[Warning: The following review contains spoilers. If you have not seen the 1981 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” but intend to and do not wish to know how it ends, do not read this. Come back after you have seen the movie.]
As a Jewish film critic, I am often asked “What makes a film Jewish?” and if such-and-such a film could be considered Jewish. This is a question I wrestled with when I began this Jewish film site and ultimately decided to answer as broadly as possible. (See my FAQs.) A film need not have a Jewish hero to have a Jewish theme.
Yet with so many films recently (like “Sarah’s Key,” “Falling Star,” “Footnote,” “Holy Rollers,” etc.) that are overtly Jewish, deeply steeped in Jewish culture, history, and practices, I felt it unnecessary to go searching far and wide for older films which may only mention Jewish aspects in passing. So I was a little surprised when the 1981 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” showed up on the Jewish Film Blog of Rabbi Ruth Adar.
But that surprise didn’t last very long when I began to consider the film from a Jewish point of view. Although none of the characters are Jewish, the film centers on what is perhaps the most important Jewish ritual object in history—the Ark of the Covenant. We are told that the greatest enemies of the Jews, the Nazis, want to capture the Ark and use it against the Jews. And ultimately, the Jewish God comes down deus ex machina to save the hero and his girl.
Rabbi Adar wrote of her joy seeing the movie for the first time and how she realized, now, as an adult, that the film was “singing to [her] Jewish soul.” When I read that, I immediately identified with it. When I saw the film for the first time at age 14, I felt it was one of the greatest movies I had seen in my life up until that point. Although I wasn’t aware of it consciously, I concur that subconsciously it was “singing to my Jewish soul” too. I had seen plenty of nonstop action movies before, but none of them had any Jewish aspects; “Raiders” was different. It highlighted something of Jewish history that had immense value and was greatly respected by the non-Jewish world. It showed a Jewish God that protects His treasures and destroys the enemies of the Jews. It was the first movie I saw that made me feel proud to be Jewish. “My people made that Ark,” I remember thinking to myself.
There were many great summer blockbusters of my youth—“Star Wars,” “Superman,” “E.T.”—all with the same heart-pounding chases, fights, explosions—but “Raiders” was the one that stayed with me into my adulthood. I once wrote a Devar Torah which referenced the film extensively. And I remember commenting to friends, with whom I watched the movie, that it was appropriate for an Americanized-Jewish filmmaker like Steven Spielberg to express his Judaism in this fashion.
Later, when Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” came out and took a much more sophisticated look at the Jewish-Nazi conflict, I recognized that the Spielberg from “Raiders” had grown up. I was pleased to see, as an adult, how a young Spielberg’s Jewish anti-Nazi fantasies evolved into a mature understanding of Jewish suffering and redemption.
So I confess I was quite disappointed the other day to discover someone on the internet wrote that they considered “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to be an anti-Semitic film because Jews were absent as characters and no consideration was given to returning the Ark to the Jewish people. The confounded critic then went on to condemn the God which is presented by the film for destroying a handful of Nazi who took His Ark, but did nothing to stop the genocide of the Jewish people in the Holocaust.
On the one hand, I was glad to see, all these years later, that this beloved film of my youth can still evoke passionate Jewish response. On the other, I was quite dismayed to see how wrongly someone can misinterpret a movie.
I was therefore forced to explain why it is false reasoning to connect the God of this film, who uses his supernatural powers to save the Ark, Indy, and Marion in 1936, with a real God who remains silent during the early 1940s. Many great theologians have pondered long and hard about why God did not intervene supernaturally during the Holocaust, but this film is not at all an attempt to deal with that question.
I also pointed out that the God of “Raiders” doesn’t return the Ark to the Jewish people for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it would not be historically accurate. Neither, in 1936, is there a Jewish state nor a rebuilt Temple in which to place it. I think it’s fair to assume that the God of the movie wants to keep the Ark hidden. If it cannot be buried in an Egyptian city, then it can be lost and forgotten amidst a huge pile of government bureaucracy deep inside a giant warehouse.
It may be fun to speculate as to God’s reasons. Perhaps He feels the Jewish people are not yet ready for the Ark. Perhaps He feels that the religion has evolved beyond the point where the people need an Ark. But these interesting religious issues are beyond the scope of the film which really was just intended to be a fun ride with a slight nod to Jewish history. I find that more than satisfactory.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was great as a kid and it’s still enjoyable as an adult. So now, 31 years after its release, excitement builds again because “Raiders” will return to the big screen next month. You can be sure that I, and my Jewish soul, will be there. Cheering Indy, booing the Nazis, gaping over the Ark, and recalling fond, more innocent, childhood emotions from long before “Schindler’s List” forced me to confront the realities of the Holocaust.
For both films, Steven Spielberg, I thank you.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” will be re-released on IMAX screens across the US for one week, beginning September 7. It will be released on Blu-ray disc on September 18.