Unpacking 'Noah' to Redefine Religiosity

Aronofsky's film is deeply religious, presenting a broader definition of the term than traditional Orthodox Judaism might do.

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Russel Crowe in new movie 'Noah'
Russel Crowe in new movie 'Noah'Credit: Screenshot

Living in Israel, one is often asked to define oneself as dati or hiloni, religious or secular. However, this distinction often breaks down on closer examination. A spiritual person who avoids the synagogue may actually be more “religious” than an orthopractic individual going through the ritualistic motions. Today, the boundaries and definitions of who is religious are blurred, based on criteria other than form. Religiosity is perhaps more aligned with questioning and sensibility - qualities evident in abundance in the recently released film "Noah."

In an interview and then a panel discussion after the opening of their film, Darren Aronofsky and his co-scriptwriter, Ari Handel, (both Jewish) describe themselves as not religious. However, as noted by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones:

“Noah is a deeply religious and spiritual film containing an authentic moral message. And that message feeds strongly into a vital and growing religious tradition of our time, one that especially appeals to younger believers: faith-based environmentalism, or what is sometimes called ‘creation care,’ which uses biblically based moral imperatives to impel conservation and stewardship.”

The themes of conservation and stewardship are most clearly articulated in the film when Noah relates the biblical creation narrative with computer-enhanced animation in an exciting display of aural and visual imagery. The “six days” of creation are understood metaphorically, in line with a religious-scientific perspective, which includes the Big Bang and evolution.

For their film, Aronofsky and Handel relied heavily on midrash, the aggadic, homiletic stories and moral lessons that are the part of the Talmud, the Oral Law, that provide context to the biblical narrative. Rashi, the great 11th Century French commentator, on the verse Genesis 6:9, the first in the Torah portion of Noach, comes to explain Noah’s level of righteousness. Rashi, focusing on the phrase that Noah was perfect in his generations, draws upon Midrash to teach that if Noah had lived in a time of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. An alternative explanation then suggests that if Noah had lived in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered exceptional.

This alternative explanation draws on the instructions in the Bible that Noah receives directly from G-d. The world is to be destroyed by water and there are necessary preparations to save Noah’s family and representative animals. Noah then, without question, goes about the business of building the ark, without attempting to alter the decision through argument with G-d, and without trying to positively influence his surroundings. In contrast to Abraham’s active questioning of G-d on the morality of destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah acts as a morally neutral agent of G-d’s will.

In Aronofsky’s version of this narrative, Noah experiences G-d in visions and dreams. Interpreting the prophecy, as through a glass darkly, Noah becomes an active partner in implementing the plan, while at the same time he struggles with the difficult choices that have to be made. Part of the communication received is clear and in sync with the Bible; that because of the complete corruption of the world, it is to be destroyed by water. However, in contrast to the biblical narrative, where it is explicit that G-d intends to restart the postdiluvian world with both animals and human beings, in the film version, He is silent on mankind’s fate.

Noah is left to consider the utter depravity of his time and his moral responsibility to ensure a different future. Recalling the idyllic world that G-d originally created, the film here becomes a proponent for the environmental movement, evoking our modern predicament of potential ecological disaster. This message is coupled with a depiction of our innate propensity for cruelty, violence and war (Aronofsky here seems to be accepting a Christian perspective on original sin). With these weighty issues in mind, it is Noah who struggles with the question of whether the new world would be better off with or without mankind.

After further seeking Divine guidance and having none provided, Noah decides that it is the will of the Creator that his family should steward the repopulation of just the animals and plants after the flood. With returning to the beginning, to the pristine state of the Garden of Eden, after the death of Noah and his family, the new world would be able to start over without mankind.

In the film’s climactic scene, a fanatic Noah stands poised with a knife held over his head, ready to kill his newborn granddaughter to prevent the further propagation of the human race. This image is reminiscent of what will be Abraham’s test at the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. There, an angel comes to stay Abraham’s hand from killing his son. Here, as depicted in the film, the choice is Noah’s alone and the fate of mankind depends on his decision.

The power of this moment is the greatness of the film. Noah, as G-d has done and continues to do, gives mankind a second chance. Noah, when confronted with the defining existential question of his life, chooses a G-d of compassionate righteousness over a G-d of strict justice. Aronofsy's Noah is clearly in the Abrahamic tradition, one who is questioning, sensitive, a moral agent unafraid to act, a true partner with G-d.

In an ironic twist, Aronofsky, the self-defined non-religious person, provides a solution to Rashi’s ambiguity on Noah’s character with the conclusion of the same verse from Genesis, 6:9. “Noah walked with G-d.” What it means to walk with G-d may be open to multiple understandings. Personally, I would cast the net very wide to include all kindred “religious” souls in the discussion.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

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