When I saw ‘The Shape of Water,’ this year’s Oscar winner, and winner of the Golden Globe awards, I was at first repulsed but then intrigued, both with the film and its director Guillermo Del Toro. On both occasions, he spoke so eloquently about so many things- I especially recall his saying, ‘Thank G-d for monsters. They show us our failures’. Soon after, I found myself, as is my wont, searching for both personal and Torah connections with this at once tough and tender film.
I could relate especially to the mute cleaning lady and the grunting aqua creature and their mutual silent yearnings. My father was mute and my mother was handicapped. After a miracle birth, I felt like a guilt ridden survivor. When going places with my parents I also carried within me an inner beast of shame which I tried to suppress. Still, it continued to howl beneath the surface of my awareness. In later years, with the help of Torah concepts and psychological self-reflection, I am learning to face, accept, and integrate my inner monsters. In the words of another of Del Toro’s memorable quotes: ‘What we don’t speak about controls us.’
In connection with the title ‘The Shape of Water,’ I came across a verse in Genesis, ‘And G-d said: ‘Let the waters swarm with throngs of living creatures’….The Midrash comments, ‘In human practice, a mortal king draws a figure on dry land, but the Blessed Holy One created figures in water, as it said, ‘And G-d said: ‘Let the waters swarm….’ This image coveys both the fluidity of life, the denizens that lurk beneath the surface, and the creative potential therein. In psychological terms, these waters and their inhabitants might be what moderns refer to as the subconscious, a ‘locale’ where, a la Freud, many negative feelings that seem quite beastly, can be both suppressed and sublimated.
‘Out of your defects come your virtues,’ a phrase by Del Toro, could come straight out of Hasidic writings. In Chabad terms, we all have a nefesh ha’behamit, an animal soul that left on its own, without guidance or direction, can wreak havoc on itself as well as the world around. But with proper engagement, this animal soul can take us to places that even our divine soul, our nefesh Elokit, cannot reach. Mystical teachings point out that a Hebrew word for animal=Chaya, is the same as a Hebrew word for angels= Chayot. Much like in the film ‘The Shape of Water,’ a monster can be a higher being in disguise- or conversely, a higher being who may be perceived as a monster, because it seems to be dangerous or uncontrollable. The humanoid in this movie was considered a god in the Amazons, but when brought to the US was regarded as a dangerous monster by many, and a being of wonder and empathy by few.
In Judaism, even the most exalted figures are often disparaged. I can’t help relating the aqua man to Moses, in the imagery of both the written and the oral Torah. The sages describe baby Moshe as being full of light. Also he gets his name Moshe because he was pulled from the water by the compassionate daughter of Pharaoh himself. But Moshe also has a flaw; until much later in life, he cannot speak well. The rabbis comment that even in his elder years, when his leadership was well established, some people grumbled to him many times and even complained about him. As Rashi explains further on in the Torah, ‘when Moshe left his tent early, some said that he must have quarreled with his wife; when he left late, they speculated that he must have been plotting against them.’ As Del Toro also quipped, ‘Intolerance is a very fine art.’
In his acceptance speech, Del Toro spoke about the power of art to ‘erase the lines in the sand.’ His film was all about, in his words, ‘including invisible people’ and ‘giving a voice to those who cannot speak.’ It focused on seeing interconnections in the world and between people. In Judaism too ‘There but for the grace of G-d go I’, is not just an abstraction. It expresses the idea that not only are we all interrelated, but we all contain fragments of each other- both in our common features and in what makes us unique. In ‘The Shape of Water,’ the spectrum of the ‘good guys vs the bad guys,’ is aligned with those who want to destroy the creature vs those who want to rescue him. As is typical in film stories, there is at least one person who goes from seeing the creature as, to use Buber’s phrase, a ‘thou’ rather than an ‘it’. Sadly, the character in the hostile world of this film, just as happens to the creature who is called ‘an asset’ is hunted down for his compassion.
The ‘asset’ can survive only in water and with a heavy dose of salt. And he was saved only by the kindness of a woman. Both these elements are laden with Torah imagery. Salt is considered a symbol to extract sparks of holiness from material elements, and of course water represents power of purification. I remind myself of the sacred washing basin- the one vessel in the Sanctuary whose copper substance came from the mirrors of the women who succeeded in coaxing their husbands to continue to live with them and reproduce. Those children became the generation of the Exodus. At first, Moshe rejected the women’s gifts, feeling that its origin was too sensual. But G-d said, ‘these are more beloved than all.’
In the Tabernacle, this copper basin stood in the front of the entrance to the hallowed golden vessels. The priests were not permitted to enter the sanctuary unless they first washed and purified their hands and feet from the water in this basin… Since in the Temple service, they were about to elevate every type of material element to a divine source, the priests needed to first sanctify themselves both in body and soul. Whenever they washed, they could gaze at the copper mirrors and could literally and figuratively reflect on their lives and purposes.
Aviva Zornberg looks very closely at the many meanings of the mirror reflections. To summarize one of her main observations: In Egypt, the women’s mirrors inspired openness to a future of many possibilities, all expressing life and creativity. The men on the other hand, had been trapped in their hopeless assumptions, that their present lives, or lack thereof, would remain stuck and static. Perhaps this is why the sages emphasize, ‘For the sake of Jewish women, we were redeemed from Egypt, and for the sake of righteous women, the future redemption will occur.’
The imagery of the water inside the copper basin was also very feminine. In the desert, the Israelite water supply which was necessary both for drinking and for ritual immersion from impurity, came from the well of Miriam. Miriam was the prophetess who predicted the redemption. Thus the water in the desert, like the water in the film, was a medium of both life and liberation. In the film, a woman is the one who at risk to her own life, tries to rescue the humanoid.
Furthermore, water is a primary equalizer. When I was a teen studying Torah wisdom, I came across a powerful image. It was a parable explaining the difference between of land vs water inhabitants. The latter are in a way closer to divinity because the water surrounding them represents the closeness of divine energy. Land creatures on the other hand, are like dry sand, where each particle seems separate because it lacks the flow of connective liquid. Kabbalists explain that the original flood waters were meant to be outpourings of divine wisdom. However because of the corruption of human recipients, those waters turned into a kind of acid rain.
Thus the prophetic promise of the future is that the world will be filled with divine wisdom as water covers the sea. This wisdom will allow in a holy way what Del Toro talked about art helping ‘to erase the lines in the sand.’ He did this in the film by highlighting the poison of excluding those who seem different than ‘normal.’ In one of his speeches, Del Toro said ‘the ability to tell stories helps us empathize with those who are nothing like us.’ If in society human value is measured by power, wealth, productivity, or other active contributions to social advancement, then we are in trouble. Ideas of Euthanasia on both ends of the life-death spectrum will, G-d forbid, be the outcome. Respect for life is about inclusion. I also found it interesting that the central location in Shape of Water, for the heroine’s space is on top of a theatre featuring ‘The Book of Ruth.’ This is obviously not a random choice for a biblical book whose major theme is accepting the stranger.
The strangers can be even members of our own families. My youthful shame at judging my parents by their external personas still embarrasses me to think about. On an NPR interview with Doug Jones, who played ‘the asset,’ in Shape of Water, the interviewer asked him about the challenge of filming while wearing such intricate and constricting costumes and makeup. Yes, Jones noted, it was indeed difficult to eat or even go to the bathroom; he had to limit his water intake throughout the shooting times. I am reminded of a teaching, actually based on a verse from the Book of Ruth, where a transaction takes place through the removal of a shoe.
The mystics tell us that the relationship of a body to a soul is like the relationship of a shoe to its body. The soul feels extremely confined in its physical garment and needs to work really hard to function, not against the body, but with it. Even the Israelites at Sinai thought they could experience contact with G-d in a sleeping state, where the soul is somewhat released from the body. Along this line, prophets were called ‘meshuga’ crazy ones, in Tanach. They had to let go of their physical forms in order to be open to prophecy, but were then subject to ridicule by others. As I mentioned, and as Del Toro points out to us, heroes are often the ones most maligned.
Both my mother and father came to this country with their handicap. If they had been rejected at Elis Island, I would not have been born. Each one my parents on separate transports came across the oceans, and disembarked miraculously since at the time the USA had a handicap quota. My mother ‘happened’ to have been born in the states with her Cerebral Palsy. Though my grandfather went back to Russia after her birth, when she returned to the states, she had to be let in because she was a citizen. My father on a separate voyage, was refused permission to get off the ship, until all the passengers refused to go ashore without him! A reminder that this country, like my own life, was birthed by ‘strangers.’
One reason I see so much potential in the best of social media is a gift to downplay the importance of material values, and to raise consciousness for the intangibles that make life so much more worthwhile. Of course, from my perspective, the latter is rooted in an identification and desire to relate to the divine Source of all Being. As a child, I think I went vertical looking for G-d because my horizontal world was not very pleasant. From this outlook too, ‘The Shape of Water‘ touched my heart.
At the end, Del Toro has the character Giles quoting from an Afghani poet: “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love. It humbles my heart. For You are everywhere.” For me personally, my search for G-d began with relating to ‘the monsters’ in my life. I gradually came to realize that, as the Baal Shem Tov taught, the flaws we see in others are often rooted in our own internal flaws. To reiterate Del Toro’s powerful mantra: ‘Thank G-d for monsters; they help us to see our own failings.’ Just as we hopefully can view our inner lacks with compassion and support, so may we be open to seeing and accepting both the flaws and the grandeur of all living beings, and come to recognize a Creator beyond human limitations.
If you are interested in spiritual aspects of films, please consider attending the wonderful and thought provoking array of films at the Boulder Jewish Film Festival this year. A beautiful feature of this festival is something you can’t get by just attending a movie- it is the opportunity to comment and hear talk back before and after each film. Hope to see you there!