It’s hard living in extreme partisan times. We aren’t usually open to listen to others who have different viewpoints. That’s unfortunate. We often miss out on much that is worthwhile.
I recently rewatched the film Noah. The Hollywood blockbuster, starring Russel Crowe, was released in 2014. It was created by Ari Handel (the screenwriter) and Darren Aronofsky (the director). The movie initially got panned by most critics as “just an excuse for film-makers to develop their skills using ‘special-effects’” or “two liberals wanting to anger fundamentalist Evangelical Christians and Catholics.”
What I saw was something different. In making their movie, I saw two Jewish Americans taking part in a discussion about the character Noah that Jews throughout the world have been engaged with for well over a thousand years.
In the book of Genesis, we are introduced to the biblical character with a peculiar sentence. It reads in Hebrew “Noah eesh tzadik tamim hayah bedorotav ” which translates as “Noah was a righteous man, perfect, in his generation (Genesis 6:9).”
The first phrase of the sentence, “Noah Issh Tzadik -Noah was a righteous man,” is a wonderful compliment. It’s followed by the Hebrew word tamim which can be translated in various ways. The most common seems to be the word “perfect” which enhances the compliment and conveys that Noah was the “best’” or “greatest” for his righteousness.
Then, the sentence ends with the phrase “in his generation.” This phrase, “in his [or her] generation” is problematic. It’s hard ignoring the Torah’s sarcasm when Noah is described as the most righteous “in his generation.”
“In Noah’s generation,” who else besides Noah is righteous? No one! How do we know this? G-d wipes out everyone but Noah and his family because everyone else is corrupt. When there’s no competition, it is easy to say Noah is the best.
Rashi is perhaps the greatest commentator on the Torah in Jewish tradition. He lived in the eleventh century, France. He writes that the phrase “in his generation” can be interpreted to Noah’s “benefit or detriment.” The phrase can be interpreted as either positive or negative.
First the positive. “Imagine if Noah had lived with other people who were righteous.” Imagine if Noah could have had teachers and role models who were also righteous. Imagine if he could have gotten together and collaborated with others doing righteous deeds. Just imagine how great Noah could have been.
On the other hand, Rashi says “If Noah had lived during the generation of Abraham, he wouldn’t have merited.” Noah’s righteousness would not have stood out.
In making this comment, Rashi is raising a question that he and other traditional Jewish commentators (who lived both before and after him) raise but don’t really answer. Why doesn’t Noah measure up to Abraham as a righteous character? In making Noah not the hero but anti-hero of their story, Handel and Aronofsky’s movie can easily be interpreted as an answer to this question. Their film can be seen as a “midrash” to Rashi’s commentary.
Handel and Aronofsky make one change to the Torah’s clear narrative. In the Bible, Noah, his wife, their three sons, plus their wives (the wife of each son) join the animals on the ark and survive the flood (Genesis 7:6.) In the movie, Noah, his wife, their three sons, plus only one wife of one of the sons have the opportunity to live after the world’s destruction.
With this change, Handel and Aronofsky imaginatively bring to life a new character, Ila. Ila is the wife of Noah’s oldest son, Shem. She is a young woman who is adopted as a little girl by Noah and his wife when they find her as the lone survivor of a tribe wiped out in battle. From the injury she sustained in war, Ila, the adopted daughter, is perceived to be barren.
The new character enables Aronofsky and Handel to create the ultimate divine challenge Noah must confront which is similar to the test Abraham must pass in “The binding of Isaac” saga (Genesis 22: 1-14.) Unlike Abraham, Noah fails G-d’s exam.
Noah, like Abraham, receives a divine message. Noah knows he is G-d’s servant who will enable the natural world to continue after the flood. He also believes, though, in receiving the divine message, that the sins of humanity are too great for G-d to bear; that G-d has lost patience with humanity and doesn’t want them to continue.
Noah, his wife, their three sons, plus their adopted barren daughter isn’t a family unit set up to procreate. Noah believes G-d is merely showing compassion to his family by enabling them to survive the flood. Noah believes with certainty that his family will become humanity’s last remnant, that G-d wants life on earth to continue without human beings being a part of it.
When Noah observes Ila and his son Shem falling in love, he is initially pleased. He tells Ila he feels blessed to have her as his daughter. He comments on how special the love she and his oldest son share together.
When Noah is informed that Ila isn’t barren but pregnant, though, the news enrages him. When born, Noah vows to kill his grandchild if the baby is a girl. Under no circumstance will he go against G-d’s command; or, go against what he perceives with certainty to be G-d’s command.
In another biblical passage (Genesis 22:1-14), G-d tests Abraham’s faith. The “Binding of Isaac” is a story I don’t think anyone truly thoroughly understands. Based on the conclusion, though, there seems one moral to the story in which everyone can agree: G-d does not want human sacrifices!
Between the time G-d commands Abraham “to take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac,” and the moment “Abraham picked up the knife” and then saw “a ram caught in the thicket by its horns,” (Genesis 22: 10-14), this simple yet revolutionary idea, that G-d does not want human sacrifices, entered Abraham’s mind.
In a comparable scene in the movie, Noah demonstrates his incapability to question and comprehend such a message. He feels he knows what G-d wants. Based on that set knowledge, he knows what he must do.
There is just one major problem. Noah does not possess the strength or courage to pick up the knife and follow through with G-d’s command. That failure to fulfill what he feels G-d is commanding him to do torments Noah all the remaining days of his life.
Noah dies a tragic character. He is a caricature: an extreme literalist in how he interprets his religious belief. The text is the text. The law is the law. G-d’s command is absolute regardless of the most obvious extenuating circumstances.
In confronting G-d’s test, Noah looks but doesn’t see much of what is taking place around him. Even when G-d sends a sign that is clearer than “a ram caught in a thicket by its horns,” Noah can only listen, but not hear what G-d intended the divine message to be.
Noah dies the grandfather to not one but two grandchildren: two adorable twin baby girls.
Elliot Fein is a retired religious school educator and a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.