When his baby was born, some friends came by with Noah’s ark decorations — animals two-by-two, nice man with fluffy beard, a rounded boat, not too big, seemingly as jolly as Yellow Submarine. And the father, Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, said thanks, but “I’m thinking, this is a horrible, horrible story!”
An apocalyptic deluge killing everything but the fish and eight people; rampant sexual exploitation; widespread robbery; the descent of Nefillim (fallen angels, wild giants); distortions of nature; strange animals behaving strangely; the Sons of Elokim (sons of God, princes or judges) “who would take for themselves wives from whomever they chose,” whether married women, other men, even animals, says Rashi; 10 generations after Adam and, once again, the waters and darkness were over the face of the deep.
That is the story of Noah, even before Noah and his family and hundreds of beasts, birds and reptiles shared an ark for more than a year (long after the 40 days and nights of rain), with the one surviving giant, the famous Og, king of the Bashan, hanging on to ark’s roof, fed by Noah. And then there was the unfortunate episode of Noah getting drunk and humiliated after the flood. “Hardly a cute children’s story, is it?” asks Rabbi Dennis.
About the only serene moment in the story is when the dove returns to the ark with an olive branch, a symbol of peace even thousands of years later.
Around two years ago, Rabbi Dennis, 54, who leads a Reform synagogue in the Dallas suburbs and teaches Jewish studies at the University of North Texas, received a call from Ari Handel, the executive producer of such films as “Pi,” “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.” Handel was, along with director Darren Aronofsky, co-writing and producing “Noah,” the film coming to theaters next week. As a Manhattan Beach seventh grader, young Aronofsky wrote a poem about Noah, “The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air.”
Now, Paramount was giving him $130 million to tell the story, with Russell Crowe and Emma Watson (and Aronofsky was giving his seventh-grade teacher a walk-on in the movie). Aronofsky has admitted that “Noah” was being written by “two not very religious Jewish guys,” so Handel was calling Rabbi Dennis, author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism” (Llewellyn Publications), and a 2007 National Book Award finalist, to give a Jewish sense of the story.
“If you look at the trailer,” says the rabbi, “there’s a moment when Noah strikes the ground with a flaming sword. I spoke to them about Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, who had a sword inscribed with God’s name. He used that sword to tame demonic spirits that were tormenting humanity.” This was not the angel’s flaming sword that guarded the Garden of Eden, “but they may have fused the two” because the sword in the trailer is flaming.
Rabbi Meir Fund, an Orthodox biblical scholar and spiritual leader of the Flatbush Minyan, said what he would like to see in a film about Noah was less the supernatural but an exploration of the debate regarding Noah being “righteous in his generation.” In other words, whether he was the best of the worst, or all the better for being righteous in such a negative atmosphere?
As for the antediluvian mysteries, Rabbi Fund says, “The further we go back in time, the less we can expect things to be the way they are today.” How does Rabbi Fund understand the Nefillim, the idea of giants or fallen angels? “I really don’t, and I’m prepared to not understand.” After all, before the flood, a snake could talk to Eve and nature was so different that rainbows didn’t exist. Rabbi Fund concludes that humility is the only response. “As Shlomo [Carlebach] would always say, ‘What do we really know?’”
Aronofsky had other interests. He told The New Yorker, “There is a huge statement in the film, a strong message about the coming flood from global warming.” Aronofsky told other entertainment reporters: “It’s about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now, for what’s going on on this planet. … Noah was the first environmentalist.”
The movie has run into heavy opposition from religious focus groups for straying too far from the text. Several Islamic countries are banning the film. Egypt’s Sunni institute Al-Azhar announced “the prohibition of the upcoming film about Allah’s messenger Noah,” a film that will antagonize the “feelings of the faithful.”
After seeing an undated script, Brian Godawa, a screenwriter and the author of a novel, “Noah Primeval,” articulated the Christian critique on Breitbart.com. The film, he writes, presents us with “an anachronistic doomsday scenario of ancient global warming. How Neolithic man was able to” destroy the environment “without the ‘evil’ carbon emissions of modern industrial revolution is not explained.” Postmodernists “changing the meaning of texts to suit their agenda … is manipulative narcissistic nonsense. … Was Noah the first environmentalist and animal rights activist? Was the moral failure of man in Genesis, disrespect for the environment? Was that why God completely destroyed the environment and killed all of the animals of the land except those on the ark? Of course not.”
Further critiques from the National Religious Broadcasters led Paramount to add an advisory to the film, that was only “inspired” by Noah, and “artistic license has been taken. … The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”
Ironically, the Noah story contains the Bible’s most explicit biblical promise against climate change: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” Which is not to say that man could now be callous to nature. The Talmud notes that Noah did not throw the ark’s waste into the water outside the ark but managed it within the lowest of the ark’s three decks.
Artistic license is unavoidable when it comes to telling Noah’s story. There is not a single biblical quote attributed to Noah about the flood, nothing about his feelings about saying goodbye to anyone. The Bible does say that the flood was delayed seven days, a mourning period for Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. It is said, God decides to “blot out man,” though Noah “found grace” in God’s eyes.
If you want to see Aronofsky’s original vision, says Rabbi Dennis, “You need to see his French comic book of Noah [available on Amazon]. It’s a storyboard for a movie.” There is a reference, said the rabbi, to six-winged angels in Isaiah. The film refers to the Tzohar, the gemstone given by an angel to Adam, and used by Noah for illumination in the ark. Watchers (thought to be the Fallen Angels), is found in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, written by Noah’s great-grandfather.
Rabbi Dennis adds, “In the Dead Sea Scrolls, there’s a version of a book called the Book of Giants. In each one of these books there is more elaborate narrative about who the Fallen Angels were, what they did, and how they corrupted the earth. It’s so dualistic that it became problematic for the rabbis. Judaism developed a theology of angels in which angels have no free will. If angels have no free will, angels can’t rebel.”
The tradition, says Rabbi Dennis, negatively compares Noah to Abraham and to Moses. However, the kabbalistic text “Shaar HaGilgulim” teaches that Moses is the “gilgul” and “tikkun,” the “reincarnation” and “fixing,” of Noah. Both were given a covenant. Both were saved by floating on water. (In Hebrew, the word for “ark” and Moses’ “basket” are the same, “teva.”) The time of the flood is echoed at Sinai where it was raining at the time of the Revelation, among another half-dozen similarities.
Noah lived long enough to share a world with Abraham for 58 years. In the film, Noah is asked by his daughter-in-law, “Is this end of everything?” “The beginning,” says Noah. “The beginning of everything.”