Culture

Noah: A Good Jewish Boy's Cinematic Drash

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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.

Aronofsky’s Noah remains, first and foremost, a story of redemption as it was interpreted thousands of years ago when paired with Haftarah portions in Isaiah (42-43 and 54-55) for the weekly Torah reading. Like the patriarch Jacob, Noah wrestles with God: the battle is a question of original sin and free will. Redemption, Aronofsky illustrates, is a choice entered into by covenant with God. It is not simply a no-strings-attached gift granted to perfectly bad people by a perfectly good looking guy who tests well with focus groups.

Contrary to most Bible epics, a faceless, voiceless God communicates His redemptive plan to Noah through the Biblically prophetic device of a metaphoric dream. “You must trust that He speaks to you in a way you understand,” Noah’s grandfather Methuselah advises. Reminiscent of the Tanakh prophecy “your old men will see visions, your young men will dream dreams,” Aronofsky engages Noah with his aged, wise grandfather, who advises him of Enoch’s prophecy that God would, one day, annihilate the world by fire.

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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.”

With this understanding in mind, Noah plants a seed from Gan Eden, given to him by Methuselah. Water springs from the earth and a forest grows overnight, supplying the gofer wood for the infamous ark, sheltering Noah and his family while they prepare, and guiding the animals to safety. It was a brilliant interpretation on Aronofsky’s part to marry the miraculous idea with the equally miraculous logic of nature, calling to mind scholar Simcha Jacobovici’s powerfully practical account of the miracles of the exodus from Egypt in Exodus Decoded. Watching the desert spring forth with new life also brought to mind Zionist prophecy. It became clear that the ark was Noah’s land of Israel, a place of safety and method of salvation from a corrupted and dangerous world.

The Haftarah portion in Isaiah 42 details the calling out of Israel to be a light unto the nations. It should come as no surprise that Noah and his family are this light. This does not mean, however, that they are perfect. “Who is as blind as my servant or as deaf as the messenger I send?” the prophet announces. So it could be said of Noah who, when confronted with a demon-infested populace, wrestles with the idea that the human race, an abomination to God, must be destroyed. It is in Aronofsky’s interpretation of this wrestling that the Christian audience has taken its greatest issue.

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Ila, wife of Shem, is rendered barren as a result of a wound received in her youth. Noah’s wife pursues a miracle for her and the girl receives one in the form of a blessing from Methuselah before the flood. (Haftarah Isaiah 54:1: “Sing, barren woman who has never had a child!”) However, by this point, Noah is convinced that he and his family must die out, freeing earth from the evil of humanity. Upon hearing that Ila is expecting, he vows to kill her children if they are girls because they will have the ability to bring forth new life. Noah’s determination to kill in order to honor God contrasts with his son Ham’s wrestling with sin in the form of Cain, the evil king who sneaks onto the Ark and is nursed back to health by the confused boy.

“But that never happened!” is the stomping reaction to Aronofsky’s metaphor. Or did it? Perhaps Cain the person did not get onto the Ark, but the sinful nature of man didn’t get left outside the door. Aronofsky employs Cain to illustrate Ham’s/humanity’s struggle with the evil inclination. Cain is also the embodiment of the Haftarah verses in Isaiah 54: “Any alliance that forms against you will not be my doing; whoever tries to form such an alliance will fall because of you. It is I who created the craftsman who blows on the coals and forges weapons suited to their purpose; I also created the destroyer to work havoc. No weapon made will prevail against you.”

What gentiles interpret as Noah’s bizarre murderous streak isn’t far off from Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac: the forefather bound his son and held a knife to his head before he was stopped by God. This is Aronofsky, the Talmudic scholar of a filmmaker, crafting spiritual concept into physical character in a cinematic ideological tale. As children we are taught that Noah is good; Aronofsky drashes this further for his adult audience: Why is he good? And why are we worth saving?

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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. If the rating and the fact that Russell Crowe was playing Noah weren’t enough of a sign, Aronofsky made it clear from the beginning that this is no children’s bedtime story. Rather, it is the first of many accounts detailing man’s complicated relationship with God in a world where “sin is crouching at the door”. Redemption and salvation are real, but they are not delivered in a neat little package with a bow on top and wooden animals inside. Rather, they are illustrative of the struggle of man to overcome sin; a struggle that requires him to humble himself beyond his own knowledge and understanding, to seek out God’s wisdom, and to believe he is worthy enough to accept God’s salvation. And there is nothing more Biblical than that.