The Jewishness of Jaws

I took full advantage of Memorial Day to create and foster unity within my family. In typical American tradition, I decided the best opportunity to build character was an afternoon and night at the movies. To my delight, two films seemed to catch my interest. Neither title was new to me but for my kids it would be another occasion for growth. We have just finished spending the summer catching my teenagers up on the best that Hollywood has to offer. From Alfred Hitchcock to Richard Donner, I intend to expose my kids to the best of stories before they become independent adults of their own. For this afternoon a double header was in order. The first would be Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and the second the 1958 sci-fi horror “The Blob”. While one is not quite like the other, it was an occasion for me to sit and analyze two films that I have watched many times before. While “The Blob” was pure fun for us and worth a deeper dive and discussion, I was blindsided on this showing of Jaws. I was more than just awestruck over the flow of the film or the fun score by John Williams, this time around I was watching something deeper and different.

There is something incredible about Spielberg’s early work. Films like “Duel” and “The Sugarland Express” show the energy of the director’s youth combined with a vision of the world from a new generation on the rise. I am not trained or an authority on film but only watch from a layperson’s informed perspective. However, as a trained theologian and Christian apologist, I am very sensitive to presuppositions that make up our big myths or storylines that help us make sense of the world we experience. I take very seriously Paul’s charge to “take every thought captive for Christ” which for me is more of a pleasure than a drudgery when analyzing cultural art. Considering I have seen Jaws many times before, I watched with a keen eye for anything good and true. What I found out as the credit rolled this time around was that Jaws might be the most Jewish movie he has ever made for film. Now before someone comments that “Munich” or “Schindler’s List” certainly would take that award let me make my case.

For my doctorate, I looked at the importance of Jewish wisdom literature on the life of the mind. As someone informed from the Western European tradition, I have placed a huge emphasis on reason and knowledge. Learning and arguing proofs is the mainstay for most classically trained apologist in my world. However, in Jewish tradition, I found that formation and virtue were just as important to the learning process. The Jewish wisdom tradition of Proverbs states at its onset that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all understanding. So “being” a particular someone is as important as learning something new; they both go hand in hand. So, what does this mean for Jaws and my argument that its grounded in Jewish tradition? From the beginning of the first act the viewer is immersed in Old Testament imagery. The town of Amity itself plays a crucial role in the film. Amity means friendship which calls up associations with the Hebrew concept of shalom. This seaside town, full of goodwill, functions to create space for outsiders to come, be free and have fun. The first scene we see as observers is a group of people around a fire on a beach. Everything is peace filled and enjoyable and the backdrop is a quiet still moonlit beach. But from the first of the film, the town’s unity and peace is disrupted by the chaos of the sea. A sea monster has its sights fixed on a new land it claims as its own. The shark turns peace into a state of un-creation. Unity is destroyed by a maelstrom and a terror created by nature herself. The town of Amity can longer function as it is intended. Every aspect of life is threatened by the uncontrolled beast of the sea. The leviathan had been roused up and the questions found in Job were also asked by the towns people, “Who shall come within the jaws? Who can open the doors of his face? Around his teeth is terror.” (Job 41)

Spielberg masterfully directed Peter Benchley’s book and captured many timeless and universal motifs. But an even greater insight came when I looked deeper into how the characters were used in the last half of the film. Jewish tradition promotes virtue as a handmaiden to pedagogy. A person’s being is intimately related to knowledge. In my pursuit of looking at a Biblical model for apologetics, I found that knowledge and wisdom were intrinsically linked with character. As each of these related to each other in unity then the center where each circle met was true understanding. Understanding is not just knowing something propositionally. Understanding from a Jewish standpoint in the Old Testament is where every aspect of who you are is aligned with the world as it was created by God. Knowledge is the propositional data points that we learn, and wisdom is the working of that knowledge in the world in a way that helps a person flourish. Character from this viewpoint is the very thing that forms a person on how to use knowledge with wisdom. In Jaws we see each three of these things in the roles of Chief Brody, Quint, and Matt Hooper. For Chief Brody we get a hint that he found himself in Amity after years of struggle as a police officer. All he desired from Amity was a place of peace for himself and his family. He was a man of character and principle and spent the first part of the movie trying to figure out how to do the right thing. In doing so he reached out to Matt Hooper, who was an Oceanographer, who had a childlike fascination with sharks. Matt spends most of the film respecting science and nature and at one point he calls the great white shark “darling” noting his almost misguided affections. Chief Brody lacked knowledge of how to defeat the great-white so in humility, he seeks out knowledge. But unlike Hooper, he has more skin in the game because his livelihood and family are in peril and at stake. His family is in the very midst of the chaos caused by the beast in the waters. While Hooper had the education and the means (he was from wealth) to find the shark his courage faded as he learned more about the shark’s power. Then there is Quint the fisherman, who with age and experience, had the wisdom to work in the waters. He knew the predator innately from his experiences with them as a sailor on the USS Indianapolis and from his time as a fisherman. He names the boat “The Orca” which is the only natural predator to the great white shark. If there was someone in that town that could defeat the monster, it would seem to be him. Can you see where I am going? In the ship on the dangerous chaotic sea are the only three things that can bring peace and unity: knowledge, wisdom, and character. However, when the time came to bring peace, it wasn’t Hooper. Despite his vast and profound knowledge of all things in the ocean when finally faced with the shark he fled for safety. Quint (wisdom) met his end after Hooper (knowledge) fled. You cannot have one without the other and neither are hallmarks of true shalom. However, Brody has something different. In the scene before he boarded the Orca, his wife pleaded with him to stay, but he knew he had to defend his way of life and family. He faced the sea and his fears with courage. On the boat he was the lowest man in terms of order and priority. He threw smelly chum in the water while Quint led, and Hooper piloted. Character and its reliance on humility is in full view here in this part of the movie. Brody relied on Hooper’s knowledge and Quint’s wisdom while in constant fear of the chaos around him. He was faced with drowning and the possibility of being consumed by the shark, but Brody inevitably destroyed chaos. It wasn’t the wisdom of experience or the knowledge and curiosity of the scientist that saved the day. The person that fought for something bigger than himself triumphed. The person that dedicated himself to others and showed the moral fortitude to face fear and chaos brought shalom back to the Amity.

Leave a Comment