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.