Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Aronofsky's "Noah": A modern Jewish midrash


I missed this movie when it was in the theaters, because it came out right in the middle of cleaning for Passover, so I had to wait for the DVD.  Meanwhile, I had read dozens of reviews by both Jews and gentiles.  The Christians hated it.  The Jews loved it.  And one thing became very obvious:  Never has a movie so clearly illustrated the vast difference between how Jews and Christians read the Bible.  One could build a whole course in Jewish-Christian dialogue based on this movie. 

Having now viewed the film twice, I want to address this difference. Christians tend to see the Bible as the be-all end-all of scripture.  If it's not in the Bible, it isn't real, it's mere fiction, even heresy.  Jews, however, have a vast oral tradition as well as the Written Torah. There is a  process of interpretation called "midrash" which means literally "from searching." In Judaism to "search the Scriptures" does not mean "thumb through your Bible," it means to search out hidden or implied meanings, sometimes with imagination, ("visualization" might be a better, more spiritual word) in order to get a better understanding of the story.  This process is not heresy; it is the soul of Judaism.

An example of this would be the ancient (dating to at least the Roman period) midrash of "How did God create the world? He wrapped Himself in a robe of light and it began to shine." (see Genesis Rabba 3:4, based on Psalm 104:2).  Now obviously nobody was there to see that happen, we don't really know if it even DID happen that way -- but it is a way of visualizing the Creation process without the "Finger of God" in the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  (Which, BTW, is ALSO a form of midrash, since Michelangelo was not there at Creation, either.   And technically it is not accurate, since Genesis says God "breathed in" the soul of Adam so literally it should look more like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, right? But that would not have made a very good painting.)

What Aronofsky has done -- and other rabbis besides me have already called it this -- is to create a modern midrash.   He did what Jews have done for thousands of years:  He fleshed out the bare bones of the story to explore it in the light of his own generation, a generation concerned with pollution, climate change, extinctions, the fear of global destruction.  Those themes were always there, but past generations did not focus on them in the same way because not until modern times was there the possibility that we really could destroy the Earth.  Suddenly this part of the story becomes much more relevant.

Regarding Noah's "nervous breakdown" depicted in the movie, We do not KNOW what went on among the family members on the Ark -- the Bible does not say -- so ANY drama depicted there is fictional in the modern sense.   Previous versions of the Noah story -- both print and in film -- have also made up the events aboard the Ark.  The talmudic rabbis say that Noah and his family got no sleep the whole time, because they were busy feeding the diurnal animals by day and the nocturnal ones by night -- and that the predators reverted to drinking milk (from the cattle) as it was in Eden.  That is no more factually probable than putting them to sleep with some sort of herbal anesthesia (as seen in the movie.)   But both versions deal with the very real issue of how so many animals could be kept peacefully in a small space for so long.

Not the children's version! 
So what was Aronofsky's purpose in making this film?  He has stated that the story of Noah has fascinated him since his Hebrew school days (Read more...).  But the "kiddie version" did not go far enough to satisfy him as an adult.  Most of the time, we gloss over the very real horror of millions of people drowning -- not to mention all the animals and plants being wiped out.  Most likely, the raven did not come back because it found plenty of floating carrion to feed on.  (See Genesis 8:7).   But we don't go into that.  We focus, instead, on the cutsie image of lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes on deck, watching the dove come back with an olive branch and a rainbow overhead.  But the reality was much more dark and gritty.

My sense is that Aronofsky wanted to explore that darkness, to delve into the bare emotions of a family who had just witnessed all of humanity die.  He wanted his viewers to really feel that, to experience -- and recoil -- at the horror of it.  The scene in the Ark where Noah tells the Creation story is reminiscent of the scene around the Passover table in DeMille's "Ten Commandments" -- in both cases, they are surrounded by the screams of the dying.

That has to have an effect on a person's psyche.  But the Bible doesn't really deal with emotions or psychology, it is more of a historical narrative.  There is no character development in the biblical narrative.  However, we are a generation steeped in psychology, so we expect more depth in a character than "just the facts, ma'am." (Think about that.  The rather emotionless detectives in "Dragnet" would not be very popular if the show were debuting today.)

I think what disturbs so many people about this movie is that Noah has such a dark misunderstanding about what God wants.  WE would never think God wanted us to kill a baby, would we?   And yet in the story of Abraham He apparently does -- a story that Jews struggle with every year in the liturgical cycle, a story that has generated VOLUMES of midrashic explanations as Jews confront the Abraham story anew each generation.

Christians also believe in a form of human sacrifice --what else is Jesus on the Cross? So there can be some very dark aspects to the biblical stories when we view them as adults and not as children in Sunday school.  We can put them in historical context -- as I usually do, explaining that human sacrifice was considered "normal" in many ancient cultures -- but if it is all just ancient history, then the Bible becomes just another tome gathering dust on the shelf.

But maybe Aronofsky is not so far off in his interpretation of Noah.  Such a negative reaction could  happen.  It often does happen to people who witness the horrors of war and natural disasters.  We are still getting over watching the Twin Towers explode and fall on 3000+ people.  So what must have been the impact on Noah after listening to millions drown?  Perhaps he has a form of survivor guilt, coming to feel he had no right to survive, that to survive is to go against fate, to go against God's will. This certainly happens in real life.  There are cases from the Holocaust where only one or two members of an entire family -- an entire village even! -- survived.  Some people managed to pick up and move on with their lives.  But others went mad, even committing suicide.  All were changed forever by the experience.

So as we watch this movie, we can begin to ask ourselves some serious questions.  How do we really know God's will?  When is it time to question a harsh judgement?  How do we move past the horror and find healing? Noah understands justice, but he has to learn to understand mercy -- and that, to me, is the whole point of the end of the movie.

As the Passover Haggadah says, each person must imagine him/herself as if he/she were a slave in Egypt, and he/she were personally freed. That's not just history, that's emotional -- to really feel what it is to be a slave, or, in this case, to be Noah, who is ordered to save his family and let the rest of humanity die.  Aronofsky put himself in Noah's place and came up with the dark side -- but also the light of hope.  Because we know from the beginning how the story will end: hope wins out, humanity lives on.  But not until Noah reconciles himself to that will the rainbow appear -- which is why we do not see it until the final scene, where he passes his legacy on to his grandchildren.

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Google "Noah movie Jewish" to bring up dozens of articles about the Jewish sources of  Aronofsky's interpretation of the story.  Here are a few to start:

"The "Terror" of Noah: How Darren Aronofsky interprets the Bible in The Atlantic.  This three-page article goes into some depth about how Aronofsky has been fascinated by Noah since childhood, how he saw the horror in the story early on, how he views the Bible and midrash, how he developed the idea for the movie, etc.  One of the best interviews with him online. For a blow by blow explanation of midrashic details in the movie (snakeskins, magic swords, Nephilim "rock giants," a barge-like Ark, and such), see my review on Amazon - and all the discussion, pro and con, that it has evoked (smile).

For a similar rundown from a Christian perspective, see The Noah Movie Controversies: Questions and Answers  by Steven D. Greydanus for the National Catholic Register.

For a good round-up of Jewish reviews and reactions, see The Jewish Roots of and Response to "Noah."

Tsohar: Gem of Noah, Light of Heaven is a very good article explaining the Jewish sources for the glowing mineral that Tubal-Cain's people are mining.

Noah comes to the Big Screen with the help of a Dallas Rabbi  looks at the Jewish sources for the fallen angels, noting, among other things, that six-winged angels are mentioned in Isaiah.

And see also my previous blog post,  From Noah to Moses: An ethical evolution

And just to be "fair and balanced" (to parody Fox News), here are two articles by right-wing fundamentalist Christians who really, really, really hate this movie:

Sympathy for the Devil  by Brian Mattson, who sees the movie as a bunch of heretical gnosticism, and believes that  "Aronofsky did it as an experiment to make fools of us [Christians]: 'You are so ignorant that I can put Noah (granted, it's Russell Crowe!) up on the big screen and portray him literally as the ‘seed of the Serpent’ and you all will watch my studio’s screening and endorse it.'"

Aronofsky's Noah: A panolopy of Jewish Paganism by Joel McDermon.  The title says it all.  This guy hates the Jewish influences in the movie so much that it borders on -- or even crosses the line into -- antisemitism, stating: "And while they [Aronofsky and Handel] say they intended to stick to the text, they do with it what so many Talmudic, Kabbalistic, and/or Hasidic mystic Jews do: twist, torture, and turn the text a thousand ways but what it [the Bible] plainly says."

Dayenu.  Enough.  Time to log off and go do chores.  Peace.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Ebay's new policies just PUNISHED ME for a bad Minnesota winter!!!

Ebay's new evaluation criteria just kicked in -- and for the first time since I joined ebay nine years ago, I am classified as "below minimum standards" -- even though I have excellent feedback!

WHY?  Because back in January-February 2014, when we were snowed in with 40 below zero weather (Fahrenheit -- that's  minus 60 Celsius)  there were nine people who filed "Item Not Received" cases.  Please note that all of them DID eventually get their items and everything was worked out to the buyers' satisfaction. 

But ebay is punishing me anyway!  They are limiting how much I can list, putting me lower in the searches, and holding my money for a week before I can access it on Paypal -- which they insist I must use (no more sending paper checks.)  All because I got socked by the Polar Vortex last winter!  Unfair!

Hello???  I can't control the weather...

2014 was a really, really bad winter that slowed everything down here in Minnesota.  Remember the Polar Vortex?  Minnesota was smack dab in the middle of it for weeks.  We were snowed under three feet of blizzard on my dirt road.  Even down in Minneapolis there were travel warnings out, and things froze to a standstill.  There was a record-breaking 56-hour period when the temperature never went above zero.  It was so cold that truck drivers pulled off the freeways to stay at truck stops all night, afraid that if they broke down on the highway they might freeze to death.  In one case, a child who got locked out of the house by accident did freeze to death (very sad story.)

In many cases, cars would not start for days.  My own car broke it's timing belt when I tried to start it at forty below, rendering the engine a pile of junk.  Pipes froze, water mains broke.  There were power failures, too, plus airport closings and/or delays.   So of course, all of this affected my ability to ship promptly and also slowed down the mail when I did manage to ship.  If the trucks can't get through to the post offices and the planes are grounded,  the mail does not move.

People in nice warm climates like California and Florida didn't think about all this when they filed their claims and/or left complains about slow shipping.  But once I explained where I lived and that I was stranded by the weather, everybody understood, told me to stay warm and safe, and closed their cases satisfied when they did get their orders.  They were willing to put up with some inconvienences because they wanted the specialty items I have, they understood I'm in a rural area on the outer edge of the grid, and they were even sorry they had filed a claim in the first place.

In short, they understood that I'm not Walmart, I'm not Target, I'm not Macy's.  I'm just one old guy living in the boondocks, who has cruelty-free feathers and some hard-to-find butterfly garden seeds, among other things.

Ebay doesn't care why it happened, they just blame the seller

But Ebay is penalizing me anyway, because their new policy says that no matter what the reason, and even if it is resolved satisfactorily, if a buyer files an "Item Not Received" case, it goes against the seller.  Period.  No matter that I had an excellent record for nine years.  No matter that all these cases were clearly clustered in the same period as the paralyzing storms.  I'm guilty no matter what.

I find myself wondering how many more sellers will get smacked for living where bad weather hits.  Right now there are floods and fires on the US continent, and Hawaii is getting hammered by two hurricanes even as I write this.  Expect to see a lot more good sellers dropping to "below minimum standards" in the coming months.

And what about buyer stupidity?

Not all of the cases have been about weather, however.  Some are due to idiots making stupid mistakes. Like the guy who filed an "Item Not as Described" case, claiming I sent the wrong seeds.  Then, when I requested him to re-check the return address on the envelope, he said, "Oh yeah, gee, I'm sorry -- that was an order from the OTHER seller."  Mine arrived the same day, exactly as described.  The "case" was his fault, right?  But it was counted against me anyway, simply because he filed it.

Ditto for the package that sits on my desk right now, returned as undeliverable.  I emailed the buyer about this two weeks ago.  No answer.  Sooner or later he will probably file, and then I'll probably get a current address to re-send the package (at my own expense)  -- and be penalized because the guy did not update his shipping info.

Or the person whose order really was lost in the mail.   She not only filed a case, she left a negative feedback because the "package was not delivered" after she got her money back -- which I gave her in less than 24 hours!  Talk about adding insult to injury.  She could have at least thanked me for the fast refund.

And of course, there are the people who don't bother to read the description, then get upset because it wasn't what they expected.  Such as the person who complained that every feather in the lot was damaged and un-useable for her jewelry crafts -- when I had clearly explained these were broken "seconds" and "not craft quality" - hence the very cheap price.  (People use them for cat toys, fishing flies, and whatnot.)   It even said "seconds" in the title but I guess she did not know what that meant -- and neither asked me nor read the description to find out.

This problem has become more rampant since ebay went to mobile phone sales.  Ever try to read a full description on an iPhone?  Most people don't, they just click the pic.  Sometimes I wonder if we are returning to the illiteracy of the Middle Ages, where everything was taught in pictures.  I feel like shouting "Get the frak off your goram phone and go find a computer!"  Useless venting, to be sure.

An easy solution that ebay probably will ignore

There is an easy solution for all this:  Don't count cases that are resolved to the buyer's satisfaction.   It doesn't taken an MBA to see that this would be more fair.  Count only the cases that were escalated to being settled by eBay's Buyer Protection.  But if a buyer and seller work it out between themselves first, the seller should not be penalized. 

Will ebay take this advice (which I did give them personally)?  Probably not.  They never listen to us sellers anyway.  And they, sitting in their nice urban corporate offices (down in always warm San Jose, California), have zero understanding about what life is like in rural America.  Especially during bad weather.

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See also: Guess I'll never be a Top Rated Seller on ebay again --here's why -- a previous article by me about how it is impossible to meet their "1-day shipping" requirement if you are an Orthodox Jew who does not ship on Friday or Saturday because of the Sabbath.

Also check out these complaints about this new policy on Consumer Affairs.   I'm not the only seller being blindsided by this.