Geoff Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and teaches Kabbalah and Rabbinic Literature in the Jewish Studies Program at the University of North Texas. He is the author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, a 2007 National Book Award finalist, and recipient of an Honorable Mention for the 2007 Jewish Library Council Book Award. He has written numerous articles. The most recent, "Purity and Transformation:The Mimetic Performance of Scriptural Texts in the Ritual of Taharah," is in the Journal of Ritual Studies 26 (1), 2012.
Saturday, October 12, 2013
Aronofsky's Noah: Reaching Deep into Jewish Myth
[Illustration of a fallen angel from the French comic Noe, part of Aronofsky's project]
So on the strength of my book and this website, I get contacted from time to time by writers, producers, and creators of books, TV shows, and feature films, who are seeking to develop projects that draw upon Jewish myth for themes, creatures, and story lines.
By far the most prestigious of these was a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a screenwriter working with Darren Aronofsky, the director and creative mind behind Pi and The Fountain, two strange and wonderful movies that integrate Jewish myth and ideas into their story lines.
Naturally, given my enthusiasm for these earlier films, I was intrigued that Ari (that's the the screenwriter) was interested in plumbing Jewish myths of the antediluvian period (Genesis chapters 1-9). There is a treasure trove of fabulous traditions.
So we discussed the rabbinic notions of the world before the Flood, a world populated with objects of power, semi-immortal humans, giants, sea monsters, centaurs, fallen angels and demon spirits. It quickly became evident that Aronofsky was envisioning a version of the Noah story that would incorporate authentic Jewish ideas and legends, and therefore more Lord of the Rings than Ben Hur. Very exciting. But that was it. The calls stopped coming, I returned to my day-job as a congregational rabbi, and Noah dropped from my mind.
But now Noah is back with a vengeance (and this time, it's personal!). The International Movie Data Base indicates the movies is set for a March release in 2014. Things are starting to pop up on fan sites, and a few photos are even appearing (Russell Crow! Emma Watson! JENNIFER CONNOLLY!).
And a lot of sturm und drang about six-armed angels. Clearly, some people don't get it. This idea seemingly so defies their expectations for a "biblical" film, it's really bugging them. They need to read their Bible.
The basis for the HUGE tradition of fallen angels that figures so large in the Christian tradition is Gen. 6:4, a cryptic bundles of ideas about the "Sons of God":
There were nefilim [giants] in the earth in those days;
and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men,
and they bare children to them,
the same became heroes which were of old, men of renown.
This was the trigger for a massive outpouring of the Jewish imagination during the Second Temple Period. Books like Enoch, The Book of Giants, and Jubilees, seized upon the notion that the "son of God" were not just lured by Bronze Age Kate Uptons, they were expelled from heaven. Hence, fallen angels. Then there are the offspring, nifilim, which seems to suggest "Fallen Ones" (Though linguistically that's pseudo-philology), a word that actually means "giants." Soon a whole menagerie of fantastic creatures were included, a ready biblical "explanation" for the monsters, demi-gods, and minor spirits spoken of in the mythologies of surrounding cultures. So too, objects of power - the garments of Adam, the book of Noah, the sword of Methuselah, the rod of Joseph, and tzohar gem - were all duly derived from the Genesis narrative.
But I digress. Six-armed angels. So naturally, when angels "fall," they lose their wings (watch your Dogma, people!). Or, the wings decay into mere arms. How many? Consult Isaiah chapter six:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord,
high and exalted, seated on a throne;
and the train of his robe filled the temple.
Above him were seraphim, each with six wings...
Get it? Six wings become six arms. Giants. Totally biblical. Or at least in keeping with biblical ideas.
Now, I want to see Leviathan. This is going to be awesome!