‘Noah’ and the Jews

‘Noah’ and the Jews

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Russell Crowe plays the title character in the biblical film epic “Noah.”

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.

Jewish tradition has a long history of encouraging interpretation of the “p’shat,” the literal text. Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel have done so, drawing from a rich mix of rabbinic literature. In contrast, some Christian and Muslim scholars and clergy have had trouble with the film, because it changes the Noah story’s fixed literal reading. Because of this initial reaction, Paramount, the film’s distributor, has chosen to alter its advertising, now saying that the film was “inspired” by the Bible 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.”

Mr. Aronofsky was affected by that experience and it found its way into his first narrative film. Text, interpretation, and choice of words are important ingredients in that film, “Pi,” made in 1998, a movie that would garner the young director a variety of awards and national attention. The film was about Max, a “numbers theorist,” who begins to make stock calculations based on his computer’s suggestions. He and his mentor, Sol, struggle with issues of mathematical logic, which only gets more complicated when Lenny introduces new questions related to gematria (a form of mystical mathematics that involves assigning numeric values to Hebrew letters). After “Pi,” Aronofsky made a series of strong, not always popular films, which included “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.” Most recently, he directed the highly acclaimed “The Wrestler” and “The Black Swan.” “Noah” marked a return to struggling with Jewish text.

“Noah” spends a great deal of time developing the character of the man who was chosen by the Creator to live through the catastrophic flood. Noah was righteous for his time, but as most commentators agree, he was an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Russell Crowe is excellent as Noah; he and Jennifer Connelly, as his wife, Naama, bring us a sense of a real couple struggling with intense difficulties. Anthony Hopkins, as always, is strong in his role as the sage Methuselah. But the real star of “Noah” is Emma Watson, who as Ila shows a broad swath of emotion as the late addition to the family. The film had a $150 million budget, and it seems that little expense was spared. I can attest that the moviemakers did their very best to make this story look as real as they could. They did an awesome job of giving us their interpretation of what happened in those four short chapters in B’reishit- the Book of Genesis.

Mr. Aronofsky chose to pull together a variety of stories in this epic film to best position it for popular consumption. There are the love stories, there are battles waged between the forces for evil and goodness, there are the sacrifices made to save the future, and there even are “Watchers,” Transformer-like characters who aid Noah in fulfilling his mission. There is even a moment when we see an Abraham story element introduced. Mr. Aronofsky was quick to say he inserted it “as a way to characterize God … that he is going to wipe out humanity … his creation. We were trying to put that in human terms.” There are enough moral questions and theological issues detailed onscreen to allow for great post-viewing discussions and Bible study. We even are treated to a refresher course on Creation and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. “Noah” is pure enjoyment, though because of some of the brutality, it is not for the very young.

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. One of the attendees, Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, showed me the reference to the Nephilim. It is at the end of parashat B’reishit, just before the Noah story. Rabbi Marans noted that the rabbis struggled with the question of who exactly the Nephilim – “who cohabitated with the daughters of man” – could be. Were they fallen angels? Some commentators thought so and Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel provide their own interpretation of these “Watchers,” these Nephilim, in their film.

Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel invite you to delve into their midrash and challenge them. If you are ready for a fine biblical film epic, go see “Noah”!

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