2017-07-12
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is rabbi in residence of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. A resident of Sudbury, Mass., he is the author of several books, most recently, "The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition" and "Eyes Remade for Wonder."

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," directed by Ang Lee, is a fairy tale-like epic, remarked upon as much for its breathtaking scenery and balletic fencing scenes as for its plot and characters. It concerns the famous swordsman Li Mu Bai, who sets out with Shu Lien, herself a skilled warrior, to recover the ancient sword Green Destiny, which has been stolen by Jen, the wild daughter of the provincial governor. We learn about Mu Bai and Shu Lien's unrequited love, Jen's own love affair with a nomadic bandit, and Mu Bai's quest to avenge the murder of his master teacher. Rabbi Kushner sat down with Michael Kress to discuss the movie.

What do you think of the warrior culture that was at the heart of this movie?
I've never seen a kung fu movie. People who have tell me this is part of a genre. I had no idea, so I was a real innocent as a viewer. Everybody in the movie got hurt. Everyone was damaged. I was disappointed. Both of the love scenes in the movie came to nothing. I am a big boy; I can deal with unrequited love and people dying, but this seemed to go out of its way to say love doesn't get consummated.

Do you think that it's inevitable in a culture like that that everyone ended up getting hurt?
I don't know how to make sense out of this attempt to make a warrior culture transcendent and religious. I find that to be disjunctive and contradictory. I wound up thinking it's sort of like a Clint Eastwood movie or an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: These guys have a lot of weapons and they blow people up and they kill people. They're basically on the side of good, but I don't care how self-transcending and noble their cause is, they're just thugs. I felt uncomfortable trying to relate to that religiously.

The main male character, Li Mu Bai, says at the beginning, "I was meditating and came to a place of great grief and had to leave the monastery." What was he doing in the monastery? He was learning how to kill people, learning how to use weapons very effectively. That didn't make sense to me.

I was struck that at the moment when enlightenment seemed to be his, he found only despair. Do you think that's a common occurrence?
I don't think the movie is profound enough to be saying that people who are warrior-monks are spiritually crippled. I would love if it said that: That would make it a redeeming spiritual movie. I am aware that there are some Eastern traditions of fighting that do wind up transcending the simple act of fighting. But call me dumb, call me unimaginative, I don't understand why the hell you have to fight to begin with.

The sword was so important to so many people. Why do you think it's so easy to almost deify a weapon like a sword?
I am just thinking of the modern Hebrew phrase tohar neshek, which means purity of arms, that the Israelis came up with and have not been doing a consistently great job of living up to. But at least they have enough brains to know it's a good idea. I am struck that there are few gun accidents in Israel, though everyone has a gun there. Everyone hates them. People can't wait to get rid of them.

There is a Jewish spiritual tradition of a passionate, biblical detestation of weapons and weaponry. Some people refuse to use a knife to cut the challah [bread] on Friday night because it's a knife. Anything that can be made into a weapon can't be used. Judaism at any rate is fairly unequivocal about its attitude toward weapons.

Li Mu Bai says over and over that he's trying to escape the cycle of violence, to escape that lifestyle. Why do you think he has so much trouble doing that?
I don't think he's trying to escape it, because his primary goal in life is to get that angry little bitch to be his student. Don't get me started on her--she was horrible. Totally un-redeeming in every way, a woman with no understanding of her anger and the destruction she was causing in the universe. I can't figure out what anybody saw in her. I didn't like her at all. She was spoiled and angry and nasty. And she got to play too big a role, I thought, whereas the man of real wisdom and spiritual depth, Li Mu Bai, we didn't see enough of him. He didn't emerge as the dominant teacher, the guru, the rebbe.

What did you think of his relationship with Shu Lien?
I thought their faces were wonderful faces. They were deep and thoughtful and mature and spiritual. I was captivated.

Why do you think they had so much trouble admitting to and acting on their love?
They love one another, they were meant for one another, they were the perfect couple, and all they managed to do was hold hands once and then he died. Very unsatisfying.

One of the characters said something like, "When it comes to emotions, even heroes can be idiots." Do you think that's true?
What makes someone a hero is not necessarily emotional maturity.

At one point, Li Mu Bai says, "Nothing is real, it's all an illusion," and she answers by putting out her hand and saying, "My hand is real." Whom do you agree with?
I agree with her. I am not a Buddhist. As a Jew, I think this world is real, it's not to be escaped, and it's not an illusion. It's to be elevated, and that's the goal of Jewish spirituality, to take ordinary, mundane, sometimes unpleasant and ugly things, and find something holy and raise them higher, because as far as I am concerned, this world is all there is.

Do you think any characters lived up to that?
She did, when she said, "My hand is real." What they really needed was a rabbi, [someone to say:] "The two of you should go off and figure out [your relationship]. What you need to overcome is this destructive path that's keeping you from finding real fulfillment. Dummy, the reason you meditated and found sadness is that you're in love with somebody and she's not there."

The thing that struck me was that if this were not an Eastern movie, would anybody think to call it a spiritual movie? It is fascinating that the West has such an anxiety about the inferiority of its own spiritual tradition that when it's trying to talk spiritual, it imagines it must be in the East. The great lesson from watching "Crouching Tiger" was that it ain't in the East. It's a fairy tale of a Clint Eastwood movie. Take away meditation mountain and substitute it and make it a CIA camp in Virginia, and there's nothing there.

It has some of the qualities of a Reb Nachman tale. Reb Nachman of Breslov is famous for telling Kafka-esque tales that are allegories in which there is a runaway princess, and people disguised as people of the opposite gender, and there are battles and such. But this plot was so convoluted.

What did you think of the attempt to infuse the film with a mystical element, like their ability to just float around?
I don't think that was mystical, I would call that fantasy. Was the tree scene mystical? It was fantastic. I was struck that there was hardly any yelling and virtually no blood.

Would you rather have seen the blood?
It somehow meant we don't have to worry about the violence. Nobody ever gets hurt. That guy took that thing on his forehead and it was just a tiny drop of blood. The most antiseptic murders I've ever seen. Was that supposed to protect us from the obvious violence of the life paths the characters had taken? I'm still trying to decide whether I want to call the tree scene mystical or not. No, it was magical. It was fantastical.

Were there any mystical moments?
The scene at the end, where she jumps off the bridge. Giving oneself over to the awe. And some of the scenes in the dessert were mystical, in the sense of the awesome-ness of being and the tiny-ness of the human condition. But meditating isn't necessarily mystical. Being able to jump over buildings and fly around in trees is not mystical, it's magical.

Can you talk more of the ending and what you thought of it?
I was frustrated that it wasn't clear what jumping off the mountain meant. Did it mean that she made tshuva, atonement, for the damage that she caused, and now was by her life trying to bring his back? I don't know. I find the ending unsatisfying in that regard.



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