A Jewish Response to Noah

There's been much written of the response to the new Darren Aronofsky movie Noah in the faith community. Prior to the film's release, there was speculation over whether the "faith audience" would embrace or reject Aronofsky's adaptation. There were rumblings of discontent with the liberties taken and the poetic license employed. There were musings, cautions, and admonitions by many who hadn't seen the film. And finally, the release date came, and the response was neither brimstone nor beatification.

There was no mass pilgrimage to the theaters as there was with "The Passion", nor was there a crusade against the film as there was with "The Last Temptation." There have been those who have decried the film as an atheist screed directed at the heavens, and others who have embraced it for its opening of conversation regardless of its extra-textual additions and interpretations.

What goes a bit unnoticed amongst all of this talk of the "faith audience" is that these responses are almost exclusively from Christians. And it's no wonder -- there are a lot of Christians! Not only that, there are a lot of Christians talking about movies and other mass media today. For good reason -- movies and media are the most far-reaching and powerful ways to reach the masses, so if you're trying to communicate with the world, there is no better way to do so.

Hollywood, meantime, has started paying very careful attention to what the Christians are saying. Not because the industry has suddenly seen the light, but rather because they've seen the money. Contrary to what many believe, Hollywood is not a dark cult committed to dealing sex, drugs, and rock & roll in order to debase our society. Rather, Hollywood is a business that is focused on pecuniary values that frankly doesn't care what they're peddling as long as it sells. This is a gross generalization of course, and there are many individuals in Hollywood who care deeply about the world, but as far as "the industry" goes, most would admit that this is a fair characterization.

So the studios have created "faith divisions" -- like Fox Faith and Sony Affirm -- to cater to the new opportunity that the faith market represents. But if you speak to the executives at these studios, as I have, they will open admit that the "faith" title is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, they might as well be called Fox and Sony Evangelical as they are catering almost exclusively to Christians because they are a large demographic that is well organized and easy to market to.

None of this is written as a complaint or an objection. I am personally quite pleased to see these trends towards more values-based content regardless of Hollywood's motives, and I applaud the Christian world for recognizing the value of media and engaging its adherents in meaningful conversation around entertainment. This is only to suggest that if we are talking about the response of the "faith audience", then there may be some value in a Jewish perspective.

For that, you would be well off to read this response by the always reliable and relevant Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. In addition to his excellent analysis, I wanted to add my thoughts as an Orthodox Jewish filmmaker who spends a lot of time thinking about media's influence on our culture.

Noah is an ambitious film. It is based, obviously, on a biblical narrative, but it is not, as Aronofsky himself admits, a "biblical" movie. It is about faith, but it is not "faith-based." As an avowed atheist, Aronofsky did not set out to inspire or promote faith. Rather, he set out to tell a powerful story and he turned to an epic tale that nearly all of us know. Listening to Aronofsky speak at Q & A's following both the premiere of "Black Swan" at the Toronto film festival and a later screening of the same film at the Philadelphia Film Festival, it was clear to me from his responses that his aim is to provoke. His goal as a filmmaker is to tell a dramatic story that provokes an emotional response and incites subsequent conversation. In that, he has succeeded with Noah, much as he did with his prior films.

But what he has not done is tell the story of Noah from a Jewish perspective. This is not a critique because this is clearly not what he intended to do. But it is nonetheless an important point to make, particularly in light of a thorough and generally even-handed review I recently read from a Christian critic named Aaron Earls who opined that Aronofsky's perspective is a result of "his cultural and religious heritage, along with his current beliefs (as a) secular Jew." As a Jew, Earls continues, "Aronofsky can give us a Noah who longs for creation, but he cannot show us a Noah who looks forward to the cross. There is no covenant from the Creator to promise a future redemption." In other words, because, as a Jew, Aronofsky will not be saved, therefore his film is bleak and nostalgic rather than hopeful and forward-looking.

But while it may be true according to Earls' theology that Jews will not be saved -- and he's certainly entitled to his opinion on that -- it is untrue that Aronofsky's vision is consistent with Jewish philosophy. Aronofsky's bleak filmis a product of his secular humanist upbringing, not his Jewish heritage. Like his past films, Noah is dark and disturbed, and while the biblical narrative on which it is based is certainly tragic and challenging, it, like all of the Torah's stories, is full of hope, profundity, and inspiration.

On the simple level, the story of Noah is about sin and consequence, and Aronofsky focuses his Noah on the theme of judgement vs. mercy. However, the homiletic and mystic teachings on the narrative delve into much deeper waters. Noah's flood is a process of purification and reunification. It is a mikveh (ritual bath) in which the world is immersed in order to cleanse it of its blemishes and return it to its pristine holiness.

Orthodox Jewish women immerse in a mikveh monthly, and some men, particularly Chassidim, immerse in a mikvey daily, in order to attain a level of spiritual purity. In order to be kosher, a mikveh must contain at least 40 seah (a halachic measure of volume), just as the flood lasted 40 days. 40 seah is enough water for an average adult to be fully immersed, and what is purifying about a mikveh is the process of becoming completely engulfed and the concomitant realization that one is not separate from what surrounds him or her. We dissolve into the reality that everything is connected, and everything is one.

The Noah story is a debate between the ego and the infinite. Noah, representing each of us, is forced to ask 'am I for myself, or am I for the world; am I alone, or am I part of the master plan?' Of all the ways that the world could have been destroyed and rebooted, it was subjected to a flood in order to cleanse the creation of the self-consumption which began with the sin of the Garden of Eden. Prior to the eating of the apple, Adam and Eve were unaware of their separateness from everything around them, but afterwards they were suddenly cognizant of their nakedness, their ego, and they were afraid. The innovation of Noah was his sense that he was not alone, not accursed, and not adrift. He was immersed in the creation and his purpose even before the waters began to rise. The rest of the creation had become detached, alienated, uprooted from its connection and communion. The waters reconnected the creation to its source.

What is great about Noah is that it provokes introspection and consideration of big questions and issues, like what is our place in the larger scheme of the creation; how are we to approach the world, with strict justice or with mercy; how does God approach us? As a filmmaker, I admire films that offer more than distraction, and I applaud Aronofsky for publicly promoting such debate. As a Jew, I feel that the Noah story is far more uplifting than the one that he chose to tell, and I look forward to movies that inspire audiences and encourage them to positively impact our world.