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Avatar: Bad Guys and Good Guys

Avatar: Bad Guys and Good Guys

Whose side are you on now?


Avatar hero Jake Sully’s decision to become a Na’vi is not the only switching of sides that takes place during the course of the three-hour movie. The audience also transfers their loyalties from the values that define Western civilization to a radically different set of values.

The three villains of Avatar are:

  • Parker Selfridge, the corporate executive in charge of RDA (Resource Development Administration) on Pandora. His job is simply to make money for the stockholders by mining the valuable mineral unobtanium, whatever the cost to the “natives” and their way of life. Clearly, he represents materialism.
  • Col. Miles Quaritch, the brutal head of RDA’s on-planet security. He represents military might and physical power.
  • Dr. Grace Augustine, a nasty person but brilliant scientist. She viciously denigrates Jake for his lack of higher education and academic credentials. She represents scientific and academic knowledge.

At least since the Enlightenment, these have been the cardinal values of Western society: materialism, physical might, and scientific progress.

Materialism places ultimate value on the accumulation of wealth and worldly possessions. A materialistic society honors the rich simply because they are rich and despises the poor simply because they are poor. “Making it” means making money, since that is the ultimate value.

But materialism also refers to the philosophy that physical matter is the only reality and that everything can be explained in terms of natural phenomena. This philosophy derides those who believe in the existence of spiritual forces as “superstitious” at best, “crack-pots” at worst.

A society that values military power devotes much of its resources to the development of armaments and chooses as its leaders ex-generals (E.g. Eisenhower, DeGaule, Rabin). It equates power on the national level with military strength, on the personal level with muscles. Such a society glorifies the “super-hero” who has a weight-lifter’s physique and can beat up his opponent. It might snicker at the Jewish definition of a “hero": “A hero is one who overcomes himself” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).

The audience finds itself rooting for the Na’vi, a people who values spiritual forces, tradition, and virtue.

A society that values scientific and academic knowledge defines “progress” as technological advancement and honors Doctors of Philosophy, Medicine, and Law. It demands no equivalence between academic excellence and ethical behavior. This attitude is exemplified by Bertrand Russell’s famous repartee, when censured for his sexual escapades while Professor of Ethics at Harvard: “When I was Professor of Geometry, you didn’t ask me why I’m not a triangle.” A unique exception to this bifurcation of knowledge and virtue occurred in March, 2008, when Yeshiva University granted nonagenarian Clara Hammer, who supplies chicken to hundreds of poor families every week, an Honorary Doctorate in Kindness. In Western society intellectual brilliance usually trumps virtue as a standard of excellence.

Read Related Article: Avatar and the Jews

Then comes Avatar! And the audience finds itself rooting for the Na’vi, a people who values spiritual forces, tradition, and virtue. Col. Quaritch calls them “savages” as he goes in for the kill.


Watching the movie, I had déjà-vu. When the Enlightenment flashed into the Jewish world beginning in the late 18th century, it divided the Jews into the same two warring camps as Avatar portrays. The proponents of Enlightenment were university-educated, usually more affluent, and progressive. They lambasted traditional Jews, who clung to Torah observance and who refused to adopt the lifestyle of the secular world, as “backward” and “primitive.”

The lines that have divided the Jewish People for the last couple centuries are similar to the lines that divide the Earth People from the Na’vi: progress vs. tradition, materialism (in the sense of believing that matter is the only reality) vs. spirituality, and scientific knowledge vs. wisdom. Significantly, (spoiler alert!) toward the end of the movie Dr. Grace Augustine severs her alliance with Selfridge and Col. Quaritch and sides with the Na’vi, just as science in recent decades has been moving toward a rapprochement with religion.

The proponents of Enlightenment attacked traditional Judaism as furiously as Col. Quaritch went after the Na’vi.

The proponents of Enlightenment attacked traditional Judaism as furiously as Col. Quaritch went after the Na’vi. They published books and pamphlets accusing the “shetl Jews” as causing anti-Semitism by their obdurate refusal to dress, speak, and act like their Christian neighbors. They denounced leading rabbis to government authorities for the crime of “resisting progressive legislation,” and scoffed when the rabbis were thrown into prison. They mocked traditional Jews as antiquated, old-fashioned, and superstitious.

Read Related Artilce: Avatar

Such scorn for traditional Jews reached its nadir during the early years of the State of Israel. About one million Jews lived in Moslem countries up until 1949. They had inhabited those countries for centuries, some for millennia. These Sephardi Jews had amassed wealth, were highly literate in rabbinic writings, boasted great Talmudic scholars, and tenaciously preserved the traditions of their ancestors, despite the intermittent persecution of their Moslem hosts.

When these Sephardi Jews were expelled from their homes and prohibited by the Moslem governments from taking their wealth with them, they arrived in the fledgling State of Israel as the embodiment of what the West despised. They were poor, religious, and ignorant of Western culture. The Ashkenazi establishment in Israel regarded these Jews as “primitive” and “unenlightened” because they were not conversant in Shakespeare and Mozart. Ben Gurion, in his book The Individual and His Destiny, compared the Sephardi communities to “dust—without a language, without education, without roots. Turning this dust into a cultured nation is not an easy task.”


I personally did not have to go to Pandora to undergo a transformation similar to Jake Sully’s. I was about 14 years old when I first encountered Hasidic Jews. I thought they were from a different planet. My father, a professor of English literature, once had to pick up a book in a Hasidic section of Brooklyn. He took me along. I gawked at the men in long, black coats and the women wearing headscarves, and heard them speaking Yiddish. My father, an open-minded man usually tolerant of all sorts of anthropological anomalies, dismissed these strange Jews with a single word: “Backward.”

Like Jake Sully discovering the Na’vi from the inside, my prejudices melted away in the warmth of that loving Hasidic family.

Two decades later I began to investigate my Jewish roots. My spiritual journey at one point led me back to Brooklyn, where I was invited for a Shabbos meal in a Hasidic home. Like Jake Sully discovering the Na’vi from the inside, my preconceptions and prejudices melted away in the warmth of that loving Hasidic family. To them, “progress” meant spiritual progress, power was measured by self-discipline, and wisdom was more valued than wealth. Truthfully, in their midst, I felt like the primitive one.

Watching Avatar, many of us heirs of the Enlightenment, sitting in movie theaters throughout the West, underwent a similar transformation. We found ourselves rooting for the Na’vi, a people who believed in the power of prayer and clung to their ancestral traditions. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate our own preconceived notions of observant Jews and traditional Judaism?

March 6, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 25

(25) Lucas Henry, March 22, 2010 7:44 PM

Everybody that I have seen commenting on Avatar overlooks the fact that there is a very dark side in the Na'avi society. Where are the old Naavi, the sick, the weak? How many of them die trying to tame those flying beasts? If you are not strong you are a nobody in that society. Are these the values we want for ours? Besides that: A moon almost the size of Earth sustais a few thousand people. Our society sustains billions. There is no Naavi wellfare system. No care for the old, no retirement, no nursing homes. We usualy work for 35, perhaps 40 years and expect to be retired and cared for another 35 0r 40, sometimes more. No Naavi would do that. If we get shot and go to an Hospital we have much more chances of survival than going for the willow tree of the Naavi. Who are willing to change a good surgeon for the chanting shaman? I don't believe we live in paradise, but I think we have a much better world than the Naavi. We have a world with the values of Judaism, the values of Humanity, the values of the Torah. I don't change that for any paganism in any form.

(24) Yammo, March 12, 2010 5:41 PM

True, but movie is extremely hypocritical...

While the points made in the article are true, i.e. that we tend to embrace the wrong values. And yes, we can learn a lesson for it as Jews. However, you must realize that the producers used the same uber-technology and money-grabbing to bash the same ideas. What this points out is that the producers themselves aren't against materialistic values, rather they don't like other people being that way. Hypocracy, in other words. I could definitely spin this to be a pro-communist edge as well.

(23) Josh, March 11, 2010 5:11 PM


This article had to be written, so fantastic and true! It needs to be realized who the real backwards and out-of-touch with reality are, the secular "enlightened" community. Just as Haredi as the Chassidc/Haredim themselves, just with different issues (ie money, science, etc)

(22) Joe, March 10, 2010 7:57 AM

This article is appalling.

Why is this article appalling? Am I saying that aggressive militarism is good or that blind materialism is better than spirituality? G-d forbid. Am I saying that scientists should be devoid of ethics? Not at all, G-d forbid. No this article is appalling because of its underlying rejection of Jewish ideals while cloaking itself in references to high ideals. Judaism is one of the founding civilizations of all that is Western and Enlightenment values are Jewish values. While no-one should ever value materialism over people or ethics, to deny the role of progress and the love of progress that comes from Judaism is antithetical to Judaism. To deny the notion of rationalism that comes from Judaism is antithetical to Judaism. Abraham reasoned that there was Gd. When you hold truths to be "self evident" that say all people are created equal before God, you are not just talking Torah values but rational values based on using your intellect and God-given gifts to do better. Last I checked Tikkun Olam was a Jewish ideal. Last I checked, hoping for the redemption - and working to bring it about were Jewish ideals. If you want to dip into petty stereotypes of amoral scientists, then tell you what, refuse to visit your medical doctor next time you feel ill. Refuse to use your cell phone when you want to call a family member far away. Refuse to eat any food that was produced by modern agriculture. The fact is that even though science can be abused, it has saved and enriched everyone's life in ways that our ancestors could not have imagined. As to the military, if you really want to bash that, then perhaps we should lay down our arms and surrender to the Arabs. I am sure that would work well. This article was appalling.

(21) Matt M, March 9, 2010 5:23 PM

Soul-Searching is a Two-Way Street

I think that there needs to be some reconciliation between observant and the idea that even the most non-observant, secular Jew is still 100% Jewish. The observant and secular communites should be working together for tikkun olam. The ridiculous theatre played out in the Knesset between religious and secular parties drives less observant Jews and our Gentile neighbors away from the faith and community. The general openess and user-friendly nature of Aish is a wonderful example of inclusivness and unity. Lets see it actually demonstrated throughout Jewish communities worldwide.

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