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.

*  *  *


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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Rabbi. I caught your review of the Noah movie in Amazon.com's comment section and found much of what you wrote interesting. Because I come from a different faith tradition, though, I was wondering how you interpret the basic Noah story as told in the Bible. Is it truth? Or is it based on an older extra-biblical source, such as the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh? I look forward to reading your reply. Thanks.


Yonassan Gershom said...

I think the basic story has truth in it AND it was probably passed down orally from earlier sources. It is very possible that Noah and Gilgamesh are based on the same --even earlier -- events. The Bible as we have it now was not written down until much later.

As I mentioned in the comments discussion of my review, there is a theory that the Flood was the filling up of the Black Sea basin at the end of the Ice Age, as the Mediterranean rose and spilled over the Bosporus Strait. There is some pretty convincing evidence of this in geology, etc. I read somewhere that James Cameron had taken his submersible down there and seen what could be ruins.

If there was a civilization down there, it makes sense that survivors might have gone in different directions, each carrying the story of a Flood that wiped out everything. It might not have been global, but it was the whole worlds as they knew it.

To me it is not as important for everything to be literal as it is for it to be meaningful. As in, what does this story teach us today? We are seeing lots of floods, rising ocean levels, etc. The Flood story ends with God saying he won't flood us out again, but there is nothing to say we won't do it ourselves with pollution.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Rabbi. Another question to further this discussion. In your review, you said Jews don't depend entirely on the Bible for their theology, but consult a host of other literature that interprets the Bible. The director of the Noah movie pulled from this other literature, you wrote, and fashioned his movie from his interpretation of it. So the rock monsters in his movie could be considered a valid part of the Noah story, according to this other literature. So my question is this: For you as a Jew and a Rabbi, does this extra-biblical literature hold the same weight (meaning power and authority) as the Bible itself? Thanks again for your reply.


Yonassan Gershom said...

Some does, some doesn't, depends on what writings we are talking about. This would be a whole college course but here is the Cliff Notes version:

There are two basic categories of Jewish material: Halachah (Law) and midrash (commentary.) Extra-biblical legal material such as the Talmud is authoritative for Jewish life. It was given to Moses along with the Written Torah, but not written down until much later (stone tablets were very heavy to carry around, so were scrolls, so memorization was much more common back then.) Think of the Torah as the Constitution, and the Talmud is the Supreme Court decisions.

In other words, if you have JUST the Bible, it is often not clear exactly how something is to be applied in real life. My favorite example is "eye for an eye" which in English common idiom means "tit-for-tat revenge." But not in Jewish law. There is no case in Jewish law where a person's eye was ever poked out in retribution. The law means monetary compensation for loss of the eye, and that everyone's eye -- from peasant to king -- is worth the same. Very different from some ancient systems where even touching the king meant death.

When it comes to midrash -- the more "mythological" or storytelling parts of the extra-biblical literature, There are Jews who take it literally and Jews who don't. One is not always required to take midrash literally but it often expands our understanding. So one can take the "rock monsters" or leave them, but they are one way of understanding the fallen angels in Genesis. Christians have interpreted them as Satan and his demons -- also mythological, since the text itself does not say that, either. But lots of Christian art paints them that way. In both cases, the imagery was derived from both the text and traditional interpretation.

Even the word "angels" itself is loaded with "baggage" -- in Christianity, they are etheric beings with wings. But the Hebrew word is "malach" which simply means "messenger," and can be either physical or spiritual. And Heaven" -- "shamayim" in Hebrew -- just means "sky." Christians picture angels on clouds with harps. Jews picture the spiritual Garden of Eden. Both of which are mythological.

Some of midrash is homilies, some of it plays on Hebrew words, some of it is stories about teachers and rabbis, some of it is books not in the Bible but still very important -- such as the books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees, which contain, among other things, the story of Hanukkah.

And BTW, your gospels were originally in this midrash category when Christianity was still connected to Judaism. They are written very much in the style of midrash, teaching tales about about a wandering rabbi who did miracles, sermons and parables, interpretations of lines of scripture, etc. To the early followers it would have been similar in weight to the stories of Hasidic Rebbes today. It would not have had the same sort of authority as the Hebrew Scriptures (what you call "Old Testament") but still important to those Jews who followed Jesus as their Rebbe. (continued in next comment)

Yonassan Gershom said...

(continued) In other words, the "New" Testament would have been in the category of midrash told by this particular Jewish sect -- informative for them but not as authoritative as the Torah and Prophets, and not necessarily accepted by other Jewish schools of thought.

Later, of course, Christianity broke off from Judaism and went its own way -- and Jews today do not see any authority in the Christian writings, other than maybe some history. Christians, on the other hand, consider the Gospels authoritative scripture to be taken literally. They have also developed their own way of reading and interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures which often differs radically from the Jewish reading of it. (As in "eye for an eye" discussed above.)

Back to Jewish midrash, some of this is material passed down orally for many generations before being written down. An analogy might be family stories passed down before somebody collects it all and writes a family history book. The Bible is the Jewish family history.

And all of this material is collectively "Torah." Vocabulary lesson: "A Torah" is the physical scroll; "The Torah" is the Five Books of Moses; and "Torah" without any article is the entire 5000+ years of Jewish writings and teachings. So when a Jew speaks of "Learning Torah," they do not mean "The Law" or just the books of Moses, they mean all of it. Puzzling through this material and debating it makes up a big part of Jewish learning.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the very detailed answer to my question, Rabbi. Although I'm not a member of this faith tradition, what you wrote reminds me a great deal of Roman Catholicism. Although Catholics acknowledge the Bible as a source of inspiration for their religion, they place just as much emphasis on church tradition to interpret and make sense of scripture. From your very detailed reply, this seems very much like how Jews approach the Bible.

This is most unfortunate, because tradition is based on the faulty feelings and subjective opinions of man, while scripture by its very nature is an objective source of information relayed to us by a very real and loving God.

One thing that separates the Bible from any other sacred writings or any book from antiquity is that the God revealed in its pages challenges his readers to compare himself with any other god. One of the ways he does this is by predicting future events. Depending on the source, it's been said that the Bible is between a quarter and a third predictive prophecy. What's your opinion of prophecy? Are we living in a time where we're seeing its fulfillment?


Yonassan Gershom said...

I would disagree that
"tradition" is based on "faulty feelings of men (and women." We Jews believe that along with the written text, moses also received the oral tradition, which he pased on to the leders. Remember that writing in ancient timeswas very lqborious - people did not have pocket bibles. A great deal was carfully memorized and passed down from teacher to student. Only later --when the technology of writing impoved -- was a lot of it written down.

Just because the Christians (of which I assume you are one) rejected the rest of the Jewish teachings does not invalidate them. It is, in fact, rather arrogant of you to be telling Jews what is or is not valid, given that the Bible is originally a Jewish text. We hacve the right to determine the validity of our own theology.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rabbi,

A great deal of what you wrote here I agree with. The Bible we have today was indeed compiled from earlier memorizations of teachings passed down orally from one person to another. When the technology advanced, the teachings made their way carefully to the printed page.

You must understand that the Jewish people are to be commended for the Bible. It's been a great blessing for millions and millions of people for centuries. In times of war and times of peace, in times of health and times of sickness, in times of chaos and times of tumult, untold numbers of people have found refuge and strength in God's word. So thanks so much for being part of the group of very dedicated people who care about God's word and want to see it understood properly within its context.

Please don't take what I wrote as an affront or an insult. That was furthest from my mind. I'm trying to better understand the role extra-biblical literature plays in Jewish theology. Your review of the Noah film points out how we look at the same story and come to different conclusions. I think this is partly due to how we each approach reading and understanding the Bible. I'd like to expand upon this a bit in another posting, because I greatly appreciate your knowledge and insight. Blessings to you.

- Brian

Yonassan Gershom said...

Brian: Apologies for taking so long to reply. Family stuff and the fact we are heading into the Jewish High Holy Days season has kept me offline lately. Anyway, the question of how Jews view materials that are not in the Bible is a topic way beyond exploring in a blog post. Many, many books have been written about this, but to find them, you need to know that books about Judaism are not in the "Old Testament" section of the library -- that's the CHRISTIAN take on it. books about Judaism are under "Judaism" or "Judaica." Ditto for internet searches.

The basic difference is that "Old Testament" sites talk about us in the past, as if we are dinosaurs that became fossilized and should have gone extinct when Jesus came. From thier POV, Judaism is nothing more than a prefix to Christianity.

"Judaica" sites, on the other hand, are generally written by Jews from our living tradition, which continued to grow and develop after Christianity split off from the Jewish path. So you are most likely missing 2000 years of Jewish history, theology, culture, texts, etc. A lot of catching up to do!

KateGladstone said...

Re predators in the Ark living on milk "as it was in Eden" — the teeth and digestive systems of adult predators are not suited to an all-milk diet. Most predators — and most mammals, in fact — become lactose-intolerant soon after they are too old to be suckled any more.

BlahBlahBlog said...

Re-Edit: Shalom Rabbi Gershom

Although I love your website in general, I have to disagree with your contention calling the movie "noah" a midrash...as you are certainly aware the Torah specifically mentions the sin of the Flood generation as "כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס" which in general means robbery/violent theft/kidnap and in this context - pertaining to the "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" (whether these are mere humans, sons of VIPs or "Angels" is irrelevant) but their sin was " וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ" or in other words forcing married or unmarried women to copulate with and against their (and their mate's) will, so this sin of robbery is more of sexual exploitation.
Some Commentators add the "איסור משכב זכר ובהמה" (sodomy and laying with beasts) which is also sexual sin. NOWHERE in the Torah, Talmud or Midrash does it state that environmental pollution is a sin, and its certsinly not one of the "שבע מצוות בני נח" (Seven Laws of Noah) and thus the world could not be judged as if it was. The movie portrays or implies that was the reason for the flood.... So missing (and misleading about) the whole reason for the flood is just too much to call this movie a Midrash.

Yonassan Gershom said...

BlahBlah: Every generation grapples with Torah in the light of its own time and situation. As Ben Bag-Bag says, "turn the Torah over and over, for everything is in it." "Mi-Drash" means "from searching," and I believe that is what Aronofsky was doing. He did not completely miss the sexual perversion issue. There are scenes that suggest it. However he chose to emphasize a different aspect of the story, one that he felt is more relevant to our times. I find that perfectly legitimate.

Regarding the vegetarian issue, it is clear that Eden was vegetarian. Permission to eat meat is not given in Genesis until AFTER the Flood, and Judaism has frowned on hunting, which is how the Tubal-Cain & his cronies are obtaining meat in the movie. So it is not too great a stretch to say -- as Aronofsky implies -- that eating meat is a concession to the moral degeneration of the human race.

BlahBlahBlog said...

With all due respect, About Aronofosky's work as Midrash - I beg to differ. This is not a case of "שבעים פנים לתורה" but rather of "מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה" and I believe the word "מגלה" in this context, is not about discovery but about Exile ( גלות = טומאה )....

Making it about something that wasn't (environmental and pollution etc.) does not make it relevant to our times because fiction can never be relevant to neither Reality nor the Truth.

The movie misses the main point entirely, (regarding the morality issues and reason of the flood) and indeed misleads the modern yet unschooled spectator about it. So I would never characterize such fiction as a Midrash.

Yonassan Gershom said...

BlahBlah: I guess we are just going to have to agree to disagree on this. But let me point out that even Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, who is NOT a vegetarian and is in fact VERY, VERY HOSTILE to vegetarianism, acknowledges that humankind was originally intended to be vegetarian (see the opening paragraphs of his essay The Significance of Eating Meat.)

We are taught that every word of Torah has 70 meanings so there is certainly room for differing viewpoints. Frankly, I think certain segments of the Orthodox community are too fixated on sexuality issues nowadays, to the detriment of other important issues we are choosing to ignore. At this point in history, the world is far more likely to be destroyed by climate change and other misuses of God's Creation than by fornication (which is still wrong, but to my way of thinking not as big a threat as to human survival.)

As for whether or not a movie can be a Midrash, we are quibbling about semantics. I am using the term in the broader sense, you in the narrower. Eleh v'eleh (My computer doesn't do Hebrew letters here.)

Yonassan Gershom said...

One more thought BlahBlah: Aronofsky *did* show scenes of robbery and violence, and in the scene where Noah goes to Tubal-Cain's camp to find wives for his sons, there are strong implications of rape & cannibalism. That was the reason he chose *not* to marry his daughters to them. True, the actual fornication events happen off-stage, not in front of the camera. Doing so would have made it an R not a PG-13. Do you really think that adding more explicit sex scenes would have improved the movie? I don't.