A Spiritual Practice for Before the Movie Begins

In Spiritual Judaism David S. Ariel outlines some sources of renewal for this religion. Since Noah is an ancient story about the forging of a man's character, a simple practice of self-accounting would be good preparation for seeing the movie.

"Constant attention to developing the proper character in ourselves is an essential precondition to spirituality. One of the oldest Jewish spiritual practices is a technique called 'self-accounting' (cheshbon nefesh). This is the practice of listening to the inner voice and of taking note on a daily basis of our life's balance sheet, of all the good that we have achieved, and the faults that we must continue to correct. In fact, Rabbi Simcha Bunim suggested that we need to carry around with us two small ledgers, one in each pocket. On one, we write at the top, 'For my sake the world was created,' on which we list all the good things in our lives. In the other, we write at the top, 'I am but dust and ashes.' On this we list all the things we still need to improve."

The First Apocalypse Story

Noah is an imaginative and thought-provoking interpretation of the story of Noah and the Flood in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 6 - 9). Writer and director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Fountain, Black Swan) wanted to move away from images of a bearded old man surrounded by pairs of animals, and he discovered that other artists were also interested in other aspects of the story:

"I was curious what other minds would come up with if they tried to represent the original story. So I decided to reach out to my favorite artists and ask each of them to return to Genesis and create something in his or her own medium. The response was overwhelming. It was interesting that most of them turned their backs on the comedic, folk-tale rendition of Noah and found the darkness in the story. I guess that is because, after all, it is the first apocalypse story. Even though it is a story of hope, family, and second chances, it is also a story filled with great destruction and misery. For every pair that survived, there were countless other creatures on the planet that drowned during the deluge, innocent and wicked alike." (The New York Times)

Run for Your Life

In the film's prologue, we see a young Noah and his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) in a desolate place they call home; the boy is told that the Creator has put Earth and its beings in their care. But this idyllic scene is interrupted by the arrival of a group of warriors, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone); he is a descendant of Cain, the son of Adam, who killed his brother and set in motion a chain of violence and bloodshed in human history. After watching his father become the latest victim, Noah follows his advice to run for his life. From then on, Noah will stay clear of other men and their selfish, greedy, and violent ways.

God Chooses Noah as His Righteous Man

Noah (Russell Crowe) has settled down with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). They live a simple life off the land which they believe was given to them by the Creator. But they are worried that violent men are moving closer.

After Noah has a vivid dream in which he sees the world being destroyed by a flood, the family packs up to go visit Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), his grandfather and the oldest and wisest man alive. Noah wants him to confirm what the dream means. The old man agrees that God is speaking to Noah. The Creator is angry and disappointed with the wickedness of human beings. He has decided to destroy everything on the face of the Earth. Noah alone is "righteous before me in this generation," and he has been chosen to save the innocent. He is to build an ark filled with two animals of every species; his family will be their caretakers during the flood.

The World Is Going to Hell

As the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy pointed out, there have always been in every generation, well-read and savvy individuals convinced that things were so bad that the end of the world was just around the corner. There are moments in this film when the viewer will make connections to the evil and chaos of our own times. In Tubal-cain's camp, the people are fighting over food and water; violence against women is rampant; despair and desperation are everywhere. Their leader expresses the belief that all things of the world are theirs for the taking. He feels both entitled and persecuted and cut off from the Creator. Why, he asks, does God not speak to him?

How the Ark Is Built

For anyone who has ever tried to figure out just how Noah could build the ark and fit two of every species on it, this movie offers some answers, conveyed through some of the most awe-inspiring images in the film. A giant forest springs from the desert floor to provide the needed wood. Noah has help building the ark from a band of clunky and gigantic fallen angels called "The Watchers," Aronofsky's version of the biblical Niphilim. When the rains come and Tubal-cain's men try to take the ark, the Watchers help fend off the attack. As fans of the Transformers movie franchise of action-dramas, we imagined that these helpful beings are ancestors of those machines.

The Animals Arrive

Another delightful surprise is how the animals all get on the ark and co-exist peacefully there. These scenes — all computer generated — show the arrival of the birds, the snakes and crawling creatures, and all the two-leggeds and four-leggeds. These scenes alone will evoke your wonder and spark gratitude for the beauty and diversity of the animal world.

Noah the Zealot

Noah's name is etymologically connected to the word for peace. But there is no peace in the mission God has given him nor is there any peace resulting from the decisions he makes in his rigid adherence to his interpretation of God's commands.

Noah gets so caught up in his project that he alienates the rest of his family as they struggle with their own challenges. Shem has fallen in love with Ila (Emma Watson), who the family adopted after finding her injured in the wilderness. She has grown up with them and would like to marry Shem, but she worries that her injuries have made her barren.

Ham, the middle son, is restless, and yearning for a woman of his own. He travels to Tubal-cain's camp to find a wife. Noah, however, is convinced that the Creator wants all humanity destroyed and believes his own family must die out. When the flood comes, however, our admiration for what this righteous man has accomplished is challenged by horror. While the family eats dinner on the ark, we hear the sounds of the rest of humanity dying all around them. This is not a sweet folk tale; this is a disturbing judgment, one which Noah never doubts.

In this leader, as there is in each one of us, lives a zealot whose single-mindedness can harm the ones we love and bring into the rest of the world even more chaos and darkness. By depicting this aspect of Noah's character, Aronofsky opens the door to another view of Noah:

"Rabbinic tradition is conflicted over what to do with Noah. On the one hand, the biblical text describes him as a tzaddik, a righteous man who walks with God. On the other, unlike Abraham or Moses, Noah never protested God's harsh decree — not so much as even one peep. How righteous could a man be who watched the destruction of an entire generation in silence?

"Hasidic tradition disdainfully calls Noah a tzaddik im pelz, a righteous man in a fur coat, who, instead of helping others build a fire to warm themselves, just pulls his own coat tighter around himself. When push comes to shove, he only looks out for himself. Indeed, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tameret has suggested that to stand aboard the ark and witness the end of humanity was Noah's ultimate punishment."
— from Five Cities of Refuge by Lawrence Kushner and David Mamet (Schocken Books, 2003)

The Ark as a School of Mercy

In Judaism, the process of midrash is a kind of reading between the lines of a story, filling in the gaps in the textual teachings by imagining additional developments in the narrative; often these interpretations attempt to answer some questions raised by the story. We understand the last section of Noah as midrash. On the ark, given the choice between life and death, Noah chooses life. Through this change of heart, this story moves from one about judgment to one about mercy. We were reminded of a prayer by Megan McKenna:

"Mercy is the rain of God, the reign of God, the rein of God.
Mercy gives birth out of death.
Mercy comforts and fills up what is lacking.
Mercy heals.
Mercy not only forgets but remembers, re-members and puts back
together better than originally . . .
Mercy is the echo of the holy lingering, absence among us.
Mercy is God's hope and prayer for us."
— from Send My Roots Rain

Personal Responses

Noah is several movies in one. It's a Biblical epic such as we have not seen before with stunning visual effects, fantastic beasts, and an action-packed storyline. It is an intimate drama about a good man, his wife and family, and the challenges they face trying to do right by each other. And it is a quest film in which the characters ask the big questions: Where is the Creator? What does God want from me? We predict that this film will engage you on all those levels.

For us, the best films get us thinking about the choices we have in our own lives. What happens when we step into the story of Noah? We discover that his world is not so different from our own. We live in judgmental times, when people are divided and pitched against each other, each side condemning the wickedness of the other. How will we respond? One option comes from Robin Meyers: "Throw away any religion that circles wagons and makes you meaner, and replace it with one that makes you more merciful."

Second, we can stand with Noah and his family, safe again on land, and welcome the rainbow signaling a new covenant between God and humankind. But first, like Noah, we have to see what we have wrought. Rabbi Arthur Waskow says that it is once again time for all of us to lament and repent of our role in the destruction of the earth:

"And so in your own generation
You tremble on the verge of Flood.
Your air is filled with poison.
The rain, the seas, with poison.
The earth hides arsenals of poisonous fire,
Seeds of light surcharged with fatal darkness,
The ice is melting,
The seas are rising,
The air is dark with smoke and rising heat.
And so I call to you to carry to all peoples
the teaching for seven generations
the earth and all her earthlings learn to rest.
— Arthur Waskow, Haftarah for the Rainbow Covenant
in Torah of the Earth (Jewish Lights, 2000)

And third, we can offer a blessing:

"May you live to see your world fulfilled, your planet healed.
May you be our link to future worlds,
and may your hope encompass all
the generations of all life yet to be.
May your heart conceive with understanding,
may your mouth speak wisdom,
and your tongue be stirred with songs of joy."
— from Talmud Bavli in Torah of the Earth (Jewish Lights, 2000)

Special features on the Blu-Ray/DVD include Iceland: extreme beauty; The Ark Exterior: a battle for 300 Cubits; and The Ark Interior: animals two by two.