the film the Polynesians return to their destiny as wanderers.
In Moana, realizing one’s destiny is largely a matter of heeding one’s inner voice. As Moana’s grandmother sings to her:
You may hear a voice inside
And if the voice starts to whisper
To follow the farthest star
Moana, that voice inside is
Who you are
In Judaism, as opposed to a Disney movie, this path of discovery is inevitably more multi-layered. And yet, there are still distinct moments when our destiny beckons, and the question arises as to how we ought to respond.
This Passover, the Song of Songs will be read in synagogue. In one of the book’s most moving sequences, the female character slumbers in her home—“asleep” though her “heart is awake.” She is roused by the knocking of her beloved for whom she yearns. To our great frustration, she delays opening the door until it is too late and her beloved has departed. In a famous essay entitled “Kol Dodi Dofek,” “The Voice of My Beloved Knocks,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik renders this sequence as an analogy for the unwillingness, or tardiness, of Jews to heed the call of destiny as it comes to them in the formation of the modern Jewish State of Israel. He wrote the essay in 1956, only eight years after the founding of the state. The essay argues powerfully that there are six “knocks,” or historical and religious circumstances, that should rouse the Jewish people toward their higher purpose in their national homeland. For Rabbi Soloveitchik, the call to Zion is not a subtle whisper, it is a banging on the door, and he is baffled why more of his American Jewish peers have yet to answer:
What was our reaction to the beckoning of the voice of the Beloved, to the munificence of His loving-kindness and miracles? Did we get out of our beds and immediately open the door, or did we continue to rest like the Lover [in the story of the Song of Songs], and were we too lazy to get out of our beds? “I have washed my feet, how shall I soil them?” (Song of Songs 5:3).
In the essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik articulates what an inner voice that is sensitive to Jewish history, tradition, and theology might sound like. Heeding the call of this voice would be the realization of the modern Jew’s destiny, and for Rabbi Soloveitchik both fate and destiny point in the direction of Israel: “Our historic obligation today is to raise ourselves from a people to a holy nation, from the Covenant of Egypt to the Covenant of Sinai; from a compelled existence to an original way of life, permeated with morality and religious principles, that transcends history.”
These supposed parallels between the incredibly rich and meaningful Jewish experience and the animated Disney film Moana are probably not intentional. This remains likely despite the abundance of Jewish names that pepper the film’s credits. One wonders if any of the Jews working on Moana asked themselves what it might mean to listen to their own Jewish inner voice in the way that Moana listens to that of her own heritage. If they did listen, what it might say? I ask myself this same question. “Next Year in Jerusalem” is no longer an abstract ideal. Let us do what we can to respond to this call.