The Muppets and Israel: Community and Responsibility
December 13, 2011 at 1:20 am, by Jonah Rank
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.
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.
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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