If there’s one thing that has annoyed me about some of the debate around Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, it has been the persistent assumption — on both sides — that the film was made either for Christians or against Christians. Some people dismiss the film because they think the studio wanted to pander to the Christian market, while others think the film was made to subvert the beliefs of Christians. Rarely does anyone take a step back and say, “Hey, these filmmakers are Jewish, and the story of Noah comes from the Jewish scriptures. I wonder what Jewish audience members make of this film?”
So I am grateful for stories like this one in the Jewish Standard. Written by Eric Goldman, a professor of cinema at Yeshiva University, it looks at how Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel consulted with various rabbis and other Jewish leaders, inviting them to the set and hosting a screening of the film for them:
It is easy to think back to a time, not too long ago, when filmmakers, especially Jewish ones, shied away from a discussion of anything Jewish that might be apparent in their work. And so it was a special moment when I joined seven rabbis at a special screening of “Noah” in New York two weeks ago. The rabbis represented several Jewish organizations and a few Manhattan synagogues, and the group was invited not only to screen “Noah” but to chat with director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel afterward.
Such opportunities are singular, as most directors who tackle Jewish or biblical themes rarely open themselves up to questioning or even encourage discussion of their work with Jewish authorities. This was different. It seemed that both Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel had seen their creation of “Noah” as an exercise in Jewish learning, a process that began years ago when a teenaged Mr. Aronofsky wrote a poem about Noah for a class assignment.
My first contact with the film project began a year ago, when I was invited to Brooklyn, along with a handful of Jewish educators, to begin a conversation with the filmmakers about their story and to visit the set, a magnificent four-story recreation in a Williamsburg armory, of Noah’s Ark, envisioned and built by Mark Friedberg. (Mr. Friedberg, kvelling, joined us for the Manhattan screening.) Mr. Aronofsky had called us in to get feedback on his interpretation of the Noah story. He explained that he and Mr. Handel had done extensive text study, culling from a variety of Jewish sources, including the Zohar. Now, a year later, he assembled this interdenominational group of rabbis to screen the movie and provide feedback. Their response was quite positive. The rabbis questioned the writers on a variety of issues and story points, asking how they had come up with their interpretations of text. They were pleased to note that these readings of the fixed Genesis text had some basis. Mr. Aronofsky was happy to refer to the film as his and Mr. Handel’s midrash on the Noah story. . . .
Mr. Aronofsky was proud to describe his Jewish upbringing and share with us how important it was for him to make this motion picture. As a youth, he had planned to backpack across Europe, beginning in Israel, where he volunteered on a kibbutz. His expectations for helping Israeli agriculture were dashed when he found himself on an assembly line at the kibbutz’s plastic factory. In an online interview on his website, aronofsky.net, he noted, “So I ran away after two days. And if you have no money and you’re walking around the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a backpack, you get brought into religious sects that introduce you to mysticism, that show you the beauty and magic of religion, to bring you back into the fold.” . . .
In our post-screening discussion, Mr. Aronofsky told us that he regretted calling Noah’s protectors “Watchers” rather than “Nephilim,” the term used in Genesis 6:4. “We thought it was too esoteric a term, but it is not,” he said. . . .
So how have Jewish film critics responded to the film?
J. Hoberman, writing for Tablet (“A New Read on Jewish Life”), calls Noah “the most Jewish biblical blockbuster ever made,” though he also says the film “more closely resembles an obscure Viking saga than a mythic tale from the Fertile Crescent: Nordic gloom trumps Middle Eastern mishegas.” He adds:
There are rabbinical commentaries that maintain that the ark was a place of enforced chastity. Noah forbade all sexual activity as inappropriate to the awesome occasion of the world destruction. (It was Ham’s violation of this edict that, according to some, resulted in the punishment of his descendants being turned black.) Aronofsky’s Noah has an even more fanatical motive. Fixated on the notion that, once the animals are saved, “mankind must end,” he wants to do away with human procreation altogether and forever—and thus freaks out when confronted with an unexpected pregnancy.
Here we have Noah’s key theological innovation. For some Christian fundamentalists, Noah prefigures Jesus Christ as a savior who dies and is resurrected. (In this sense, the Flood can be seen as an extreme form of baptism in which the world’s sins are washed away.) It’s worth noting that Noahides, meaning children of Noah, is a Talmudic synonym for gentile. Aronofsky’s Noah is something else. He is recognizably Hollywood, with something of the hardness John Wayne displayed in The Searchers toward his Commanche-defiled niece and more than a bit of James Mason’s cortisone-induced mania in Bigger Than Life: “God spared Isaac but GOD WAS WRONG!!!” But he is also scarily Old Testament. The hero of Noah prefigures Abraham in that, however guilt-racked, he is prepared to slaughter an innocent child to demonstrate his fealty to God. Impossibly stubborn, his neurosis fueled by sexual competition, this Noah is not a savior but an all-too-human punitive patriarch.
Ezra Glinter of The Jewish Daily Forward writes that the film “doesn’t go far enough” in exploring the Jewish traditions that have grown up around this story:
In fact, Aronofsky and his fellow screenwriter, Ari Handel, aren’t as far afield as some might think. Though Jewish sources tend to downplay the mystical implications of the text, with most medieval commentators following the Midrash in explaining that the “Sons of the Elohim” were powerful people, not angels, other documents provide a more colorful picture. The Watchers, in particular, can be traced to 1 Enoch, an apocryphal text dating to about the 2nd century B.C.E., whose only complete copy survives in the Ethiopian language of Ge’ez.
“Noah” doesn’t follow that book exactly either — in Enoch the fallen angels are far more malicious than the movie’s stone-encrusted Watchers, and Enoch describes Noah himself as a kind of magical albino, not the gray bearded patriarch embodied by Crowe. But the problem with “Noah” isn’t its departure from scriptural sources — it’s that it doesn’t go far enough.
Indeed, for anyone looking to adapt the skeletal narrative of Bible, or even the hallucinatory story of Enoch, the first order of business might be to imagine what a degenerate human society would look like, 10 generations after creation. In “Many Waters,” for example, a Christian-inflected telling of the story by Madeleine L’Engle, Noah and his family are good-hearted desert-dwellers whose oasis community slips into anarchy when its less upstanding members undermine the social contract through theft and violence.
Aronofsky, in contrast, never tries to show what normal human life might have been like in antediluvian times. . . .
He also makes this worthwhile point regarding the film’s world-building:
It’s also never clear what Noah and his family eat, how they make clothes or tools, and what they do when they’re not teaming up with the Watchers to build an ark. These may be small details, but omitting them leaves the movie untethered to any kind of reality, especially in an apocalyptic scenario where it’s the details that are often the most terrifying.
Jay Michaelson, also writing in the Forward, says “Evangelical Christians Are Right To Be Angry” about the film because Aronofsky’s take on the story “is absolutely in accord with Jewish traditions, and absolutely opposed to Christian ones”:
Aronofsky’s Noah is a zealot. He obeys God too much, even to the point of threatening to kill his own family in order to extinguish the human race. He is troubled by the deaths of innocent people, but does not intervene to save them. For the rabbis, this renders him “righteous for his age” but not more than that: unlike Abraham, who argued to save the lives of the wicked, Noah just follows orders.
For Aronofsky, “Noah” is yet another obsessive in line with the heroes of “Pi,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “The Fountain.” I was worried, going into “Noah,” that this would be the genius selling out. But I was wrong: this is the genius projecting his obsession with obsession onto his largest screen ever.
In Christian tradition, however, Noah is a saint. He remains righteous amid a wicked society – just as early Christians did in Rome. He has absolute faith in God – just like Christians are called to possess. He is, in short, a paragon of virtue, quite unlike Russell Crowe’s complicated antihero.
“Noah,” then, is a film that fundamentalist Christians are right to abhor. It is midrashic, magical, and radical. Its characters are deeply flawed and deeply complicated. It questions the meaning of faith. It is, in the best senses of the word, quintessentially Jewish.
Finally, Menachem Wecker, who writes the Iconia blog for the Houston Chronicle, has quite a few problems with the film, and also makes some interesting associations:
There are some other interesting decisions made in the film, which seem to come from a Catholic perspective. An Edenic relic, which is extra-biblical, surfaces in the form of a skin, which seemingly derives from the original serpent. Noah wraps the skin around his arm in a manner that is reminiscent of Jewish phylacteries. The ways the cameras focus on the doves also seems to evoke their symbolism of the Holy Spirit.
Names play their own confusing role in the film. One of the names — I think it was Lemech, Noah’s dad — is pronounced with a proper Hebrew chet, whereas Noah, Ham, and Methuselah, which share the same Hebrew letter, are pronounced instead like the English aitch.
And then there is Ila, the rescued victim who becomes Shem’s wife. The only source I can imagine for that figure is a mistranslation of Genesis 10:5, which states, “From these [meaning from the descendants of Noah’s children] the nations spread out among the islands — each according to his language, family, and nation.” The first word in the original Hebrew is Eleh, meaning “these.” If one misreads that instead as a name Ila, then one has another Eve-like mother of all.
As it happens, that wasn’t where the filmmakers got the name Ila. For more on that, you can read part two of my interview with Aronofsky and Handel.
These aren’t the first articles I have seen that look at Noah from a Jewish point of view. I linked to one such article in this news round-up, and I linked to a number of interviews in which Aronofsky talks about the midrashic aspect of his film in this interview round-up. But it’s good to see these other articles addressing this subject. And if I find even more articles like these, I might add them to this post.
Speaking of which, a friend just alerted me to this post by Brian Mattson, who argues that the film is deeply Kabbalistic and therefore falls into the Gnostic pattern of despising the Creator of this world and worshipping the serpent.
Mattson makes some fascinating points, but he also makes a few errors.
For one thing (spoiler alert!), I am pretty sure the snakeskin goes to Ham, not Noah, when Tubal-Cain dies, so the snakeskin cannot be said to have influenced Noah’s decision to let his grandchildren live. (If memory serves, Noah gets the snakeskin after Ham throws it down during Noah’s drunk episode a few scenes later.)
Also, a film that celebrates the created world and all the animals in it — to the point where some have accused the film of promoting anti-human nature worship — is out of sync with Gnostic theology at a pretty fundamental level. Ditto for a film that celebrates the birth of new life, being fruitful and multiplying, and so on.
I might have more to say about Mattson’s article later. But for now, it does shed yet another interesting light on some of the film’s Jewish influences.
April 1 update: I have now written an entire post in response to Mattson.
April 2 update: I don’t know how I neglected to link to this article in the Times of Israel that profiles Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s response to the film. E.g.:
I have written two books about why innocent people suffer. And what I say is this: there are people who believe that the explanation for human suffering is straightforward. You see it in the Flood, in Sodom and Gommorah and with Moses and the Golden Calf. And yet, the principal distinction between Noah on one hand and Moses and Abraham on the other is that Noah accepts God’s judgement.
The film does a good job of showing this. Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. The Bible says that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation.” He was only a righteous man compared to the others who were far worse than he.
Now, why wasn’t he righteous? Because righteousness is all about what you do for your fellow man. And Noah does NOTHING for his fellow man. He doesn’t care, he has no compassion. He executes God’s commandment to the letter. So when God says “I’m going to kill everybody,” Noah says, “will you save my skin? Oh, I get an Ark? Okay, fine.”
This is a traditional explanation of why Noah is not the father of the Jewish people.
So he was a facilitator, not a leader.
No, he failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God. Noah is a fundamentalist. He’s a religious extremist. God says “everyone will die” and Noah says nothing. But this is not what God wants. God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity! He does not want the obedient man of belief. He wants the defiant man of faith.
It isn’t until Abraham, when God says “we have the rainbow and I promise not to destroy everyone, but I will destroy these two cities Sodom and Gomorah,” Abraham does something audacious. He says “will the judge of the entire Earth not practice justice?” He lifts his fists to heaven! He raises a cudgel to Heaven! This made him the first Jew. A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience.
The word “Islam” means “obedience before God” or “submission before God.” Soren Kierkegaard the great Danish theologian sums up Christianity as being a “leap of faith.”
Judaism has no leap of faith. “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” You see none of that in Noah. Neither in the Torah or in this film, so in that regard, this movie portrays this very well. No other religion does this, they would see this as heresy. It’s amazing, it’s breathtaking!
I’m not going so far as to say the Bible portrays Noah as a right-wing nut-job who captures his humanity only at the end — to the extent of the film – but I will say the Bible dismisses him. Noah is a father to mankind, but a footnote in the Bible. Never discussed again, because he’s a failure.
I would have loved to see, in this film, the family challenging Noah more – challenging him to fight with God.
Elsewhere, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, writing for the Israeli paper Haaretz, calls the film “A very Jewish retelling of the story”:
The Jewish view of man’s role in creation is that we are here to perfect what God has given us. The world is raw material, not a fait accompli. Our job is to live in God’s world and use our creativity and morality to improve the world. This is the story of Noah. Before the flood, Noah was an obedient automaton. But faced with the moral challenge of the flood and his failure to complete the destruction he believed God intended, Noah became a broken man. At first, he devolved into a vegetable. He did nothing at all. Then Noah is reborn in the image of God. He abandons his unquestioning compliance and deterministic theology in favor of actively affecting creation and continuing God’s work. That’s standard Jewish philosophy, through and through.
But while it’s true that Aronofsky’s Noah diverges from scripture, these critiques are ultimately an arrogant slight against beautiful Jewish tradition at work in the film. Worse, they imply that conservative biblical literalism somehow has a monopoly on Noah, a position which effectively ignores the billions of other non-literal religious people who also take the story seriously — especially Jews.
Firstly, when Aronofsky says that his film is less “Biblical,” that doesn’t mean that his film is “subversive” or any less religious — it’s just religious in ways that are unfamiliar to most biblical literalists, but common practice for most Jews and non-literal Christians. When asked how he compiled the script, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, who is also Jewish, explained that they pulled heavily from Jewish Rabbinic midrash. For the uninitiated, midrash, literally “to search out,” is an ancient Jewish tradition in which Rabbis essentially add stories to the Biblical/Tanakhical narrative for educative effect. These stories aren’t meant to be given the same authority as scripture, but are instead designed to both resolve problems of interpretation as well as expose aspects of the holy narrative that would be otherwise difficult to grasp.
Unsurprisingly, a wealth of midrash exists around the Noah narrative, much of which can be seen in Aronofsky’s contemporary retelling. For example, the biblical account says little about how Noah actually built the ark or how other humans reacted to his project, but tomes of midrash explain in poetic detail how the prophet planted cedar trees to provide wood for construction and how he suffered persecution and mockery at the hands of other humans—two things that play a crucial part in Aronofsky’s Noah.
More importantly, even when Noah departs from both midrash and scripture, Aronofsky’s film is still itself a powerful form of contemporary midrash. In telling an extra-biblical tale of a tortured Noah, here admirably portrayed by a grizzled Russell Crowe, who is both hero (he ruthlessly protects his family from outsiders) and villain (he is still willing to kill his own if God wills it), Aronofsky raises valid religious questions about the Old Testament prophet that are rarely asked in Sunday school or Hebrew school. Through vivid and often harrowing portrayals of Noah single-mindedly following what he believes to be direct orders from on high, Aronofsky asks: what kind of faith does it take to close oneself off inside a massive floating vessel and listen, stoically, to an entire world die? Did Noah suffer from survivor’s guilt? If he didn’t, what does that say about faith, and what does all of this say about God? These questions are difficult but important, and it is only through the intentional deviation from the biblical narrative — a series of theological “what ifs?” played out in dramatic fashion onscreen — that we are confronted with them.
If I find any more links along these lines, I’ll add them here, too.
April 3 update: Susan L.M. Goldberg at PJ Media calls the film ‘A Good Jewish Boy’s Cinematic Drash’ and makes some other interesting connections:
Darren Aronofsky’s take on the classic tale of Noah is the Jewish guy’s Bible movie. The narrative, which does remain true to the textual account of Genesis, is crafted in the style akin to a scholarly drash. In another lifetime you might imagine this story to have been generated by a minyan of Talmud scholars poring over the story in their classes. Perhaps that is why the Christian audience has reacted so poorly to the film; it is not, in the words of Walter Hudson, told “from a Christian theological standpoint.” The audience is treated to a wrestling, not recounting, of the text for two very good reasons: A four-chapter story would make for a very short film and Aronofsky, for however religious he may or may not be at the moment, is most definitely 100% a Jew. . . .
Noah synthesizes the information and brings to it the understanding that fire destroys, while water cleanses and renews: What Noah saw was a mikveh of the earth. As Torah would later detail, mikveh is essential to the act of holy redemption. Indeed, trials themselves are not to be feared as the Haftarah portion details: “Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you.… When you pass through water, I will be with you; when you pass through rivers, they will not overwhelm you.… For I am Adonai, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” . . .
This is the core of redemption. The Hebrews were not redeemed from Egypt as princes in the line of Joseph, but as slaves crying out to God. The prophets repeatedly detail the story of a people who are nearly destroyed before they are willing to cry out to God for salvation. Aronofsky’s Noah is a man pushed to the brink, humiliated as well as humbled. It takes the voices of his wife and his daughter-in-law to bring him back from the edge. Herein lies Aronofsky’s most Jewish intonation: Ila, like the Ruach (feminine singular in Hebrew) of God, must explain to Noah that redemption is a choice and he chose wisely.
Far from an environmentalist tome, Noah’s instruction to his children that they take only what they need is a direct reference to God’s command to the Israelites who wandered in the desert: They were to take only enough manna for their meals that day (twice as much before Shabbat). Their vegetarianism, accurate to a pre-flood diet, worked well to illustrate humanity’s falling away from God. Contrary to the rest of the population, Noah, in effect, elected to remain kosher. The snakeskin from the Garden acted as Noah’s phylactery, a reminder of the Torah command, “you shall teach them to your children …you shall bind them [the mitzvot] as a sign upon your hand,” which he wears when blessing his grandchildren.
Aronofsky’s film and the critical reaction to it clearly illustrate the cultural rift between Jews and Christians. . . .
Michael Fox at the Jewish Times is less impressed by the film:
I remember Noah as a mild-mannered super carpenter and reluctant zoologist in my Hebrew school classes of yore, but you don’t cast Russell Crowe to play a guy grappling with internal and existential dilemmas. His Noah is a decisive survivalist who doesn’t hesitate to kill to protect his family or to fulfill God’s plan. . . .
We have no doubt, though, that Noah is the last true believer in the Creator, as the Lord is referred to throughout the picture. Indeed, he has a real talent for channeling God’s merciless fury. In this regard Noah is reminiscent of Moses, who was up to the task of meting out vengeance — or justice, in the vernacular of the film — when the time came.
That association aside, Aronofsky’s most Jewish picture remains his mystical black-and-white debut, “Pi,” in which Handel has a cameo as a Kabbalah scholar. It is much more difficult to discern a Jewish sensibility in “Noah” than it was (to summon another biblical adaptation) to detect Mel Gibson’s deep-seated anti-Semitism in “The Passion of the Christ.”
The most jarring element in “Noah” from a Jewish perspective is the presence of angels, called Watchers and manifested as angry, hulking, walking, talking rock piles. Punished by God for trying to intervene on behalf of Adam and Eve, the Watchers decide to help Noah — and, by extension, serve their Creator — build the ark and then repel the hordes who desperately attempt to board when the hard rain starts a-fallin’.
Rabbi Marc Gellman is similarly critical in the Chicago Tribune:
Here are some midrashic highlights of the movie:
The film takes the biblical story of Noah seriously. Instead of making Noah and the flood the objects of a goofy Sunday school song, the movie forces us to abandon what scholar Herman Gunkel called “the sacred inattention with which we read the Bible,” and think about what the end of the world might look like. This is a midrash for grownups.
Early on, the film ventures a beautiful midrashic version of the Creation that clearly tries to harmonize science and the biblical 7 days of Creation. Nice, even though they wrongly put the creation of the sun and moon on the second day, rather than the fourth day.
The film takes up vegetarianism as a real moral issue. This is true to the biblical text, where it’s clear that from Adam to Noah, mankind was only allowed to eat veggies (Genesis 1:29). The permission to eat meat, which is part of the covenant with Noah after the flood (Gen.9:3), is clearly a concession to human weakness. . . .
Now for the midrashic problems:
God saved some life so it could continue. Noah and his family were the objects of that mercy, yet in the film Noah never seems to have gotten that memo from God. He wrongly, and incredibly, believes that God wanted to kill all humankind, including, eventually, Noah’s own family. If that were true, then why save them at all? Noah misses the only important lesson of the flood, which is God’s mercy despite our free will choices to do evil.
In the movie, Noah’s initial intent to kill his new granddaughters is precisely the opposite of what God intended. God clearly wanted them all to live and begin again. It was not a repentant Noah who spared the babies because of his love for them. It was God’s will. “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth” was not, as in the film, Noah’s blessing to his children, it was God’s blessing to Noah, and to all of us through Noah and the covenant of the rainbow (Gen. 9:1-17). . . .
The Bible has no wizards! In the film, Methusaleh cures Ila’s infertility with a touch. That’s how things work in wizard-land, but in the Bible all miracles come from God directly. Check out Sarah, for example. The great gift of the Bible is that it transcends the world of myth and leads us to a single transcendent God who created a world of human beings with free will, made in God’s image. . . .
Finally, Aronofsky’s modern midrash is in thrall to a very unbiblical, but sadly contemporary ideology: Nature is good and people are bad. If you’re an antelope, try telling that to the lion chasing you. Nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Nature is utterly amoral. The strong pray on the weak. By idealizing nature and demonizing human beings, “Noah” totally inverts what the Bible teaches, and what we ought to believe because it’s true. People today can be evil, but we can also repent and improve. Lions still chase antelope and they can’t see rainbows and covenants.
Darren Aronofsky has made a dark modern midrash that understands the flood but not the ark.
I don’t know if Jim Bennett of the Deseret News is Jewish, but he makes a point very similar to the one made by Rabbi Gellman in that second-to-last paragraph:
Apparently, the only creatures who are getting it right are the non-human ones, who, as the movie tells us, “still live as they did in the garden.” But if that’s true, that means lions were munching on wildebeests before the fall of Adam. Given that Aronofsky views meat-eating as humanity’s greatest sin, how does he make allowances for carnivores in the animal kingdom?
Jeff Bradshaw, also writing in the Deseret News, looks at Noah from a Mormon perspective but includes quite a bit of information about the midrashic tradition and how Noah both borrows from it and revises it:
After brief reminders of mankind’s seemingly inevitable propensity for evil (the temptation in Eden, the murder of Abel), the film segues to the violent death of Noah’s father, Lamech, at the hand of the ruthless earth-waster Tubal-Cain. This provides a first example of the twists to tradition because the older stories depict a (different) Lamech who kills Tubal-Cain rather than the reverse (see Genesis 4:22-23; Moses 5:47-50; Midrash Tanhuma-Yellamedenu, Bereshit, 11).
In another example that recalls the flood dreams of the wicked in Jewish tradition (e.g., Midrash of Shemahzai and Aza’el; Book of the Giants), Noah is informed about the deluge not by the voice of God but through a series of apocalyptic nightmares. As Noah’s family builds the ark, they are protected by repentant “Watchers,” shadowy characters of legend that are here depicted as gigantic spirits encased in stone for their wickedness (see, e.g., 1 Enoch 6-16, 85-88, 106; Jubilees 4:15, 5:1-2; Midrash of Shemahzai and Aza’el).
In 1 Enoch 106-107, Methuselah travels to the “ends of the earth” to counsel with Enoch about the birth of Noah. The film converts that story into a visit by Noah to his grandfather Methuselah, an eccentric cave-dwelling shaman with potions, magic seeds and healing power.
Of course, even lavish interpretation of Jewish tradition does not prevent Aronofsky from the exercise of pure cinematic license, adding fanciful elements directly from his own imagination. For example, we are shown a forest that springs up from a magic seed to provide timber for the ark. We also witness the marvelous effects of a smoky concoction that handily puts the animals to sleep for the duration of the sea voyage. (By way of contrast with the script of the film, we read in midrash that Noah and his family did not sleep a wink on the ark because all their time was spent caring for and feeding the animals.)
There are certain motifs from ancient sources present in “Noah.” For instance, in a scene that has left many viewers and reviewers scratching their heads, Tubal-Cain deprives Lamech of a sacred birthright heirloom in the form of a snakeskin. Later, Ham takes it from Tubal-Cain. Students of midrash will recognize this as a variation on the story of the stolen garment — a gift from God to Adam, and an object of envy for the jealous Satan. This same garment was said to have been handed down to Noah, stolen by Ham, inherited by Nimrod, taken by Esau and put on by Jacob in order to obtain Isaac’s blessing (e.g., Midrash Rabbah 4:8; Midrash Tanhuma 1:24; Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, 24). Traditions diverge on the animal that was the source of the skins, naming dozens of species the hide of which could have been used. “Noah” settles on a snakeskin, poetic revenge on the beast that incited Adam and Eve’s transgression (e.g., Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, 20; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Genesis, 3:21).
One ancient allusion that will catch the attention of sharp-eyed LDS viewers is Tubal-Cain’s relentless quest to amass wealth through the mining of a luminous mineral called “tsohar.” The meaning of this obscure term is debated, but some readers interpret tsohar as a reference to a shining stone that was said to have hung from the rafters of the ark in order to provide light (see, e.g., Midrash Rabbah of Genesis, 31:11; Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, 23). . . .
And that about does it for today’s update. More links later if I find any.
April 6 update: Erica L. Martin writes on ‘Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Jewish Tradition’ for the all-things-Deluge website FloodOfNoah.com:
Noah’s fallible humanity will work for Jewish audiences, who do not expect or receive perfect prophets from the biblical texts, but instead learn important ethical lessons from the foibles and failings of figures like Abraham (the liar), Sarah (the jealous), Joseph (the vain) and David (the womanizer, among other things) to mention just a few. Christians, however, have historically tended to read Noah as a pre-figuration of Jesus, and Muslims read Noah as a model of submission to the will of God – in fact a model of submission so similar to Muhammad (pbuh) himself that the stories of Noah and Muhammad (pbub) in the Qur’an often intersect. It will not be surprising, then, if Christian and Muslim audiences react adversely to a retelling of the Noah story that does not correspond with expectations of Noah’s saintliness and near-perfection. Aronofsky’s Noah may be a tad too gritty for some. . . .
Frankly, the most Jewish part of this movie is also the part I most disliked. . . .
At this point in the film we have left the realm of the Noah story and are visiting the tale of Abraham, devoted father whose obedience to the Creator also finds him raising knife in trembling hand over a beloved child, horrified audience cringing over what his blind obedience to the unfathomable will of that Creator may cost. Although I had little patience with the Abraham detour, I have to acknowledge that the merging of these two stories is perfectly in line with Jewish exegetical tradition that sees all parts of Torah as interrelated and inter-relatable; even one shared word between narratives can be enough of a hinge for rabbinic texts make a mashup of two stories and make a new meaning out of the mix. . . .
This is a Jewish anthropology, denying the existence of an Original Sin that alters human nature from pure to profane, and insisting that the whole human being, both the Good and Bad within us, was formed intentionally by the Creator. Our job is to wrestle with the polarized inclinations, to favor the good and keep the bad in balance. Noah and his family are not saved because they are perfect, but because they – perhaps singularly “in their generation” – seem equal to this monumental effort.
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel writes in the San Diego Jewish World that Aronofsky’s film is “an excellent midrashic exposition of an old familiar biblical story.” Samuel does quibble with some of the film’s departures from the Bible and Jewish tradition — though Aronofsky would argue, as he did when I interviewed him, that his film actually stays true to the letter of the text — but Samuel also notes that the film’s portrayal of Noah’s darker side is consistent with at least some Jewish texts:
After the flood, Noah comes to a strange realization that God does not want the world to have human beings because of their violent ways. Yes, Aronofsky’s Noah sounds more like the Christian theologian Augustine who believed that man is incurably evil and is incapable of redeeming himself. Interestingly enough, Aronofsky demonstrates why Noah did not ask God to save humankind. The reason is simple: he despises what human beings have become! This interpretation is certainly consistent with the rabbinical view that criticizes Noah for his lack of human concern for his fellow beings.
When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said: “Master of the Universe! You are called Compassionate, but You have shown compassion for Your Creation?” The Holy Blessed One be He replied, “Foolish shepherd! . . . I lingered with you and spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world! But, as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed, you dare open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?! [Zohar Hadash Noah, 29a]
Finally, Rabbi David Segal makes a similar point in The Aspen Times:
I’ll put it this way: When it comes to the film’s co-writers, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, if I were their rabbi, I’d be proud of them. Someone was paying attention at Hebrew school — miracle of miracles! They found the story of Noah in Genesis compelling enough to retell it on the big screen. It’s clear they did their homework, too — not because the film followed some impossible standard of biblical literalism but because it engaged seriously with the biblical text as well as with a long and multifaceted tradition of interpretation and storytelling. . . .
Several Christian leaders have criticized the film’s depiction of Noah as a brooding, tortured character, when they would have preferred to see the pure, saintly prophet of their “literal” biblical reading. This closed-minded religious posturing rests on a false premise that there is such a thing as a “literal” reading of the Bible, which people seem to use as a euphemism for “my” reading. One small example: Genesis 7:1 tells us that God found Noah “righteous in this generation.” For most literalists, that means Noah was simply a righteous man. But there is a long tradition within Jewish biblical interpretation to take seriously the qualifier “in this generation.” Some sages even suggested that Noah’s goodness was merely relative to the wickedness of his age and that if he had lived in Abraham’s day, his righteousness would have been unremarkable. The film’s Noah follows this lead by portraying a struggling, flawed, sometimes brutal man. Importantly, they reach this complex interpretation not by departing from the text but by reading it carefully.
The film depicts Noah himself as a child of stories who becomes a master storyteller. His father tells him of creation, the garden and the sin of Adam and Eve. Noah, in turn, tells his family during their time on the ark, in one of the film’s most compelling sequences, and again once they’ve left the ark to make new lives on land. The act of storytelling is shown to be a sacred thing, a way to impart a sense of place in the universe and an investment in the unfolding human experience. . . .
And that’s it for now. More links later if and when I find any.
April 7 update: Marc Erlbaum, a filmmaker who is also “a religous Hassidic Jew,” writes in the Huffington Post that Noah reflects a “secular humanist” perspective rather than a perspective that is “consistent with Jewish philosophy”:
Noah is an ambitious film. It is based, obviously, on a biblical narrative, but it is not, as Aronofsky himself admits, a “biblical” movie. It is about faith, but it is not “faith-based.” As an avowed atheist, Aronofsky did not set out to inspire or promote faith. Rather, he set out to tell a powerful story and he turned to an epic tale that nearly all of us know. Listening to Aronofsky speak at Q & A’s following both the premiere of “Black Swan” at the Toronto film festival and a later screening of the same film at the Philadelphia Film Festival, it was clear to me from his responses that his aim is to provoke. His goal as a filmmaker is to tell a dramatic story that provokes an emotional response and incites subsequent conversation. In that, he has succeeded with Noah, much as he did with his prior films.
But what he has not done is tell the story of Noah from a Jewish perspective. This is not a critique because this is clearly not what he intended to do. But it is nonetheless an important point to make, particularly in light of a thorough and generally even-handed review I recently read from a Christian critic named Aaron Earls who opined that Aronofsky’s perspective is a result of “his cultural and religious heritage, along with his current beliefs (as a) secular Jew.” As a Jew, Earls continues, “Aronofsky can give us a Noah who longs for creation, but he cannot show us a Noah who looks forward to the cross. There is no covenant from the Creator to promise a future redemption.” In other words, because, as a Jew, Aronofsky will not be saved, therefore his film is bleak and nostalgic rather than hopeful and forward-looking.
But while it may be true according to Earls’ theology that Jews will not be saved — and he’s certainly entitled to his opinion on that — it is untrue that Aronofsky’s vision is consistent with Jewish philosophy. Aronofsky’s bleak film is a product of his secular humanist upbringing, not his Jewish heritage. Like his past films, Noah is dark and disturbed, and while the biblical narrative on which it is based is certainly tragic and challenging, it, like all of the Torah’s stories, is full of hope, profundity, and inspiration.
On the simple level, the story of Noah is about sin and consequence, and Aronofsky focuses his Noah on the theme of judgement vs. mercy. However, the homiletic and mystic teachings on the narrative delve into much deeper waters. Noah’s flood is a process of purification and reunification. It is a mikveh (ritual bath) in which the world is immersed in order to cleanse it of its blemishes and return it to its pristine holiness.
Orthodox Jewish women immerse in a mikveh monthly, and some men, particularly Chassidim, immerse in a mikvey daily, in order to attain a level of spiritual purity. In order to be kosher, a mikveh must contain at least 40 seah (a halachic measure of volume), just as the flood lasted 40 days. 40 seah is enough water for an average adult to be fully immersed, and what is purifying about a mikveh is the process of becoming completely engulfed and the concomitant realization that one is not separate from what surrounds him or her. We dissolve into the reality that everything is connected, and everything is one.
The Noah story is a debate between the ego and the infinite. Noah, representing each of us, is forced to ask ‘am I for myself, or am I for the world; am I alone, or am I part of the master plan?’ Of all the ways that the world could have been destroyed and rebooted, it was subjected to a flood in order to cleanse the creation of the self-consumption which began with the sin of the Garden of Eden. Prior to the eating of the apple, Adam and Eve were unaware of their separateness from everything around them, but afterwards they were suddenly cognizant of their nakedness, their ego, and they were afraid. The innovation of Noah was his sense that he was not alone, not accursed, and not adrift. He was immersed in the creation and his purpose even before the waters began to rise. The rest of the creation had become detached, alienated, uprooted from its connection and communion. The waters reconnected the creation to its source.
What is great about Noah is that it provokes introspection and consideration of big questions and issues, like what is our place in the larger scheme of the creation; how are we to approach the world, with strict justice or with mercy; how does God approach us? As a filmmaker, I admire films that offer more than distraction, and I applaud Aronofsky for publicly promoting such debate. As a Jew, I feel that the Noah story is far more uplifting than the one that he chose to tell, and I look forward to movies that inspire audiences and encourage them to positively impact our world.
As ever, more links later if and when I find them.
April 8 update: Joel Baden, a professor at Yale Divinity School, has an article at the CNN Belief Blog under the headline ‘When God plays the villain’:
With our notion of a God who loves us all individually, especially the little children, we struggle with a deity who would wipe out all of humanity. Surely there were many innocent people, children, who died in the Flood?
But let’s be clear: This is our problem, not the Bible’s.
According to the biblical story of the Flood, it was not individuals who were wicked; it was humanity as a whole, a wickedness encoded in humanity’s very nature. Young, old, male, female, “every plan devised by humanity’s mind was nothing but evil all the time,” says the Book of Genesis.
Nor is the Flood intended to eradicate humanity’s wickedness so that we might begin anew as a peaceful species, as the film “Noah” seems to suggest.
In the Bible, Noah and his descendants don’t promise to behave differently after the flood. Rather, God learns to accept their inherently evil nature: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humanity, since the devisings of humanity’s mind are evil from their youth.”
We are who we are.
In fact, according to the Bible, the reason that God accepts human nature is because we are the only species that can give him what he wants — which, in the view of Genesis, is bloody, burned animal sacrifices. (So much for the pro-vegetarian angle of Aronofsky’s film.) . . .
In the film, the only real innocents are the animals. They remain so, one character says, because they behave as they did in Eden. Which, of course, is more than anyone can say for Adam and Eve. Notably, Aronofsky does not show any animals drowning or struggling for life, though they also must have.
Again, this is not a problem for the Old Testament: The animals are as inherently guilty as the humans. “All flesh” — animals included — “had corrupted its way on the earth,” we are told in Genesis.
So, we have to separate our notion of innocence — and of God’s nature — from that of the Old Testament authors.
The God of the Old Testament does not love humans; he barely tolerates them. The relationship is not one of affection but one of necessity and of obedience.
We are promised that there will never be another Flood because God wants and needs our sacrifices.
Baden outlines three different ways that we can try to reconcile the Old Testament’s wrathful God with our modern image of a more merciful God, and concludes:
Whichever of these paths one takes — and there are surely others — we are struggling with the same basic problem, trying to find some solution that will bring the God of the Old Testament into line with our modern God.
In other words, it is our changing concept of God, over two millennia, that is responsible for the moral dilemma. It’s our problem, not the Bible’s.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Benjamin Blech calls the film “a distortion of Torah” at Aish:
The Noah of the movie is not a depiction but rather a distortion of the Torah figure chosen to be spared by the Almighty and with his family to begin the story of mankind anew. To know that millions of viewers, after seeing this film, will internalize Russell Crowe’s Noah as well as many other parts of the film’s storyline that have no basis in the Bible or any other reputable sources should be cause for much concern by all those respectful of Torah and the guardianship of its truths.
It was precisely in this spirit that the prophetic sages of the Jewish people years ago proclaimed the day of the first translation of the Torah into another language, the Septuagint, as a day fasting. What troubled them was that a translation might become considered as much the word of God as the original text. Just imagine how they would’ve felt about a film that transforms a biblical story into a work of personal imagination with a contemporary agenda that bears no relationship to the original.
More links later, if and when I find any.
April 10 update: Richard Brody at The New Yorker writes:
What has been widely cited as the “environmentalist” orientation of Aronofsky’s version of the Noah story (which he co-wrote with his longtime friend Ari Handel) is more like a Christianized nightmare of an Old Testament enormity come to life. The movie pivots on the notion of original sin, not a Jewish idea but, rather, a Christian one, which in Aronofsky’s imagination is established back to the primordial days of Yahwistic world-making. If the fathers of the Hebrew Bible imagined the Fall as a blight on the species at large and as a curse on human nature but had only the wrathful God of the Hebrew Bible to listen to, how could they justify their own existence and exertions? What right did Noah have to perpetuate his own line and his own species in the face of his own recognition of unworthiness? . . .
I’m reminded of another Jewish kid who leveraged an outsider’s knowledge of Christian lore into a radical twist on tradition: the thirteen-year-old Ozzie from the twenty-three-year-old Philip Roth’s story “The Conversion of the Jews.” (It’s in the book “Goodbye, Columbus.”) For those who haven’t read it, it’s too delicious to give away. But, over-all, Roth’s young epikores airs an intellectually skeptical and gleefully ribald objection to a defining Jewish tenet in order to show up the dullness, blandness, and incuriosity of the elders. The child—and the author—offer a vast guffaw of reason against the harshness of authority and the illegitimate demands of orthodoxy.
Roth offers his own tweak—a riotous one—on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. It reminds me that, after a Rosh Hashanah service where the rabbi’s sermon addressed that story, my pious but non-observant mother said, “If God told me to sacrifice my son, I’d have said, ‘No! Are you crazy?’ ” She was a good mother but not, from the ancient perspective, a good Jew—a notion that’s packed into Roth’s story. (The writer David Grossman, in George Packer’s 2010 Profile of him in the magazine, makes a similar observation.) Roth’s concluding flourish evokes a liberal humanism that both arises from modern American Judaism and blurs its tenets. Similarly, the dramatic climax of “Noah,” in which family love and moral instincts justify the ways of man to God, suggests the first draft of a New Testament—albeit one that Jews could live with, too.
Rabbi D.B. Ganz at The Daily Caller comments on “some aspects of the ancient Jewish version of Biblical story that have great modern relevance”:
The ancient Jewish take is that those people were widely guilty of not just theft, but of three other major types of sin as well: adultery and sexual perversion, idolatry, and murder. Furthermore, even some of the animals acted with sexual perversion, which is why they too perished, except for those aboard the Ark.
God did not destroy the world immediately after its moral collapse. Rather the Biblical phrase, “His days shall be 120 years” (ibid. 6:3) indicate that for 120 years, Noah publicly built the Ark during which time he warned the sinning people that if they do not change their ways, a great flood would come, and they would all perish.
Several relevant lessons emerge from this narrative. First and foremost: the world and its human inhabitants are not an evolutionary accident. God created the world and sustains it. And when there is a pervasive disregard for basic traditional morality, His destruction may follow. However, those who do not succumb to the prevailing moral breakdown may escape the ravages of the demolition, just as Noah did.
The Biblical story also teaches that when a culture becomes depraved, its resultant downfall may be delayed. Someone observing a morally corrupt society that appears strong and vibrant might therefore assume that things will always continue that way. The example of Noah teaches that people should not be lulled into this false sense of security. Although the generation of the Great Flood deserved to be annihilated, it did not occur until after 120 years, throughout which time they steadfastly refused to improve their ways. But when the downfall finally came, it was absolute and it happened very quickly.
The Almighty did promise that He would never again totally destroy the world as He did in the time of Noah. The implication, however, is that God might at least ruin the financial and political viability of cultures steeped in decadence. In fact, some historians have made the point that throughout the ages, when immorality became widespread within a society, it was a precursor to its demise.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink rebuts the charge that Kabbalah is a form of “Jewish Gnosticism”:
The primary basis for the claim that NOAH is a Gnostic film is the fleeting portrayal of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as luminescent beings.
A 2nd century Gnostic text is an early source for the idea that Adam and Eve were not of physical body. The Zohar, a 13th century text of Kabbalah mentions a similar idea. This does not demonstrate that NOAH is a movie based on Gnosticism, nor would it demonstrate the Kabbalism is based on Gnosticism. In fact, there is a reference to Adam and Eve being “clothed in light” found in the Severus Scroll which predates the Gnostic source by at least a century. Indeed, the Bible itself describes the glowing face of Moses. Kabbalistic teachings connect the light of Adam and Eve in the Garden with the radiance of Moses upon his descent from Sinai. Luminescent Bible heroes are far more Jewish than they are Gnostic. Building a thesis which insists that NOAH is a Gnostic film based on this flimsy foundation is laughable.
Interpreting the moral landscape of NOAH as a materialism vs. spiritualism dichotomy is a gross misreading of the story.
As I’ve explained, the simplified morality of NOAH is actually a false dichotomy. At first, Noah believes that God is Good and Man is Bad. Therefore, Man should refrain from harming or even disturbing God’s creation. If God made something a certain way, that is the way it must remain. Man can only destroy and can never improve on God’s works. Man sinned in the Garden and continues to sin by recklessly destroying creation. There is no way for man to affect creation in a positive manner. Noah naively thinks this dichotomy is true. But after God destroys creation and Man saves creation in the ark, the script is flipped and Noah realizes that things are much more complex. His new world view, the classic Jewish philosophy that is present in every variation of Judaism including Kabbalism, is that the world was created for Man, but only under certain conditions. Man is given the Earth but is obligated to care for it. Moreover, Man is given an imperfect world and an imperfect body. Man’s job is to improve on the raw material provided by God. The way God makes things is not perfect. This is the simple, straightforward interpretation of the film. There is no reason to resort to convoluted variations of Gnosticism to explain the moral development of NOAH.
But more importantly, a film simply cannot be Gnostic and Kabbalistic at the same time. It has to be one or the other. One cannot point to a reference found in Kabbalism and use it as evidence that the film is based on Gnosticism. There are no objectively Gnostic references in this film.
Finally, I did a little snooping around the web last night to see if I could find some of the Jewish traditions about Adam and Eve keeping the snakeskin that Ari Handel had referred to in a recent interview, and sure enough, I found a targum, a midrash and a pseudepigraphal text within minutes of Googling some keywords. I discuss all this in a further response to Mattson that I appended to my post on the snakeskin.
April 15 update: Rabbi Paul Tuchman writes in The Jewish Chronicle:
Does “Noah” belong in the Jewish tradition of biblical commentary? Yes, absolutely. If you’re not well-acquainted with the literature, you might be surprised at how fanciful – and occasionally downright loopy – midrash can be. There is no sacrilege here, only an earnest attempt to make sense of a very difficult text.
Aronofsky has done us a favor by reminding us that the story of Noah and the flood is not a colorful children’s fable. It is a horrifying story of the devastating consequences of evil and violence. It is also a sobering tale of the crushing burden of standing virtually alone against all humanity while trying to understand and carry out the will of God.
David Aaronovitch, writing for another paper called The Jewish Chronicle — based in the UK rather than the US — takes aim at the film’s “absurd and archaic sexism”:
So I came out of Noah thinking that out of all it — the capricious God, the fallen angels, the sudden forest, the birds and animals filing up the ramp, the waters rising to cover the earth — the least plausible aspects were the entirely passive character of all the women and girls and the all-knowing, all-understanding character of the husband and father.
I don’t get this argument, myself, because part of the point of the film is that Ila and Naameh are correct in their calls for mercy, whereas Noah is wrong to resist them. As my friend Steven D. Greydanus has pointed out, this film ultimately supports the biblical view that “man and woman together make up the image of God”.
Finally — for now — Don Perlgut reviews the film for The Australian Jewish News and calls it “the biggest Jewish film epic to screen in decades.”
April 23 update: Ben Sachs at the Chicago Reader says the film “is immersed in Judaic literature” and mentions one detail I hadn’t come across yet:
Tubal-Cain, the barbarian villain played by Ray Winstone, was drawn primarily from descriptions in the Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, which scholars believe was written around the fifth century AD. . . .
Regardless of how Aronofsky and Handel interpret these texts, they’ve certainly done their homework; Noah represents a serious engagement with its source material and with Jewish narrative tradition in general. As scholar Jacob Neusner has noted, the Jewish sages didn’t rewrite scripture so much as they “wrote with scripture,” developing their stories around interpretations of specific lines from the Torah. From this springs a fascinating contradiction of Jewish scholarship: scripture is at once inviolable and open to endless elaboration. As in midrashic texts, much of the narrative invention in Noah derives from older works, and the deliberate ambiguity of certain story elements forces viewers to wrestle with their implications.
Sachs also says “Peter T. Chattaway has done a remarkable job of charting the various responses at the website Patheos.com” — thanks! — but the hyperlink links to the Patheos home page rather than this or any other page on my blog. Whoops.
May 6 update: Ben Sachs has now written a follow-up post headlined ‘Has Darren Aronofsky’s Noah opened the floodgates for a midrashic cinema?’:
What might non-Jewish spectators stand to gain from discovering the midrashic tradition? Perhaps they’ll see in it a precursor to the communal storytelling that’s developed around the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, wherein countless enthusiasts elaborate on favorite incidents and characters to transform a series of “official” stories into an entire fictional universe. Or perhaps they’ll appreciate the complex relationship between individual storytellers and communal history. The authors of midrashic texts acknowledged they were elaborating on Torah so that they might better understand it. They expected their audience to appreciate the stories on two levels at once—on their own terms and as reflections on the original text.
Also interesting is a “review” of the film on the Israel Radio Podcast, hosted by Yishai Fleisher. Around the 10-minute mark, Fleisher and his wife start talking about the experience of going to an Israeli movie theatre — the kosher buttered popcorn, etc. — and around the 18-minute mark they start discussing the legitimacy of Bible movies, and then finally around the 21-minute mark they make a comment or two about the movie itself, e.g.: “It was a movie that made you feel and think about God.”
May 24 update: Y.S. Chen, a professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Oxford, writes that the film gives us “a different Noah, but the same God”:
The innovative ways the Noah movie has rewritten the biblical Flood story may be new, and even disturbing, to many modern viewers. But for those who are acquainted with post-biblical traditions and interpretations, such style of rewriting biblical stories was common, especially during the Second Temple period (516 BC–AD 70), see James Kugel, Traditions of the Bible (1998). For example, in the Testament of Abraham (Recension A), the biblical figure of Abraham was recharacterised in the light of Moses, Elijah and Elisha to address the theological issues of divine justice and mercy. The ways the Noah movie has adapted the Bible may be unfamiliar to the modern audience, but the central issue it addresses is fundamentally biblical (see also the teaching of Jesus on the cost of discipleship).
If the Noah in the movie is no longer the same Noah as found in the Bible it is because in the latter half of the movie he began to behave like Abraham; the God in the movie, however, remains the same.
This is the God who abhors sin and wickedness, who would purge corruption by drastic measures in order to preserve his creation and his chosen people, and who is ready to test the limits of the obedience of his followers in order, ultimately, not to harm, but to give them hope and a future.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks writes in Haaretz that the film “is deeply religious, presenting a broader definition of the term than traditional Orthodox Judaism might do”:
For their film, Aronofsky and Handel relied heavily on midrash, the aggadic, homiletic stories and moral lessons that are the part of the Talmud, the Oral Law, that provide context to the biblical narrative. Rashi, the great 11th Century French commentator, on the verse Genesis 6:9, the first in the Torah portion of Noach, comes to explain Noah’s level of righteousness. Rashi, focusing on the phrase that Noah was perfect in his generations, draws upon Midrash to teach that if Noah had lived in a time of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. An alternative explanation then suggests that if Noah had lived in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered exceptional.
This alternative explanation draws on the instructions in the Bible that Noah receives directly from G-d. The world is to be destroyed by water and there are necessary preparations to save Noah’s family and representative animals. Noah then, without question, goes about the business of building the ark, without attempting to alter the decision through argument with G-d, and without trying to positively influence his surroundings. In contrast to Abraham’s active questioning of G-d on the morality of destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah acts as a morally neutral agent of G-d’s will.
In Aronofsky’s version of this narrative, Noah experiences G-d in visions and dreams. Interpreting the prophecy, as through a glass darkly, Noah becomes an active partner in implementing the plan, while at the same time he struggles with the difficult choices that have to be made. Part of the communication received is clear and in sync with the Bible; that because of the complete corruption of the world, it is to be destroyed by water. However, in contrast to the biblical narrative, where it is explicit that G-d intends to restart the postdiluvian world with both animals and human beings, in the film version, He is silent on mankind’s fate.
Noah is left to consider the utter depravity of his time and his moral responsibility to ensure a different future. Recalling the idyllic world that G-d originally created, the film here becomes a proponent for the environmental movement, evoking our modern predicament of potential ecological disaster. This message is coupled with a depiction of our innate propensity for cruelty, violence and war (Aronofsky here seems to be accepting a Christian perspective on original sin). With these weighty issues in mind, it is Noah who struggles with the question of whether the new world would be better off with or without mankind.
Referring to the climactic scene, in which Noah almost kills his granddaughters but then decides not to, Rabbi Looks writes:
The power of this moment is the greatness of the film. Noah, as G-d has done and continues to do, gives mankind a second chance. Noah, when confronted with the defining existential question of his life, chooses a G-d of compassionate righteousness over a G-d of strict justice. Aronofsy’s Noah is clearly in the Abrahamic tradition, one who is questioning, sensitive, a moral agent unafraid to act, a true partner with G-d.
In an ironic twist, Aronofsky, the self-defined non-religious person, provides a solution to Rashi’s ambiguity on Noah’s character with the conclusion of the same verse from Genesis, 6:9. “Noah walked with G-d.” What it means to walk with G-d may be open to multiple understandings. Personally, I would cast the net very wide to include all kindred “religious” souls in the discussion.
The film came out almost two months ago, now, but I’ll keep my eyes open for other responses to the film, and I will post them here if and when they turn up.
June 13 update: Jeffrey Weiss at Aleteia mentions a rabbinic tradition concerning the interpretation of the Torah that I had not yet come across in my reading:
Why were some Christians so bothered? A lot of the story wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. Why were most Jewish commentators less bothered? Because very little in the movie contradicted the bare bones of a story that takes up so little of the Bible.
For many conservative Christians, sola scriptura! The Bible is literally true and is altogether complete. Jewish Orthodox tradition says the first five books of the Bible were dictated directly by God to Moses. But there was never anything “complete” about the text. Tradition says an equally authoritative and important Oral Law was given to Moses at the same time.
And from a Jewish point of view, asking where the text is “literally” true is almost as meaningless as asking what a number tastes like. An oft-cited rabbinic saying suggests there are 70 valid interpretations to every word of the Torah. From that Jewish perspective, the conservative Christian approach to scripture is like a chef trying to prepare a dish using half the recipe. Little wonder that the taste is different.
More links later, if and when I find any.