Movie Review | Noah: A Very Jewish Retelling
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.
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: Haaretz.com
I saw Noah today and I loved it. Here I focus on the Jewishness of the movie and our approach to scripture. http://t.co/nGeudWVmiT
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) March 31, 2014