The movie Noah, released in theaters across America last year, generated its share of controversy among religious reviewers and bloggers. Some said the film is only loosely connected with the biblical story of Noah. Others argued that with the limited information the account in Genesis provides, imaginative expansion of the story was necessary to turn it into an epic movie. Still others offer opinions somewhere in between, and the reviews are plentiful.
In Parashat Noach, here's what the Bible actually says about Noah:
Noah was a righteous man; in his generation, he was above reproach; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
We are quite capable of comparing this to what we see on the screen and recognizing any differences. Nevertheless, the movie does raise many questions, one in particular: "What is the place of justice and mercy in existence?" Clearly the character of Noah himself, plagued by an overdeveloped sense of justice yet to be tempered by mercy, gradually becomes angrier as the movie progresses—a reading that is not in the Torah text, but is not out of character for Noah.
In an interview that appeared in the Washington Post (March 26, 2014), the director Darren Aronofsky said:
We started to realize these big ideas about justice and mercy in the film. It started with Noah being called righteous in his generation, and we tried to figure out what that meant. What we've discovered is that people who are a lot smarter than us and who study theology talk about righteousness as having a balance of justice and mercy. As a parent, you understand that if you're too just, you can destroy your child with strictness, and if you're too merciful you can destroy them with leniency. Finding that balance makes you a great parent. . . . For us, since Noah is called righteous, we asked, "OK, what is his balance of justice and mercy?" So at the beginning of the film, he clearly wants justice, very much like God. By the end, when the rainbow happens, he has learned mercy, forgiveness and grace.
As an editor of the new Reform High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh, I understand quite well this transformation from justice toward compassion. When creating the new machzor, the editors understood that the heart of its message is God's (as well as our) turning toward compassion. If we had to put the focus of the Days of Awe into one sentence, it is that we want to ask God to privilege God's (and by extension, our) compassionate side.
Throughout the machzor we find the theme of moving God from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy. We plead for Malkeinu to be Avinu. We see God challenge Jonah to care for human beings as much as he cares for a plant. Most effectively, we end the day of Yom Kippur by seven times declaring that the God of justice is also the God of compassion. Numerous times we cite the Exodus declaration that God is primarily a compassionate deity (see Exodus 34:4-9).
The tragedy of the biblical Noah is that he seems not to have learned his lesson. True, God has to order him to leave the ark (Genesis 8:15), suggesting his depression at the thought of starting over again. At no time, however, does Noah express regret for what has befallen humanity. In the Bible, he never warns anyone, never repeats what God has told him. He is a soldier, never questioning orders. This hardly makes him righteous in any way that we would understand.
Contrast Noah with Abraham, a man who confronts God, asking in regard to the stern punishment planned for Sodom, "Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25). More to the point: Shall not the Compassionate One act with compassion? (see Exodus 32:9-14; 33:19).
For the first time in history, thanks to the machzor, we can read this inspiring passage from Genesis 18 on Rosh HaShanah. It is featured as an alternative Torah text. We included it because it so well fits with the message of the Days of Awe: the God we believe in values compassion and mercy over everything else. Whenever possible, even justice shall be meted out with kindness.
In the Bible, Noah does not learn this lesson. Neither will those who come after him, building a tower to nowhere in the hopes of surpassing God (Genesis 11:1-9). It is only twenty generations after the Creation that the Bible introduces the first person who "gets" God. Abraham's famous response to God is telling: "Here I am" (Genesis 22:1)—ready to obey, but also ready to remember what matters most.
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (published by CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (published by URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (published by Jewish Lights).
In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (Act 4, scene 1) Portia argues:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven . . .
There was no gentle rain for the generation of the Flood. If Noah lacks the quality of mercy, it appears that God does as well. Only after the Flood does God say never again will this happen, designating the rainbow as a covenantal symbol of Divine mercy and compassion (Genesis 9:8-17).
Humanity's learning curve is much steeper than God's. Perhaps when the citizens of Babel said they wanted to be like God they were trying to create a complementary symbol of mercy extending to the heavens.
Alas, as Midrash Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (24) recounts, these folks became so intent on the building project that they were literally climbing over their injured fellow workers. Instead of bringing people together, the tower robbed humanity of its nascent empathy.
It is God who cultivates our compassion, encouraging its development across the biblical generations. The lessons are experiential. Noah was sealed up in an ark, separated from humanity. As a reaction to the enclosed environment, the inhabitants of Babel sought to expand, starting out united but ending up divided. Scattering them (out rather than up) was a crucial step in our developing morality, an introductory Lech L'cha. This becomes evident with Abraham whose compassion develops when he is removed from his native land and his father's house: he is taken out of his comfort zone.
Compassion takes root when we are no longer focused inward but are able to place ourselves in the other person's circumstances. When we experience interactions from a position beyond our control we develop greater empathy. Such experiences are the foundation of our story as it unfolds in the rest of the Torah.
If only the builders of Babel had constructed bridges instead of skyscrapers!
Rabbi Michal Shekel is the executive director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader of Har Tikvah Congregation in Brampton, Ontario.
Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57-91; Revised Edition, pp. 57-83;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 35-58