Movie Review | Noah: A Very Jewish Retelling

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I was asked to do a review of Noah for Haaretz so I took some time to see the movie today. My full review will be posted there, but there are a couple of things I want to say about the movie that are more appropriate for my blog.

In general, I’m not much of a Bible movie guy. But I was excited for Noah because I think it’s a story that is rich with complex questions that leave a ton of room for exploring old and new ideas. In this respect, Noah excelled. It did explore old and new ideas. Some of it was odd and very far afield, but it all makes sense in the context of the story.

That’s why I say Noah is a very Jewish movie. As far as I know, Christians have pretty monolithic views of the Old Testament. It’s just not as important as the New Testament to them and perhaps that is why there is less creativity and homiletics in Christianity. Also, Christianity is not a text based religion so there are fewer scholars and fewer opportunities to analyze text. Further, when studying religious trends, one scholar refers to “Biblical Literalism” as a marker of devotion to Christianity. Even the most fervent Orthodox Jews are not Biblical Literalists. Orthodox Jews treat the Old Testament as the basis for a sophisticated oral tradition. We are absolutely not Biblical Literalists. There are certainly boundaries of acceptable allegory and well established interpretations that are preferred over others. But it’s not true literalism.

For Jews, Midrash has such a prominent place in Torah study. There are many kinds of Midrash, and one form of Midrash adds details and background to the Biblical narratives. It’s common for great Torah scholars to learn a new approach or twist on a Biblical story found in a Midrash. Our versions of these stories encompass competing and contradictory views. Even today, long after the closing of the Midrash texts, many great rabbis, especially in Chasidic circles, will derive new lessons and find new twists in the story to teach an important idea.Noah-2014-Movie-Image-2

In that sense, Noah takes the Jewish approach. The movie strays very far from the text. In the Bible, the story of the flood is long on construction details and specific dates but short on lessons and drama. The movie contrives much of its drama, but it’s not completely Hollywood imagination. Many of the superimposed conflicts and stories have roots in Torah and Jewish tradition. Whether it’s borrowing from the Book of Enoch or adapting from actual Midrashic teachings, much of the movie, with one giant exception, felt familiar enough to me.

Perhaps the most vocal and most common criticism I’ve seen from conservatives has been their objection to the ecological overtones of the movie. Aside from my personal opinion that worrying about this kind of not subliminal, subliminal message in a movie is silly, the truth is that our tradition supports this idea.

One Midrash teaches us that until Noah saved the animals in his ark, Man was prohibited from eating meat. Adam was a vegetarian. The animal world was protected and Man had no right to kill for his lunch. Only because Noah was responsible for the survival of the animals was he permitted to eat meat after the flood. Another tradition says that we couldn’t eat meat for our personal pleasure until we entered the Land of Canaan in the time of Joshua. According to one stream of Jewish thought, even then, eating meat is not ideal. Rav Kook famously held that vegetarianism was part of the Utopian Messianic era. This is not hippy drippy Hollywood. This is Judaism.

Similarly, in our tradition Noah was named for his farming innovations. One Midrash says that Noah invented the plow. It’s not a disconcerting invasion of foreign modernity to see Noah as a symbol of agrarian life. Another Midrash teaches us that Noah was super sensitive to the needs of the animals in the ark. He was a sort of proto-animal rights activist. That’s not the liberal movie industry, that’s Torah.

Throughout the movie there is a magical light source called zohar. It can be mined like a precious stone and could provide light and fire if used the right way. I thought this was a clever adaptation of the Midrash that explains the “tzohar” that Noah placed in the ark for light. One opinion in the Midrash is that the tzohar was a precious stone that provided light. It seems obvious to me that this is the source for zohar in Noah. The movie simply turned tzohar into zohar (which means radiance) and assumed that these stones were available to everyone.

Here are some other adaptations from Midrash that occurred to me during the movie. Don’t worry, I won’t reveal how these examples are used in the movie.  There is a Midrash that says that the animals came to the ark on their own. One Midrash teaches that people began to attack the ark as the rains began and the wild animals surrounded the ark to protect Noah and his family. Some rabbis teach that Noah had little faith and did not enter the ark until the water rose above his ankles. We have a tradition that Og was a kind of stowaway on the ark. There are more examples, but you get the picture. To someone familiar with Midrash, embellishments like these are expected and accepted. To Biblical Literalists, they might be offensive.

I also loved the portrayal of Noah as a conflicted hero. He is so easy to love and admire for much of the movie. Later in the movie he becomes an anti-hero. You’re rooting against him. To me, this was a modern take on the famous dispute between the rabbis about whether Noah was only righteous compared to the sinners of his time or if he was truly righteous despite his evil milieu. Before everyone is killed in the flood, Noah is objectively good. He is good compared to the people of his time. But when it’s just him and his family, there are no more evil people to compare with Noah, he falls and seems less righteous.

Noah is a pretty good movie. For people accustomed to learning lessons and studying rabbinic teachings that add to the Biblical text, the movie should not offend. But I do see why Biblical Literalists are so disturbed. I just don’t understand their expectations. At worst, they could view the movie about a fictional Noah the way they might view Neo from the Matrix as a fictional version of Jesus.

I thought it was really cool to see a modern retelling of the Noah story. Of course there is a ton of stuff that is decidedly not Torah or Judaism. But that didn’t bother me. I didn’t see the movie to learn the story of Noah. It’s a movie that tells the story of Noah in a new way but borrows heavily from text and tradition. Its purpose was to entertain, but it also has the side benefit of promoting discussion and debate about Torah. That’s a good thing too.

My full review in Haaretz touches on the themes and message of the movie. Read it here:


  • AY Lawrence

    I like your review. On a different note…

    • Whatever. If you want to kvetch and moan there’s always a way. My five year old is really good at that too.

      • AY Lawrence

        Yes – R’ Bleich’s review is the knee-jerk type of reaction I was expecting from ‘the establishment’. Yours was not. Touche.

  • DF

    Your review is fairly typical of what I would expect from a left-winger “asked by Haaretz” to write a review. Claiming that environmentalism is part of our tradition, and so forth. The usual stuff.
    To say that the existence of a midrash makes something part of our tradition is a misrepresentation. I’m sure you have Ginzberg’s Legends on your shelf – there are midrashim to support just about any viewpoint you can think of. I saw some blog brining down the midrash about Cham, and proclaimed the Noach story to be all about homosexuals. Another brought down the exact opposite midrash, and declared the story to be about sexual abuse. Still other speaks of the curse of Ham, and thus says the lesson of the Torah here is racism. Someone else noticed the drinking wine aspect, and discovered that the parsha stood for the lesson of alcohol abuse. Now you’re telling us its all about environmentalism. Any other current liberal fad someone wants to shtip into the parsha? Nothing here about transgenderism – how bout we shoehorn that into the creation story, bc the midrash says Adam was born a hermaphrodite.
    The problem with all the above nonsense, and it is nonsense, is that the Torah IS unabashedly liberal, and you don’t have to go hunting around for midrashim to prove it. If I was a piece of Gemara I would say the whole Torah can be reduced to one principle, of helping the poor. Once upon a time, that WAS liberalism. Somewhere around the 1960s this country made a wrong turn and began defining liberalism – to a generation of kids bereft of religion in school and hence ready to believe in anything- in a new way. Sad for the country.
    Anyway, I’ve not seen the movie, and as much as I like Russel Crowe, probably wont. I don’t need to see a movie to get preached to, I can get that at shul, or hell, on this very blog. Very stupid move on the producers’s part, in my opinion. They should have learned from Mel Gibson that there are millions of Americans ready to spend money of films with a religious message. But by making this an environmental screed, they botched it up. Hollywood, in the usual liberal religion-phobe way, thinks “the other” are a bunch of rubes who can be sold on a film just by calling it a biblical name. Guess they think those weird jesus freaks don’t know how to use the internet.

    • The Midrashic traditions I mentioned in this article are all mainstream Midrashim. Heck, most of them are found in Rashi.

      It seems like not only didn’t you see the movie, you didn’t read the article you’re commenting on. It’s also kind of silly to call something you haven’t seen an environmental screed. You probably should see it, especially if you like Russell Crowe. He was excellent. It’s not preachy and some parts of the movie were quite beautiful.

      • DF

        Well, perhaps I eventually will see it, because of Crowe. But a movie can be preachy without being overtly so. Look at the 3d movie, what was it called….Avatar. Everyone knows its an environmental movie, even though at no point does anyone actually quite wag a finger and lecture.
        As for the midrashim, I acknowledge the ones you mention (though not Rav Kook’s idea of sacrificing a potato) can be called mainstream. However – – there is a big jump from there, towards calling environmentalism itself, mainstream. This is part of a larger problem I’ve addressed in different places. The Torah unquestionably has a liberal point of view in many things, as I said above. But jumping from that to today’s version of liberalism is an unsupported leap. It would be like saying that because the Torah prohibits cruelty to animals, that we call the Torah a PETA supporter. Or taking Devarim 16:20 as a support of affirmative action/reverse racism. So while it is true that the midrashim themselves can fairly be called mainstream, the Torah cannot fairly be said to support “environmentalism” as we know it today through the EPA and state equivalents.

        • DF

          Oy vey. Lol. Forget what I said above, about maybe going to see it. I just clicked on the link AY Lawrence referenced above. This is a Darren Arnovsky movie. My wife and I just watched PI this past motzei Shabbos, because it was streaming on Netflix and rotten tomatoes gave it good scores. And we thought it was awful. The most pretentious art-house bit of trash we’d been subjected to in a while. So no thanks to another of his offerings.

          Also, note that said Arnovsky is quoted in said link saying: “There is a huge statement in the film, a strong message about the coming flood from global warming.”
          So much for it not being an environmental screed.

          • It is a bit pretentious. But I don’t mind that. And Arnovsky was being provocative. He was saying that there is a strong message about the coming flood from global warming, but by no means is that THE message or even an overt message.

        • But the movie has nothing to do with PETA or the EPA. Its environmentalist message is like a paraphrase from Mesilas Yesharim who quotes Koheles Raba: “בשעה שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את אדם הראשון, נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו, ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחים הן, וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי”

    • ksil

      “Sad for the country” i doubt blacks, or gays, or women, or other minorities, or the rich, or the poor, feel that way….but you do, so mazel tov

  • Hanan

    Rabbi, the torah makes it very obvious that the flood came due to one reason, and that is because God proclaims man is too corrupt. If one sees the movie, is that (most important)point evident, or is lost (or shuffled) along with other messages?

    • Super duper evident.

      • Rod Martin, Jr.

        Genesis seems to imply that God was satisfied with the performance of the Flood, because He promised never again to use the Flood. But did the Flood cure humanity of that corruption of flesh, wickedness and violence? Perhaps only a type of these was cured which displeased the Heavenly Father.

        So, from what was humanity cured? We may have the answer. Finally!

        Rod Martin, Jr.
        author of “The Bible’s Hidden Wisdom: God’s Reason for Noah’s Flood”

    • But the Torah ALSO says that God “regrets” creating man. That is also pretty clear.

  • jay

    I also loved the portrayal of Noah as a conflicted hero. He is so easy
    to love and admire for much of the movie. Later in the movie he becomes
    an anti-hero. You’re rooting against him.”

    Haven’t seen the movie, but generally an anti-hero is a complex protagonist, who although has flaws, the viewer would not root against.

    • You’re right. I think I meant to say “you’re almost rooting against him”. I’ll fix it.

  • Osbrew

    Thanks for the review. I appreciate seeing one from a Jewish perspective, rather than all the Christian perspectives that have been dominating the media. As a Catholic though, I disagree with a few assertations you made in the beginning regarding Christians having monolithic views of the Old Testament and biblical literalism being the marker of devotion. While there are definitely many who take a very literal interpretation of the Bible (and they are often the most outspoken), there are also many who attempt to understand the cultural, historical, and literary contexts of the various books and stories, understanding that there are many writing styles present. This is especially strong in the Catholic tradition. Other than that, I found your review very interesting and informative. Thanks!

    • Rod Martin, Jr.

      Well said, @Osbrew. I too am a Christian who does not fit into the “monolithic” mode, but the spiritual mode. I belong to no denomination, because such a concept only divides us and, because God is love, we should come together — not under any one denomination, but under the Heavenly Father himself.

      I love this movie because it is such a wonderful conversation starter. Even though I haven’t seen it, I still hunger to see it. Here in the Philippines the opening date was supposed to be April 2, but it has been delayed indefinitely.

  • Rod Martin, Jr.

    Wonderful! Thanks for these wonderful insights into the movie. Yes! A conversation starter and that’s a good thing, because we’re talking about God and His work.

    Perhaps it was a bit ironic that my book on the same topic was finally published about the time the movie came out. I guess this is the season for discussing Noah.

    What I found in my own research is that Noah’s Flood was an act of love — only this and nothing more. Understanding this idea still gives me goosebumps. Oi gevalt! Whooohh!

    Rod Martin, Jr.
    author of “The Bible’s Hidden Wisdom: God’s Reason for Noah’s Flood”

  • Billie Mintz

    I thought the movie was excellent. It was full of imagination and got me thinking both about man’s inherent corruption and made me think about God as well. I’m still thinking about it.