The Muppets and Israel: Community and Responsibility

December 13, 2011 at 1:20 am, by

Since it was released in Israel on Thursday, seeing The Muppets on Thursday evening means I’m one of the first people in the country who got to see it!

But, that’s not so important…

Anyway, last week, TV personality Eric Bolling accused screenwriters Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, along with director James Bobin, of sneaking communist values into the latest installment of the Muppet films.

The oil-greedy villain Tex Richman (played by Chris Cooper), like rich oil men in Texas, is rich and likes to dig for oil, but that’s where the film’s satire on capitalism ends.

If there’s truly some ideology behind the film, then it’s a philosophy that values communal responsibility–but not necessarily communism.

WARNING: Spoilers MIGHT ensue.

In need of $10,000,000 in order to save Hollywood’s Muppets Studio from demolition, the Muppets approach despair towards the end of the film. Kermit the Frog announces that, though the Muppets have done absolutely everything they can to raise this money, they’ll never reach that goal.

But, to Kermit, this is not a failure. He says that the Muppets succeeded in their venture because they all worked together to save the studio. Whether or not the studio was saved is of no import. The intense efforts of the Muppets’ collaboration—their acting out of a sense of responsibility to each other—was all that mattered in the end.

Despite this bold statement, the Muppets did not in fact act alone. They got by with a little help from their friends Gary (a man played by Jason Segel) and Walter (a Muppet voiced by Peter Linz).

Gary and Walter are brothers who came to Hollywood with different purposes: Gary travels to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Mary (played by Amy Adams), celebrating their 10-year anniversary; Walter goes to L.A. to meet the Muppets.

Gary and Walter are brothers of different skin-types (Gary is of human skin, and Walter is of fabric), but they come together to spearhead the Muppets’ mission of saving the old studio. Yet, Gary—concerned that he’s falling out of touch with Mary—and Walter—worrying that he’s a Muppet without talent—express their identity crisis (in a musical number). In the chorus of “Man or Muppet” (written by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords), each brother asks “Am I a man or am I a Muppet?”

Reflecting on the poignancy of Kermit’s comment on communal responsibility, and reflecting on the silliness of the song, I am reminded of a few teachings that are essential to my Jewish living.

First, I am reminded of the principle kol yisra’el arevim zeh bazzeh—”all of the people Israel is responsible for one another “(Babylonian Talmud, Shevu’ot 39a). Though this is a nice teaching about Jews’ responsibility towards each other, where does the rest of the world come into the picture?

Well, let’s backtrack.

The most intriguing definition of “the people Israel” I’ve ever heard comes from Rabbi Art Green. (He’s got a PhD in Jewish thought, mysticism, and cool things like that.) Green examines the Biblical passage of Genesis 32:29, where an angelic man with whom the patriarch Jacob wrestles bestows the name Yisra’el (“Israel”) upon the forefather. Since the verse says that “Yisra’el” means “one who wrestles with God,” Green says that all people who struggle with God are Yisra’el—a member of the people Israel.

If a Christian questions a God who does not prevent the death of a baby, is that Christian not Yisra’el—one of those people who struggle with God? So too, couldn’t a Muslim submitting to a God in an unjust universe become a member of Yisra’el? All the more so, who doesn’t wrestle with the notion of God?

Well, before we dig too deep into this question, let’s take another look at the Muppets.

Walter looks like a Muppet (“half-marionette, half-puppet). But, to Walter, looking like a Muppet ain’t enough. Being a Muppet is about being an entertainer. Because he’s not sure he can entertain, Walter’s not sure if he’s a Muppet.

At the other end of the identity spectrum, Kermit’s former life as an entertainer has been forgotten by the youth of 2011. So, upon being greeted by one such younging, the Frog is asked, “Are you one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” Desperately seeking acceptance from the general public, Kermit enthusiastically responds, “Yes, I am!”

While Kermit is ready to accept Walter as a Muppet, Kermit lives in a world that does not remember how to accept Kermit himself as a Muppet.

And, what about Gary? Is he a man or a Muppet?

All the assistance provided by his human hands earns Gary great respect among the Muppets. His acceptance among them makes him—if not a Muppet—certainly a uniquely close friend to the Muppets. But perhaps he is nothing more than a close friend.

In the same vein, compelling as Art Green’s interpretation of Yisra’el might be, his definition is not accepted by all Jews. (You know what they say: it ain’t easy bein’ Art Green.)

Uncomfortable with broadening the definition of “yisra’el” too much, yet seeking inclusive language, Rabbi Stuart Kelman is just one of a number of rabbis who speak of “kerovey yisra’el” (“those close to Israel” or “relatives of Israel”)—those who are not Jewish yet are intimately close with Jews: relatives, partners, and the like.

But, maybe the names don’t matter that much anyway.

If Green thinks the kerovey yisra’el actually are yisra’el, and if Kelman thinks that some of yisra’el are only kerovey yisra’el, maybe the names just make things complicated. Maybe it’s just the spirit behind those principles of peoplehood that matter.

When we want to include non-Jews who live on the edge of Jewish peoplehood, “Kol yisra’el arevin zeh bazzeh” doesn’t mean that Jews are responsible only for Jews; we mean to include the broader yisra’el: kerovey yisra’el.

So, when it comes to the Muppets, that same principle applies.

Walter was not known until recently. But because he formed a bond with the Muppets, he became accepted as a Muppet. And, while it’s not clear if Gary is a Muppet—after all, he is a man—his actions prove that he feels as responsible towards the Muppets as as they do to one another.

I assume that nobody reading this is a Muppet, but I’m guessing everyone reading this is a member of yisra’el—or one of the kerovey yisra’el.

Kermit, Gary, Walter, and the whole Muppet gang teach us that it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves: yisra’el, kerovey yisra’el, Jews, gentiles; Muppets, men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whatever. When we feel responsibility towards each other, we feel united. When we become united, we become responsible towards one another.

Kol yisra’el arevim zeh bazzeh.

You don’t have to choose where you stand, and it doesn’t matter what you call yourself.

If you feel responsibility towards your kin, if you feel responsibility towards your friends, and if you can give the best of your energy to the people you value the most, you are not a failure. You’re one of the people.

And, that feeling of belonging doesn’t make you a communist.

It makes you responsible.

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6 Comments So Far

  1. Rabbi Art Green: not my favorite
    Rabbi Rafi Rank: one of my favorites
    Almost-Rabbi Jonah Rank: right up there with the good thinkers!!
    Keep up the thoughtful and insightful comments.

    Betty Ann, December 13, 2011 at 7:53 am #
  2. Thanks Betty Ann for all of the kind words!

    I’d be curious to hear some time your thoughts on Rabbi Green.

    Hope all’s well!

    Jonah Rank, December 13, 2011 at 8:13 am #
  3. I would like to quote Rabbi Jan Katzew, who said to a group of educators who were discussing the issue of inclusiveness – if there are no boundaries at all then there is no group. In order for a group to exist there must be some way of defining what or who is in and what or who is out. How does this get treated by Rabbi Art Green? No one is suggesting that you must be a Jew to care about God or about others, but is there not a border that makes you part of that group called Jew? or not part?

    Betty Ann, January 4, 2012 at 8:05 pm #
  4. Betty Ann, I’m sorry for the delay in my reply to you.

    I myself am still reading Radical Judaism. (My first encounter with Green’s teachings was a lecture.) I’m not (yet) sure how he limits his definition of the Jewish people.

    As far as I see it though: Judaism is a very rich language where really similar words have different meanings.

    For example, we know that Abram and Abraham were the same person pretty much. But, the rabbis said that it is a transgression for us to call Abraham “Abram” now because God says “your name shall be Abraham,” as if this were a command. Even though Abram and Abraham are the same person, one is a transgressive identity (Abram), and one is a sanctified being (Abraham).

    Now, to give an even more precise example, you might be familiar with the term (“עכו”ם” (“עובדי כוכבים ומזלות,” (“akum” / “ovedey kokhavim umazzalot“), meaning “those who worship stars and constellations.” Technically, there is no reason that a Muslim would fall under this category, and–according to a lot of reasonable people–no reason Christians should either. Yet, akum is a word often used in Rabbinic literature to refer to any non-Jew; Christian censors rarely wanted to see terms for non-Jews that spoke ill of Christians. גוי (goy, “nation”), מין (min, “heretic”), and other words have often been replaced by, and confused with akum–even though not all heretics worship stars, not all foreigners worship stars, and not all heretics are foreigners. (A side note, and perhaps where things get interesting: Because not all heretics are foreigners to “the people Israel” and are not worshipers of stars, perhaps Christians and Muslims are okay for Jews to marry according to the earliest Talmudic rulings; our language has become so imprecise that this is now a tough call to make though. This point has been made a few times by one of my professors.)

    So, you might see where I’m going with this. “The people Israel” and “the Jewish people” also sound very similar, but I imagine that they can (and maybe must?) remain distinct. I am more inclined to say that a Christian could be a member of that broad category of Israel than to say a Christian is a Jew. (And I don’t imagine most Christians want to be counted as Jews.) Being a Jew, to me, means–at the very least, but in the most practical sense–you count in a minyan when we need 10 Jews in synagogue. Where I stand today, I can’t justify counting a Christian in a minyan. A Christian may be a member of Israel, but the language with which a Christian communicates with God is a different dialect, and often a different language, from the Jewish language of prayer.

    So, I think about terms that might describe me as a devout person: “thoughtful,” “ethical,” “passionate,” “artistic,” “poetic,” “religious,” “monotheistic,” “panentheistic,” “a member of the people Israel,” “Jewish,” “liberal Jew,” “heterodox Jew,” “Conservative Jew…” Some of these terms come to include a broad category of people, and some of these terms only include a select few.

    Betty Ann, I’m thinking the next question is: when we want to count certain people as Jewish, what is our goal? Are we trying to say that a Chabadnik who believes “The Rebbe” to be the Messiah is not a Jew? Are we trying to say that all monotheists are Halakhically okay for Jews to marry? Are we declaring not-Jewish that daughter of a Jewish father and a Jainist mother is not Jewish? What makes us want to call one person a Jew and not the other?

    Jonah Rank, January 11, 2012 at 6:57 am #
  5. Very interesting analysis of a fun movie.

    I think that the Moopets also raise an interesting question about authenticity vs. pandering to what we think of as ‘modern’ and ‘trendy’. The muppets realise that they are who they are – genuinely and without falsehood. Gonzo destroys his business, Miss Piggy leaves Paris. The Moopets however are just trying to cash in, ride the wave of modern trends. The moopets are forgotten, the muppets rise again – authenticity defeats falsehood.

    Roni, January 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm #
  6. Roni, I like what you’re saying! I hadn’t focused on the theme of authenticity vs. falsehood while watching the film but perhaps next time around I will? Do you feel that authenticity versus falsehood is a Jewish theme? Or is the case even that, in Judaism, authenticity defeats falsehood? I’m thinking of those stories in Genesis now where the non-eldest son gets the blessing that was supposed to be given to the eldest son… I think we’re in a tricky tradition, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts…

    Jonah Rank, January 11, 2012 at 7:01 am #
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