Spoiler alert!

Hollywood ‘Noah’ is kosher, says celebrity rabbi

Shmuley Boteach tells our film critic the Russell Crowe epic is impressive and important, but also poor entertainment

Our critic and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach determine if Russell Crowe is a wash-out (courtesy: Paramount Pictures)
Our critic and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach determine if Russell Crowe is a wash-out (courtesy: Paramount Pictures)

NEW YORK — After a flood of rumor, “Noah” has arrived. The big budget Hollywood movie that has ruffled the feathers of a few American conservative Christian groups and some Middle Eastern Islamic censors rains down upon multiplex audiences this weekend. And unlike those charging writer/director Darren Aronofsky and Paramount Pictures with blasphemy, we’ve actually seen the film.

But is the movie kosher?

As a work of art and entertainment, it is a success. Thrilling and beautiful to look at, it is a rich exploration of the powers and dangers of faith. Russell Crowe, always a striking presence, is a man tortured by his role in The Creator’s plan to, in today’s lingo, give the world a reboot.

However, it deviates widely and strangely from what is in Scripture. To be fair, the original story is only about three pages, but when the film presents fallen angels known as Watchers as Tolkien-like rock monsters, some may raise an eyebrow.

To discuss the theological aspects of the film, we called on Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, oft-referred to as America’s Rabbi.

The rabbi breaks down his thoughts about the movie into three sections: as a work of entertainment, as a literal representation of the Bible and, to him the most important distinction, as a moral work.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, pressed into service as film critic by The Times of Israel. (courtesy:
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, pressed into service as film critic by The Times of Israel. (courtesy:

While I had visions of us schmoozing at the cinema over Milk Duds, his robust schedule of speaking engagements — he was in Miami to appear with Dr. Oz — forced us to see it in different cities.

Below is an abridged transcript of our spoiler-laden phone conversation after we both saw the film.

So, first question: what did you think?

As entertainment? I thought it was poor entertainment.

Oh, no!

Maybe it was intentional, but I thought Russell Crowe was monolithic in his portrayal of a religious fundamentalist who has a kind heart.

Well, maybe that is intentional. I think the first half you are rooting for him and the second half you think “maybe he’s taking this too far.”

Wait, wait, we’ll get to that.

But as entertainment, I didn’t really see the nuances of his conflict. The character development was poor. The wife? We know nothing about her. His son Shem looks like he’s in a Vidal Sassoon commercial. How he kept such gorgeous hair during the trials of the Ark, that should be its own movie! And Noah’s daughter-in-law, [Emma Watson]… I kept expecting to see Harry Potter pop out. But the development of her character was shallow as well.

So, I didn’t engage with the characters. We don’t know why Noah is good. He’s a loner and we don’t know why. But, fair enough! It’s a lot to accomplish in just two hours. I commend the producers and writers for taking what is essentially just a few short pages in the Bible, so I don’t want to be overly critical. I’d like to see more Biblical movies, so I have to commend the effort. And it isn’t the dramatization I’m critical of, I’m just reacting to what I thought was a poor execution.

You just weren’t engaged…

The tsunami of water hitting the Ark engaged me. The laborious tedium of building the Ark engaged me, in a strange way. The desolation of the Earth prior to the flood was engaging. Noah’s family, though, was incoherent. No one was relating to one another and when you watch a movie it’s the people that engage you above all else.

Emma Watson and Douglas Booth in 'Noah' (courtesy: Paramount Pictures)
Emma Watson and Douglas Booth in ‘Noah’ (courtesy: Paramount Pictures)

There is also a fantastical element to this movie, and that may surprise some audience members. There are prevalent characters called “The Watchers” that are these enormous rock creatures.

I thought the interpretation of the Fallen Angels was brilliant. Very Hollywood. I don’t buy it at all, but it was a very novel interpretation of these beams of light encumbered by a material shell that captures them. If you look in the Midrash, the Fallen Angels, they fell for women – they fell for “gross carnality.” A mix of the spirit and the physical, captured and trapped in a coarse, cumbersome physicality that makes even mobility a challenge.

Yeah, it looks great, but definitely tips “Noah” into “Lord of the Rings” territory, so it’s interesting you liked that part.

Well, I didn’t approach the movie as the Bible, I approached it as Hollywood. Something loosely based on a story in the Bible. I’m not sitting there with a Bible open trying to read in the dark to test the accuracy. No, I thought that aspect was very unique.

But if they were going to try to show the transformation of Noah from a good guy to an isolated right-wing nut-job I would have liked to have seen a little more Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness.” They could have showed that a little more gradually. Instead, when he hears he’s going to have a granddaughter he says he’s going to kill her. You’d think he’d keep it to himself instead of announcing it!

He was always open with his family, I guess.

I suppose.

But do you think the film wants to show him as a right-wing nut or someone who is struggling and trying to interpret what God wants him to do.

Okay, so now let’s get into adherence to the Bible. There are parts that are impressive and accurate. When he is speaking about Creation to his family, as the story has been handed down to him, the way he describes it is shown as an evolutionary interpretation. But the Bible can lend itself to an evolutionary interpretation! The Torah says the mineral, vegetable, animal and the intellectual. So evolutionists, that can be guided by the hand of God. It was done very smoothly and impressively.

I almost wanted to give the movie a high-five, because it so creatively pleased both sides. Russell Crowe’s narration is practically straight from Genesis, but the images looked like from the television show “Cosmos.”

I agree. Also, the film shows that building the Ark took years to build. And how the Deluge starts from water below and above, that was shown in a clever way. The Midrash says that everyone tried to stop Noah from going in and God closed the door for him, and we see an interpretation of that. As well as the evil King trying to hijack the Ark. And the image of the dove.

But other than that, so much of the rest of the movie was not in any way faithful.

I mean, there’s a lot of loose ends! Ham goes out on his own. Where is he going to find a woman? He’s not going to mate with a walrus, right?

A scene from Darren Aronofsky's 'Noah.' (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
A scene from Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah.’ (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Tune in for the sequel.

What they do with Ham is interesting. They show him as the wicked son, but someone who is transformed by his perception of his father’s wickedness.

But all of this interpretation is fine.

I think it’s a valuable film. Even if I wasn’t completely entertained by it. And even if it is not a literal film. It shouldn’t have to be. It’s a Hollywood epic.

But I don’t want Hollywood to be the principal source. I’m happy that their movies stray. It inspires people to go back to the original. I don’t need Hollywood producers becoming Torah teachers, though I do see the value of more Hollywood movies about the Bible to generate interest.

What did you think of the one shot of Noah using the tefillin that was supposed to be the serpent from the Garden of Eden?

You know, I didn’t even make that connection. Now that you bring it up. But, no, that is something to my knowledge that is not a literal reference. But I did not make the connection. My wife is here next to me – she says that she saw that.

Are you worried that one could interpret this movie as anti-religion? God doesn’t mess around in this movie. He will drown people who are crying for help. And he speaks in ways that are vague. There’s a key scene in the middle when it stops raining and Noah says “the Creator wants me to kill my granddaughter.” And Emma Watson’s character says, “no, this clearly means the Creator does NOT want you to kill your granddaughter.” There is no clear answer. This could be a condemnation of religion.

Okay, good, so let’s talk about the third part. The theological and moral and ethical questions, which is where I see the real value of the film.

To recap: The value of the movie isn’t the entertainment — which I think is not great — nor in its faithfulness to the Bible — which it doesn’t have much of — but it doesn’t have to have. But, this movie discusses an issue that is both ancient and modern. It asks one of the biggest questions of all: What is religion’s purpose?

‘It asks one of the biggest questions of all: What is religion’s purpose?’

Is the purpose of religion to be the sword of God? The blade of morality which condemns the wicked and the unrighteous?

I have written two books about why innocent people suffer. And what I say is this: there are people who believe that the explanation for human suffering is straightforward. You see it in the Flood, in Sodom and Gommorah and with Moses and the Golden Calf. And yet, the principal distinction between Noah on one hand and Moses and Abraham on the other is that Noah accepts God’s judgement.

The film does a good job of showing this. Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. The Bible says that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation.” He was only a righteous man compared to the others who were far worse than he.

Now, why wasn’t he righteous? Because righteousness is all about what you do for your fellow man. And Noah does NOTHING for his fellow man. He doesn’t care, he has no compassion. He executes God’s commandment to the letter. So when God says “I’m going to kill everybody,” Noah says, “will you save my skin? Oh, I get an Ark? Okay, fine.”

This is a traditional explanation of why Noah is not the father of the Jewish people.

So he was a facilitator, not a leader.

No, he failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God. Noah is a fundamentalist. He’s a religious extremist. God says “everyone will die” and Noah says nothing. But this is not what God wants. God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity! He does not want the obedient man of belief. He wants the defiant man of faith.

‘God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity’

It isn’t until Abraham, when God says “we have the rainbow and I promise not to destroy everyone, but I will destroy these two cities Sodom and Gomorah,” Abraham does something audacious. He says “will the judge of the entire Earth not practice justice?” He lifts his fists to heaven! He raises a cudgel to Heaven! This made him the first Jew. A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience.

The word “Islam” means “obedience before God” or “submission before God.” Soren Kierkegaard the great Danish theologian sums up Christianity as being a “leap of faith.”

Judaism has no leap of faith. “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” You see none of that in Noah. Neither in the Torah or in this film, so in that regard, this movie portrays this very well. No other religion does this, they would see this as heresy. It’s amazing, it’s breathtaking!

‘A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience’

I’m not going so far as to say the Bible portrays Noah as a right-wing nut-job who captures his humanity only at the end — to the extent of the film – but I will say the Bible dismisses him. Noah is a father to mankind, but a footnote in the Bible. Never discussed again, because he’s a failure.

I would have loved to see, in this film, the family challenging Noah more – challenging him to fight with God.

Noah tells his family some troubling news (courtesy: Paramount Pictures.)
Noah tells his family some troubling news (courtesy: Paramount Pictures.)

The writer and director of the film, Darren Aronofsky, was born Jewish but identifies as an atheist. Does this surprise you?

Not at all. This is the principal argument that atheists have – and some of it is just. Why do innocent people suffer? Why is God silent? God’s silence is a major theme in the film. This is a theme in Elie Wiesel’s work.

Atheists also charge that religious people have no heart. That they suppress rational inquiry and reason, and they don’t challenge God. They believe that religion focuses on the inherent corruptibility of mankind and have a morbid philosophy of life. Now, when you see Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell going on television just after 9/11 and saying that the attack happened because of homosexuality and abortion in America, this just reinforces those views.

When I was a student in Israel and a schoolbus was hit by a train, 20 children were killed. Yitzhak Peretz, who was one of the heads of the Shas party, said that this was retaliation because Israelis drive on Shabbat.

‘Noah is a suicide bomber at the end’

When you hear things like this it is very disturbing. An abomination. And some of this is captured in the film – so I’m not surprised that the director is an atheist.

But, he’s an interesting kind of atheist. He seems to have some positive feelings toward religion. He sees that without religion there might be anarchy, or that society would reduce itself to only “might makes right.” But he’s seen how fundamentalists have fallen into the dark side. I mean, Noah is a suicide bomber at the end. He’s going to kill babies because he thinks that’s what God wants.

And yet, he’s not “bad” man. That’s what is so nuanced and clever about the film. He isn’t sinister. He’s still a loving father and husband, although detached. It isn’t like “The Omen” or something where he’s taken over by Satan. He is still a man of God, but he believes that God wants him to murder in His name.

Sounds to me like you enjoyed this movie more than you thought.

Well, you can go to a movie for a few reasons. You can go to a movie to veg out and turn your brain to a red cabbage. And I do this sometimes. I don’t want to think at all – I want cheap, popcorn entertainment. I want something to forget my pressures for two hours – so I can come back to my pressures after and then think “oh no, I just wasted two hours, now I have more pressures!”

And then there are movies that challenge your mind and heart. Sometimes they are less entertaining. They lack the special effects and the glitz.

What did I get out of “Gravity?” Absolutely nothing. There was no lesson or a moral conundrum – just a woman fighting for survival in some amazing 3D. But I loved it. I got nothing out of it, I never thought of it again and I’m not planning to go to space any time soon.

This film did not entertain me as much, but it made me think a lot more. I think it is a valuable film, especially for our times.

A very key thing, rabbi. As we’re talking your wife is driving – what did she think of the movie?

We haven’t had a chance to discuss it yet, I’ve been talking to you. (Debbie, what did you think of the movie?) She says it was “good but not great.”

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