The story of Noah in the Bible is fertile ground for intense theological debate and controversy. Incredibly, the recently released film “Noah” has generated almost as much discussion as the biblical account. It is impossible to review the movie without first addressing some of the criticism directed at it.
The feature film is visually stunning and a technical marvel. Russell Crowe shines in his role as Noah and his co-stars live up to the lofty standard he sets for the cast. “Noah” is a modern retelling of the biblical epic – with a difference. The film does not rewrite the Bible story as much as it retells it by filling in the blanks. The sources and meaning of these gap-fillers have become a thorny issue.
Christian fundamentalists and political conservatives take issue, in particular, with some of the social circumstances of the antediluvian era. But many of these critiques are misguided, like the suggestion that the only sin for which mankind is punished in the film version of “Noah” is harming Mother Nature and that humanity’s many other moral shortcomings are ignored.
Many of the gap fillers are borrowed directly from Midrashic literature firmly anchored in the Jewish tradition. Other plot elements not found in scripture are adapted from the Midrash, other sections of the Bible, and fairly well known Jewish mysticism. The strangest addition to the cinematic story is a lifted directly from “The Book of Enoch,” an ancient Jewish text. Following the Midrashic tradition, director Darren Aronofsky uses inventive ideas to solve problems in the text, like a forest spontaneously appearing to supply wood and magical creatures helping to build the ark. Similarly, the incredible visuals of the creation story as it unfolds in the film are heavy on evolution imagery. Judaism is comfortable reconciling creation and evolution so I was right at home seeing this retelling of creation. Indeed, “Noah” is a very Jewish retelling of the story….
See the rest of the review here Noah A Very Jewish retelling of the story
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Rabbi Eliyahu Fink also writes on his blog:
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….
Survivors of Noah’s flood
From the Jewish Encyclopedia
Og, Amorite king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth and was conquered by Moses and Israel in the battle of Edrei (Num. xxi. 33), sixty fortified cities, with high walls, gates, and bars, comprising the region of Argob, being taken and given to the children of Machir, son of Manasseh (Deut. iii. 13; Josh. xiii. 31).
Og was one of the giants of the remnant of the Rephaim. His iron bedstead in Rabbath, the capital of Ammon, is described as having been nine cubits in length and four cubits in breadth (Deut. iii. 11).
In Rabbinical Literature:
Og was not destroyed at the time of the Flood (Niddah 61a), for, according to one legend, the waters reached only to his ankles (Midrash Petirat Moshe (Hebrew: מדרש פטירת משה) or Midrash on the Death of Moses, i. 128, in Jellinek, “B. H.” ii.).
Another tradition states that he fled to Palestine, where there was no flood (Rashi to Niddah, ad loc.); while, according to a third legend, he sat on a rung of the ladder outside the ark, and, after he had sworn to be a slave to Noah and his children, received his food each day through a hole made in the side of the ark (Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, פרקי דרבי אליעזר, or פרקים דרבי אליעזר, Chapters of Rabbi Eliezar, ch. xxiii.). Og was known also as “Ha-Paliṭ” (see Gen. xiv. 13).