by Leonard J. Greenspoon
Publicity about Noah the movie, which is scheduled to open at the end of this month, has set in motion once again the conflict between “Christians” and Hollywood or, to put it another way, between true Bible believers and all the rest of us. This debate is not likely to die down anytime soon, given the considerable number of other “Christian” movies planned for the coming months.
What make Noah or the soon-to-arrive-at-your-theater Exodus “Christian” movies? As narratives contained in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, wouldn’t you think that their Jewish origins would merit some discussion? Alas, this is not the case because conservative Evangelical Protestants, a “noisy” group (says Darren Aronofsky, the movie’s director), have established the parameters of the debate — and Jews in Hollywood (to say nothing of elsewhere) seem to have yielded the ground to these “Christians.”
Not that Jews are uninvolved in this film — this is Hollywood after all! Paramount executive Rob Moore, a self-described Conservative Christian, feels comfortable weighing in on all sorts of religious questions. But from the director, raised in a Conservative Jewish home, and two of the movie’s authors (perhaps, we should more accurately call them adapters, since they surely didn’t write the book of Genesis), unnamed but identified as Jewish, nary a word.
It will not do to raise our hands, individually or collectively, as if to acknowledge an obvious point: there are more Conservative Christians than there are Jews (Conservative or otherwise). Nor is it enough to point out that the so-called literal reading of the Bible that these Christian critics appear to be championing is far from universally taught in Christian circles — all you need to do is ask a moderate Protestant or any Roman Catholic.
What we as Jews should be doing, once the terms of engagement have moved into Biblical Studies, one of our most prominent interests, is staking out a claim that is at once authentically Jewish and worthy of consideration in the multi-faith (and no faith) society that we presently inhabit. If, as happens here, an authentic Jewish interpretation tends to be supportive of a particular film, in this case Noah, that’s fine. If it went the other way, that would be equally good.
What’s most important is to break the formula that equates literal with serious or true, thereby relegating all of the rest of us to the sidelines in any sort of debate that centers on what the Bible (or, better, the biblical writers) intended or meant. At its most expansive, the Evangelical Christian argument is that this movie takes liberties with the biblical story of Noah. The easiest way to counter this is to observe that the biblical story itself (as found in Genesis 6-9) takes liberties with itself, providing, among other things, alternative timelines for how long the flood lasts and alternative commands on how many animals of each kind to take into the ark. In other words, the biblical account invites our speculation, especially our filling in details.
Thus, for example, the cinematographic Noah is pictured as hesitant and conflicted about the divine consignment of 99.99% of humans — and animals — to annihilation. The biblical text says nothing about Noah’s feelings, not surprising in a book (or series of books) that rarely says anything about the inner lives of its characters. Can we know that Noah grappled with the moral issues the flood entailed? Of course, not. Can we be called out for attempting to fill in this biblical lacuna? I don’t think so, especially since there is a long, very long, line of Jewish interpreters, including Elie Wiesel, who have frequently seen in biblical personages ancient exemplars of the anguish they themselves feel. This interpretive tradition is often spoken of as midrash.
And then we are told of objections raised because it is not clear, at least to some viewers (many audiences, often composed of “Bible believers,” have previewed the film in one or more of its many versions), that one of Noah’s sons was actually married to his wife, named Ila in the movie. A literal reader of the Bible, so it seems to me, should have no objection on this count, since the text itself speaks of Noah’s three sons and their wives. But I suppose, such a reader should be strenuously objecting to the movie’s bestowing on Noah’s daughters-in-law (as well, I’m guessing as his wife) actual names, since they (like any number of other female characters in the Bible) remain nameless in Genesis. For whatever reasons, early rabbinic interpreters bestowed names on these women, a practice followed, although probably not for the same reasons, by those responsible for the film. Now that I think about, it would be odd (to say the least) to have Seth, Ham, or Japheth (Noah’s named sons) or Noah himself fighting with their wives, or making love to them, without knowing their names!
Ironically, some conservative Christian complaints reveal just how selective and limited these readers are in their knowledge of the Bible. More than one viewer, so we discover, was upset about a scene in the movie when Noah, the first planters of vines, also becomes the first drunk (but by no means the last!) in the Bible. Perish the thought that alcohol passed through his lips! Alas, the kernel of that story is found within the Bible itself.
What’s my point? In one sense, it is to call attention to the apparent fact (apparent because I haven’t yet viewed the entire film) that the Noah of the film seems to be very Jewish in terms of the ways in which he and his family’s lives are filled out — and, as should be apparent, you can’t have a biblical movie based just on the biblical text itself.
But from a larger perspective, this debate (if that’s what it is) is representative of a common unwillingness among Jews to enter into public discussion about the Bible, this part of which (at least) is very Jewish. We allow ourselves, so it seems, to be pushed to the periphery. As long as that continues, we should not be surprised, even if we continue to be saddened, when films based on the Hebrew Bible are called “Christian” and when a particularly vociferous segment of Christianity takes upon itself the mantle of true Bible readers and interpreters.
I am certainly not contending that Jews need to take back Hollywood (whatever that may mean). Nor that we should assert our own monopolistic, unequivocal view of how the Bible should be portrayed. But, minimally, we need to insist on a seat at the table — without that, we are all malnourished and impoverished.