Jewish Identity and Biblical Exposition in Darren Aronofsky’s Films

Eric X. Jarrard

In Review | Film mother!, 121 minutes, 2017; and Noah, 138 minutes, 2014. Both directed by Darren Aronofsky, Protozoa Pictures, distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Film still from "mother!" with the Mother character standing with hands gently placed on the house's bare wall

mother! Protozoa Pictures.

 

“This is why you should never trust academics. Midrash? More like mid-trash!
—Anonymous internet comment1

If there is another film in recent memory so deeply disliked by audiences as Darren Aronofsky’s mother!,2 it does not come to mind. Statistically speaking, there is good reason for the near impossibility of recollecting such a maligned movie. When the film debuted in September 2017, it joined the unenviable ranks of only nineteen other movies in the history of CinemaScore—a metric of audience satisfaction widely used to survey moviegoers’ reactions on opening night—that earned the abysmal rating of “F”. Yes, only nineteen other films since 1978 have been so roundly hated by audiences. To give you some perspective on just how bad this rating is, even the 2003 Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck disaster and consummate punchline, Gigli, was able to manage a “D-”.

Some have suggested that the mis-marketing of the film was what earned it such a low rating. Kevin Lincoln, for example, observed that among these nineteen films, about half of them displayed a trend that he terms “misleading auteurism.”3 These are films, like Aronofsky’s mother!, that are written, directed, and/or produced by Academy Award-nominated directors that deliver a bait-and-switch. They are intended as thought-provoking, artistic pieces, but are shoehorned into ill-fitting marketing categories. Such was the case with Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film Solaris, marketed as science fiction but brazenly defying the genre’s stereotypes at every turn. This upheaval of audience expectations, argued Lincoln, was the downfall of mother!: Paramount Pictures marketed the film as a horror movie, but Aronofsky delivered a “roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism.4 The apparent deception was unpalatable for moviegoers. Certainly, one can imagine the appreciable disappointment experienced by the audience: When you order the crème brûlée but receive the soufflé, the restaurant experience may be irredeemable. But this critique is less of Aronofsky’s work and more of Paramount Pictures.

A second kind of critique has focused instead on the merits of the film. Here, the critical response that evaluates his work on its own content rather than audience expectations is also mixed. The film received a Metascore of 75 and a Tomatometer 69 percent rating.5 Anthony Lane, critic for the New Yorker, wrote: “If you gave an extremely bright fifteen-year-old a bag of unfamiliar herbs to smoke, and forty million dollars or so to play with, ‘Mother!’ would be the result.”6 Per the norms of popular film criticism, in Lane’s critique  there is a type of subjective criticism wherein the film does not measure up to the critic’s own idea of successful execution; Lane ordered and received the crème brûlée, but it failed to meet his imagined standards for the dessert.

Neither of these two critiques—subverted expectation or subjective disappointment—target the mechanics of the filmmaker’s artistic product. Any subjective criticism of Aronofsky’s work according to one’s own taste or an abstract artistic ideal is easily eschewed by the auteur. Such was the case with Aronofsky’s rejoinder to the severe response to mother!: “Anytime you do something that aggressive there are going to be people who enjoy it, who want to be on that roller coaster ride, and then there are others who say, 'Oh no, that was not for me.’ ”7 Aronofsky’s response to the criticism was to put the blame on the audience; they either did not understand the work, or they did understand it but rejected the artistic mirror that Aronofsky held up for them. According to Aronofsky, audiences did not like his film because he did his job well.

In yet a third, more apropos, category of criticism, one might evaluate Aronofsky’s work by how effectively his own methods and goals for the film were met. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Aronofsky’s films are influenced by his Jewish background.8 The mere existence of this influence, though, does not provide a productive analytical tool for Aronofsky’s œuvre. Instead, an analysis of how well he uses traditional modes of Jewish interpretation does offer the possibility of an objective approach. Thus, in this third type of criticism, one would assess the success of the crème brûlée by how precisely the dish was executed according to the recipe by which it was prepared.

Put more simply, in the remainder of this essay I will assess whether Aronofsky’s two most recent films, Noah and mother!, are the instantiations of the Jewish modes of interpretation—midrashic and allegorical, respectively—that he claims them to be. To do so, I will (1) briefly summarize the historical antecedents—specifically midrash and allegory—that Aronofsky seeks to replicate in his works; (2) discuss Aronofsky’s use of these ancient Jewish interpretive modes; and (3) evaluate Aronofsky’s adherence to their internal mechanisms, as well as his effectiveness in using those modes of interpretation. In so doing, I hope to demonstrate that the most penetrating criticism of Aronofsky’s work will benefit from an understanding and appreciation of the historical models of biblical interpretation that the auteur has inherited. Moreover, this analysis will demonstrate specific deficiencies in Aronofsky’s use of these techniques that undermine the auteur’s intent. In order to explore Aronofsky’s attention—or lack thereof—to the mechanisms of early Jewish interpretation,9 it will be helpful to begin by considering the origins of the two interpretive techniques—midrash and allegory—on which these films most clearly rely.
 

Unsurprisingly, biblical interpretation has its roots within the Bible itself, where we can observe the phenomenon of inner-biblical interpretation: places where the text self-reflexively reinterprets earlier traditions. The most obvious example is the relationship between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles. In these two works, the latter significantly redacts, contextualizes, and shapes the former for its own rhetorical purposes—for instance, the omission of the story from 2 Samuel 11, on David’s illicit affair with Bathsheba is a significant change meant to bolster the presentation of David. Another oft-cited example is the seventy-year prophecy of the end of the Babylonian exile, found in Jeremiah 25:11, and its reflex in Daniel 9:24–27. In both of these examples, we see the biblical author(s) grappling with how to interpret texts that are problematic in their contemporaneous context. For David Stern, there are commonalities in the inner-biblical and post-biblical interpretation. Specifically, he points to the tendencies of both types of interpretation to: “Harmonize conflicting or discordant verses; to reemploy and reapply biblical paradigms and imagery to new cases; to reinvent ‘old’ historical references with ‘new’ historical contexts; and to integrate non-historical-portions of the Bible within the larger context of biblical history.”10

At some point in the Second Temple period, though, the biblical canon became fixed, and the ability to offer these reinterpretations within the biblical text itself came to an end. The need to contemporize and harmonize, however, remained a concern for post-biblical interpreters, and the modes of these later interpreters—the Qumran community, the rabbis, and Philo, among others—continued to be largely congruous with the earlier methods and motivations of inner-biblical interpretation.11

1. Midrash
Properly speaking, midrash (plural, midrashim) refers to a type of rabbinic biblical interpretation taking place in the Southern Levant at the beginning of the common era—primarily in and around Galilee post 135 CE— and roughly five hundred years following. The term “midrash” is from the Hebrew root (דרשׁ; d-r-sh) meaning “to seek” (often the meaning of) something.12 The term “midrash” has more commonly come to signify the yield of that activity—including the actual collections of midrash—as well; that is, the act of seeking meaning from a biblical text and the meaning derived from the process of seeking are both “midrash.” To confuse matters still further, David Stern points out that in scholarly circles midrash has also been used to describe all ancient (usually Jewish) biblical interpretation, and that outside of scholarly circles, the term functions as a stand-in for all manners of “creative interpretations of the Bible that seek to move beyond the historical, ‘original’ sense of the biblical text.”13

Excluding the final, contemporary use of the term, to which I will return below, we can still distill a “spirit” of midrash. For the ancient interpreter, the biblical text is omni-significant—every detail has meaning—and that meaning has contemporaneous relevance for its interpreter. Gerald Bruns clarifies this relationship: “What matters in midrash is not only what lies behind the text in the form of an originating intention but what is in front of the text where the text is put into play. The text is always contemporary with its readers or listeners, that is, always oriented towards the time and circumstances of the interpreter.”14 Said another way, the onus is on the darshan (explicator of scripture) to make the connection between the omni-significant features of the text and his or her own contemporary setting.15

Although there is considerable debate regarding whether there are rules for midrashic interpretation (middot),16 at least four characteristics of midrashim can be distilled for mypurposes: (1) attention to detail, specifically the verbal, phonetic, and orthographic features of the text, (2) a plurality of interpretations, (3) contemporizing of the biblical text, and (4) character development. A few examples from Bereshit Rabbah are illustrative of these characteristics.

The first two characteristics—attention to detail and plurality of interpretations—can be seen in two different midrashim on the first four words of the Binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1). The passage begins: “After these things . . .” (ויהי אחר הדברים האלה).17 In these midrashim, the rabbis, led by the belief that every feature of written Torah (the biblical text) held significance, created multiple expansions to the biblical text that make sense of idiomatic features of biblical narrative. In this case, the rabbis marked the text with a midrashic red pen: “Antecedent unclear! After what things?”

They gave future readers two equally interesting options to resolve the issue. The first midrash links the Binding of Isaac to the chapter preceding it—which includes the feast for Isaac’s weaning (Gen 21:8). In this expansion, Abraham laments not having offered a sacrifice to God for his good fortune, prompting a conversation among the heavenly host. In this conversation, God reaffirms His trust in Abraham to His court:18 Abraham would not even withhold His beloved son, Isaac, were God to demand Abraham to sacrifice him. In the other expansion, we receive the story of an escalating sibling rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael, who debate which of the two sons of Abraham is more beloved by God. The debate culminates in Isaac boasting that he would offer his own life if asked, which kindles the narrative fire of Genesis 22. Characteristic of midrashic interpretation, each story offers an expansion on the biblical narrative as an explanation of the antecedent of “these things,” and, as is typical in midrashic collections, both are presented without comment or preference. Thus, it seems just as important for the rabbis to resolve the grammatical conundrum of an unclear antecedent as it is to present the multiple received traditions that satisfy the issue; the interest of the rabbis is dialogic, not expository.

Among the multiple midrashim addressing God’s call to Abraham (Gen 12), we can see the second two characteristics at work: contemporizing of the biblical text, and  character development.19 In one story, Abraham is concerned with leaving his father, Terah, to answer God’s call. Leaving his father to die alone presents a significant problem for Abraham: not only would it violate one of the ten commandments (Ex 20:12), but it would also bring shame upon God, presumably for selecting a covenant violator. The solution is twofold. First, R. Isaac notes that the wicked (a typical characterization of the midrashically idolatrous father of Abraham) are called “dead” even when they are alive. Second, Abraham receives a pre-emptive reprieve from the commandment: “I set you (alluded to by the use of lekā; Gen 12:1) free from honoring your father, but I am not setting anyone else free from honoring (their) father or mother.”20

This midrash, among many others related to Abraham, gives the midrashic Abraham a greater sense of interiority—he thinks, worries, cares for his father, etc.—at least more so than the biblical Abraham.

One might rightly wonder why Abraham is worried about a commandment that is not, chronologically speaking, given until much later, when Moses receives the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai. The rabbis, though, have a specific idea of Abraham’s relationship to Torah; in rabbinic literature—and for Philo as well as in Jubilees—Torah already exists for Abraham, and thus he is expected to follow it completely. Abraham’s sensitivity to Torah observance is, on one level, a contemporizing of the biblical text for the rabbis, but on another, it functions as character development for the limited characterization of Abraham in the Torah. This midrash, among many others related to Abraham, gives the midrashic Abraham a greater sense of interiority—he thinks, worries, cares for his father, etc.—at least more so than the biblical Abraham. The combined effect makes him more human, and perhaps more imitable for the contemporaneous generation.

From these examples, we can see how midrash as an interpretive method is primarily oriented to the world “in front of” the text, to echo the previously mentioned sentiments of Bruns. Stern, too, has expressly reiterated this position: “Midrash has been celebrated for seeing meaning ‘in front’ of the text, in the intertextual play between verses, in the deferral of a single absolute meaning in favor of a multiplicity of provision and possible meanings.”21 This contrast between an interpretive method oriented towards the meaning “in front of” the text is made even more apparent when juxtaposed to allegoric interpretations, or those, according to Stern, “said to posit the existence of a reference or meaning ‘behind’ the text as a kind of static metaphysical presence.”22

2. Allegory
As a mode of biblical interpretation, allegory posits the true meaning of the text is something other than its plain sense (peshat). It bears the same spirit as midrash in that it attempts to contemporize the meaning of the text, but unlike midrash, it assumes a specific cultural milieu wherein the peshat of the text is irrelevant or at lease opaque for the interpreter.

The work of the early Jewish interpreter Philo of Alexandria provides a lucid example of allegoric interpretation. A Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of the first century CE, Philo’s hermeneutical method assumes two ways of understanding a text. The plain meaning, which “circulates widely and which everyone can recognize,” and the figurative meaning, which “requires study, reflection, investigation, and the assistance of the sorts of special insight possessed by unique individuals.”23 Philo’s commentary activity is not primarily exegetical in nature; it is interested in interpreting the Hebrew Bible as moral philosophy and exposing the hyponoia—the underlying meaning that emerges after thought and reflection—of the text.

An example of allegoric interpretation should help to clarify the hermeneutics of this mode. Philo has great difficulty with the literal reading of the creation of Eve from the rib of Adam (Gen 2:21). In his work Legum Allegoriae, Philo goes on at great length about how utterly preposterous it would be to think an anatomical rib would be removed from Adam to create Eve: “The literal statement conveyed in these words is a fabulous one; for how can anyone believe that a woman was made of a rib of a man, or, in short, that any human being was made out of another?”24 Instead, he interprets “rib” as Adam’s non-physical mind (not his anatomical brain). That is, Eve receives Adam’s intelligence, not his rib. He offers this solution with both a practical justification—the mind is not physically attached and thus is easily removed and transferred—and a philosophical one—that the mind and intelligence transcend the physical body and its limitations, a clear marker of the Platonic influence on Philo’s thought.

Having rehearsed the background and methods of the two primary methods of Jewish interpretation utilized by Aronofsky in Noah and mother!, I can now examine how Aronofsky applies these techniques to his own films.
 

That the film Noah is somehow a modern midrash on the biblical text is not a new idea. The identification of midrashic antecedents in the film was quite popular fodder for think pieces after the movie’s release,25 and the incorporation of these traditions was openly acknowledged by Ari Handel, the movie’s co-creator.26 The list of instances is remarkably expansive: Noah’s vegetarianism,27 his agrarian lifestyle and success as a farmer,28 his interaction with the descendants of Cain and their subsequent attempts to enter the ark,29 Noah’s care for the animals on the ark,30 and the (t)zohar-light, to name just a few.31 What is clear from the impressively long list of midrashim incorporated in Aronofsky’s work is that the filmmaker is certainly aware of the larger rabbinic corpus surrounding the work, and especially the haggadic midrashim (midrash related to biblical narrative). The most obvious motivating factor behind such efforts is their ability to lend authorization to Aronofsky’s own narrative expansion: he can expand and reinterpret the biblical story of Noah because so many before him have done so too.

This authorization provides Aronofsky the leeway to pursue what he believes is the underlying question of the biblical Noah story: why Noah was spared by God. This question of divine selection is, of course, not new; it was treated at great length by the rabbis, not only for Noah,32 but for virtually every other patriarch.33 At the heart of the issue for the rabbis and for Aronofsky is the question of Noah’s (or anyone’s) merit.

Two aspects of Aronofsky’s resolution provide an interesting take on the problem. First, the film is careful to depict a gradual decline in the character of Noah from protagonist—even chiding his son for picking a flower without cause—to antagonist—allowing a young girl, Na’el, to die in the forest and threatening to kill his own grandchildren.34 In this way, it takes up the midrashic exposition of Noah’s character. When Noah is compared to his generation (Gen 6:9), he is righteous, but when he is on the ark with his family, his righteousness is much less pronounced, if it exists at all. Second, Aronofsky also leaves unresolved the veracity of God’s calling of Noah. Because God is never seen in the film, the implication may be that Noah suffers from mental illness with delusions of grandeur: he imagined the whole thing. Or, if we are to believe Noah’s visions and that he is truly called by God, by the end of the film Noah is unable to bear the weight of his chosenness, and thus God is wrong—either in his choice of Noah or his creation of humanity.
 

The film mother! ostensibly tells the story of a brooding artist who, in his obsessive pursuit of fame and adoration, ruins the life of his wife, child, and everything he touches. The film begins with a burned house and a man, Him, placing a crystal on a mantel, causing the home magically to be restored. A woman, Mother, wakes from a peaceful rest. Soon after, an interloping man with a wound in his side arrives and is invited to stay in the home by Him; the man’s wife arrives shortly thereafter, followed by their two sons—one of whom has fratricidal tendencies. A wake ensues after the death of one son at the hand of the other, followed by a kitchen accident that floods the home and leads to the eviction of the house guests.

After the house guests leave, Mother conceives, Him writes the baby a poem, and the poem becomes so wildly popular that the house eventually fills to capacity with the overzealous. In the last third of the film, the house conditions rapidly deteriorate in chaos and violence, in the midst of which Mother bears her child only to have it murdered in a frenzy of adulation. Him begs Mother to forgive the crowd, but she flees to the basement and starts a fire that destroys the home and everything in it, save Him and a horrifically burned Mother. The movie ends as it began, with a woman emerging from the ashes (Mother 2.0, or 3.0, or 59789.0, we cannot be sure) and awakening from her sleep.

If mother! were a text, the peshat would be virtually incomprehensible. The non-linear plot, the nameless characters without backstory, the uneven pacing, all have the combined effect of utterly defying cinematic convention. As Richard Brody described the film: “There’s a special kind of movie that invites questions from viewers and answers of the sort that Aronofsky offered, W.T.F. movies in which the drama itself is utterly unclear.”35 This incomprehensibility, the “W.T.F.”-ness of a text—written, visual, or otherwise—is characteristic of allegory, and indeed, Aronofsky intended it to be understood as such. In an interview with Collider, Aronofsky commented: “The structure of the film was the Bible, using that as a way of discussing how humans have lived here on Earth. . . . I started off with the themes, the allegory; I sort of wanted to tell the story of Mother Nature from her point of view.”36

He tells the story of humanity, not from the perspective of the chosen people or their God, but from the perspective of Mother Nature. Beyond that, the film is simply an allegorical interpretation of the biblical and human narrative and an environmental indictment of humankind.

Not unlike the equivalence manuals circulating the Hellenistic world in the first century (Adam = Natural Reason, Eve = The Senses, etc.),37 a similar manual could be provided for mother! Aronofsky acknowledged, for instance, that the crystal in the beginning of the film was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge,38 but other equivalencies are not difficult for the thoughtful viewer with even a basic knowledge of one of the most famous stories in the world: Him = God, Mother = Mother Nature, the house = Eden, Man = Adam, Man’s wound = place where the rib was removed, Woman = Eve, and so on. On his construction of the allegory, Aronofsky responded: “Lightning struck for me as a writer when I realized my initial intentions of creating this allegory in a very Luis Bunuel [sic] type of way . . . taking a piece of a world and confining it to a space and making it a conversation about society, lined up with a personal human story, and I figured out how to structure it with a biblical core, and was able to write so quickly.”39 The most obvious point of departure for Aronofsky’s vision is in the film’s perspective: he tells the story of humanity, not from the perspective of the chosen people or their God, but from the perspective of Mother Nature. Beyond that, the film is simply an allegorical interpretation of the biblical and human narrative and an environmental indictment of humankind.
 

There can be little doubt that both Noah and mother! attempt to engage in two forms of ancient Jewish biblical interpretation—midrash and allegory. Were the films not evidence enough, the filmmaker has gone on record in multiple interviews confirming as much. It is certainly clear that Aronofsky is interested in engaging with the interpretive models he has inherited. Decidedly less clear, though, is whether Aronofsky grasps the mechanisms fueling the works he is so eager to incorporate. Three aspects in particular stand out as deficiencies in Aronofsky’s use of Jewish biblical interpretation.

The first disconformity between Aronofsky’s work and early biblical interpretation pertains to the question of discomfort. In my earlier discussion of midrash, David Stern described the “prenatural sensitivity” of the rabbis “to the least ‘bump’ in the scriptural text . . . a mere hint at something unseemly in the way of behavior.”40 Their attention to these details, however, was not to exploit these unseemly behaviors in the text, but rather, to smooth out the edges, to create unity where there is disunity. Aronofsky, on the other hand, seems by all accounts to be motivated by the opposite. As a director, he seems to indulge intentionally in and dwell on viscerally graphic violence and images in a way that few other filmmakers dare. The most interesting example of this inclination is not from Noah or mother!, but from Black Swan, a film for which he received an Academy Award nomination. In his 2014 interview with Aronofsky, Tad Friend relays the following story:

When “Black Swan” was tested, [Aronofsky] told me, “Fox used the scores to attack me with notes. They wanted me to cut the bird-legs thing”—the freaky moment when Natalie Portman’s legs become swan legs and then snap backward—“and the gore of Winona Ryder stabbing herself in the face. It was the best stuff in the film!” Aronofsky refused to make the suggested cuts, and argued with Claudia Lewis, the president of production at Fox Searchlight Pictures.41

Whereas the rabbis endeavored to harmonize disjunctive features in the text, Aronofsky apparently relishes opportunities to create them for his audience; he intentionally and deliberately interrupts the moviegoing experience. This is confirmed by a second story later in the same interview:

In March of last year, Aronofsky screened his rough cut of “Noah” for Paramount and its funding partner, New Regency Productions. It was two hours and forty-six minutes long, filled with half-realized effects, and had only twenty minutes of music. Clint Mansell [the film’s composer] urged [Aronofsky] to include additional “temp music,” borrowed from other films, to help sell the experience. “Darren said absolutely not,” Mansell told me. “He’s more comfortable with other people feeling uncomfortable with the film than with him feeling uncomfortable with it.”

I remain wholly unconvinced that Aronofsky’s uncompromising artistic vision for his films could ever fully square with the rabbinic vision of the relationship between written and oral Torah. First, for the rabbis, the two halves combine perfectly and seamlessly to create a single whole. The divinely given whole is the gift, not their own vision for how that gift should be presented.

Second, Aronofsky seems uninterested in attending to the unity of the biblical text in the rabbinic imagination or to the diversity of rabbinic interpretation as a genre. His engagement with the midrashim related to the biblical Noah story avoids any notion of literary connections to rabbinic material outside of Genesis. This isolationist reading of select midrashim connected to a particular biblical story is incongruent with rabbinic methods, for rabbinic literature is, as Shaye Cohen argues, “linked by [the rabbis’] common education, vocabulary, values, and culture, [and] the rabbis clearly constitute a unified group. Rabbinic literature is a remarkably homogeneous corpus.”42 At the same time, however, this unity does not suggest a homogeneity in style or thought. Indeed, Cohen continues: “these facts do not mean that rabbinic literature really is seamless or that all rabbis of antiquity thought and behaved in identical fashion. . . . Every generation of rabbis had its own interests.”43 If we were to rely solely on Aronofsky’s use of midrash, we might believe that the sole purpose of rabbinic midrash was expansive narrative exegesis. Such a belief, however, would be ignoring not only the rabbinic motivation for doing so (i.e. their attention to details in the text, noted above), but also a wealth of other material: the rabbinic parables, halakhic (related to legal material) midrash, and a large volume of other rabbinic output. Similarly, his notion of allegory is limited to formulaic allegorical equivalencies: this biblical character = this movie character, and so on. If there is a larger philosophical purpose to his work—some vague notion of environmentalism notwithstanding—it is difficult to discern.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the obfuscation of the God character in Aronofsky’s work. While it is a matter of debate whether one can distill a consistent “theology” of midrash or early allegoric interpretations of the Bible,44 no biblical reader, ancient or modern, has ever picked up the Hebrew Bible and thought: “I don’t think it’s a very religious story.”45 While I suppose some arguments could be made about modern notions of religion and the development of ancient Israelite religious institutions, this, I would argue, misses the point of Aronofsky’s inability to see these stories as “religious.” What he claims here, and what both Noah and mother! boldly assert, is that the God character is superfluous, or even detrimental to the story. Yet the lack of cohesion in the rabbinic characterization(s) of God and the general sense of ineffability of the deity’s majesty is certainly not owing to the deity’s lack of importance. Quite the opposite. If the rabbis were unable to theologize consistently about the deity, it is because God is everywhere in the Hebrew Bible. Aronofsky’s movies are appropriately titled: mother! and Noah. He is blind to the character of God in the stories, and that blindness manifests itself as absence and/or hallucination in Noah and in the terrorizing narcissism in the character of Him in mother! What Aronofsky cannot understand about the biblical narrative and the ancient interpreters who wrestled with it is that the text and its interpretations are never solely human actors, but rather about the God who acts through humans. If Aronofsky were to make an accurate movie about any part of the Bible and incorporate any ancient interpretations of the biblical text, only one title would suffice: God.

To be sure, and as evidence by their nearly $120mm combined domestic gross, the success of these two films is not contingent on Aronofsky’s ability to or interest in remaining loyal to the mechanics of ancient Jewish modes of biblical interpretation. Put simply, audiences likely do not care how good an ancient exegete Aronfsky is or is not. Yet the three above-mentioned failings of Aronofsky’s work do indicate that there is much at stake in his interpretive work, and all the more so when he represents his work as the successor of such rich and complex traditions.

Thus, I am inclined to agree with Stern when he says that he “would prefer to restrict the use of the word ‘midrash’ to the ancient biblical interpretations of the Rabbis.”46 If I were to offer to expand on Stern’s preference, I would extend his desire to differentiate works of classical midrash from neo-midrash to the genre of “allegory,” too. While Aronofsky may owe much to the creators of the traditions with which he engages, he is no darshan or allegorist, in the classical senses of those words—at least not until he can embrace their subject matter and diversity in their multiple forms and singular concern.

 

Notes:

  1. The title of this article comes from the consummate source of eternal wisdom: anonymous Internet comments. This one originates from the comments on a review of Noah by Alissa Wilkinson on Christianity Today.
  2. mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky (Brooklyn: Protozoa Pictures, 2017).
  3. Kevin Lincoln, “What the 19 Movies to Ever Receive an ‘F’ CinemaScore Have in Common,” Vulture, September 20, 2017.
  4. Owen Gleiberman, “Film Review: mother!,’” Variety, September 5, 2017.
  5. mother! (2017),”; “mother! Reviews.”
  6. Anthony Lane, “‘Mother!’ and ‘Battle of the Sexes,’” The New Yorker, September 25, 2017.
  7. Eric Eisenberg, “How Darren Aronofsky Feels About The Reaction To Mother!,” CinemaBlend, September 18, 2017.
  8. At varying points in his career, he has described his religious background differently. Around the release of his 1998 film, Pi, he noted: “I was raised as a conservative Jew—I was barmitzvahed and circumcised,” see Jonathan Romney, “Mad maths,” The Guardian, January 5, 1999. Although the original conception of Pi followed a cabal of Pythagorean monks, it was time spent in an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel that catalyzed the film and its Kabbalistic plot. By 2011, Aronofsky described his upbringing thusly: “I was raised culturally Jewish, but there was very little spiritual attendance in temple. It was a cultural thing—celebrating the holidays, knowing where you came from, knowing your history, having respect for what your people have been through”; Jonathan Romney, “Blood, Sweat and Murder at the Ballet: The Endless Torture of Darren Aronofsky,” Independent, January 9, 2011. Whatever the precise religious practices of Aronofsky’s childhood home, it is clear—by his own descriptions and his films—that Jewish modes of interpretation have thoroughly infiltrated his artistic expression.
  9. To call a particular type of interpretation—midrash or otherwise—“Jewish” is complicated. It is not immediately clear whether there is a unifying or particular mode of biblical interpretation that is “Jewish” in the Second Temple period. Certainly, there are Jewish interpreters of the Bible, but whether the content or theological conclusions of a particular genre of writing are a priori “Jewish” is not as clear. This classification is all the more problematic given that the dating of “Jewishness” is a matter of considerable debate. Shaye J. D. Cohen accepts the term after about 100 B.C.E. (The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties [University of California Press, 1999], 70–71).
  10. David Stern, “Midrash and Midrashic Interpretation,” in The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2004), 1865.
  11. For a very brief overview on inner-biblical interpretation, see Ben Sommers, “Inner-biblical Interpretation,” in ibid., 1829–1835; the seminal treatment of this form of interpretation, though, is Michael Fishbane’s treatise Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel [BIAI] (Oxford University Press, 1985), or the briefer introduction “Inner Biblical Exegesis: Types and Strategies of Interpretation in Ancient Israel,” in Midrash and Literature, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick (Yale University Press, 1986), 19–37. More recently, the work of D. Andrew Teeter offers an expansion and update for the field, in Scribal Laws: Exegetical Variation in the Textual Transmission of Biblical Law in the Late Second Temple Period, Forschungen zum Alten Testament 92 (Mohr Siebeck, 2014).
  12. For instance, in Gen 25:22, when Rebekah experienced a gestational complication with Jacob and Esau, she “went to seek the Lord” (ותלך לדרשׁ את־יהוה) to discern the meaning of her difficult pregnancy.
  13. Stern, “Midrash and Midrashic Interpretation,” 1864.
  14. Gerald L. Bruns, “The Hermenutics of Midrash,” in The Book and the Text, ed. Regina M. Schwartz (Blackwell, 1990), 191.
  15. Though it must be eminently noted, as was pointed out to me by Jon D. Levenson, that the historico-political situation of the rabbis is rarely, if ever, explicitly identified in the midrashim.
  16. After rehearsing some of the prominent arguments concerning the “irrationality” of midrash, and the value of middot for mitigating this issue (or not), Bruns concludes: “My view is that, on any hermeneutically informed study of the evidence, midrash is not just eisigesis [sic] but a hermeneutical practice that tells us a good deal about what it is to understand a text. Unfortunately, mainline research on midrash is just hermeneutically naïve”; Bruns, “Hermenutics,” 201, n. 5.
  17. Ber. Rab. 55:4.
  18. Here the use of the third masculine singular preserves the grammar of the Hebrew original.
  19. On this final point, I must give credit to Matthew Y. Hass, whose forthcoming dissertation addresses the characterizations of Abraham in midrash and the rhetorical purpose of those characterizations. Hass emphasizes that neither the biblical nor midrashic “character” of Abraham is monolithic and to treat it as such, as I have done here, is to grossly oversimplify the construction and rhetorical goals of both the biblical writers and the rabbis.
  20. Ber. Rab. 39:7.
  21. Stern, 1872.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Bruns, “Midrash and Allegory,” 637.
  24. Philo Alexandrinus, Leg. All. II.19, trans. C. D. Yonge (H.G. Bohn, 1854–1890).
  25. R. Eliyahu Fink, “Noah: A Very Jewish Retelling of the Story,” Haaretz, April 3, 2014; R. Eliyahu Fink, “Movie Review | Noah: A Very Jewish Retelling,” finkorswim.com, March 31, 2014.
  26. Handel notes, “We tried to read everything and talk to everything [sic] we could for guidance. Ultimately in the midrash tradition the text has purposeful lacuna [sic]; it has questions that are posed in the very words, so the closer we read it, the more questions arose from it,” Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, “Noah: A Midrash by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel (Interview),” The Huffington Post, March 24, 2014.
  27. Ber. Rab. 34:13.
  28. Ber. Rab. 25:2.
  29. On the former, see Ber. Rab. 30:7; on the latter, see “Evangel of Seth,” in Erwin Preuschen, Die apokryphen gnostischen Adamschriften (J. Rickersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1900), 39; Joshua ibn Shu‘aib, “Shu‘aib, Noah,” in Derashot al ha-Torah (דרשׁות על התורה) (Constantinople, 1523), 5b; Pseudo Jonathan, Targum Yerushalmi, Gen 7:16; Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer 23; Aggadat Bereshit (אגדת ברשׁית), ed. Lieve Teugels, Jewish and Christian Perspectives Series, vol. 4 (Brill, 2001), 4:10.
  30. b. Sanhedrin 108b; Midrash ha-Gadol [MHG] (מדרשׁ הגדול ספר ברשׁית) I, ed. Schechter (Cambridge, 1902), 160; Yalkut Reubeni, Sepher Yalkut Reubeni al ha-Torah (ספר ילקוט ראובני על התורה) (Amsterdam, 1700), Gen. 7:14.
  31. Often noted, too, is the film’s reliance on the Book of Enoch and its use of “the watchers.” See Megan Sauter, “Rock Giants in Noah: Can the Book of Enoch Shed Light on Noah the Movie?,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May 28, 2018.
  32. At issue is the description of Noah as righteous “in his generation” (בדרתיו). That is, is Noah truly righteous, or just righteous compared to the utterly irredeemable generation that surrounds him? Rabbinic tradition is divided on the righteousness of Noah. R. Johanan takes a negative view (Ber. Rab. 32.6), while others cast Noah in a more positive light.
  33. A comprehensive list of such activity would be impossible to compile. A few particularly illustrious examples are, for instance: Adam’s repentance after his expulsion (Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer 20); famously, Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols (Ber. Rab. 38.13); and the piety of Jacob (MHG I, 398).
  34. On the death of Na’el, Aronofsky notes: “That scene is the fulcrum of the movie—it’s when Noah becomes the antagonist and we’re almost rooting against him”; Tad Friend, “Heavy Weather: Darren Aronofsky Gets Biblical,” The New Yorker, March 17, 2014.
  35. Richard Brody, “Darren Aronofsky Says “Mother!” Is About Climate Change, But He’s Wrong,” The New Yorker, September 20, 2017.
  36. Adam Chitwood, “Darren Aronofsky Confirms What ‘mother!’ Is Really About,” Collider, September 18, 2017.
  37. R. P. C. Hanson, “Interpretation of Hebrew Names in Origen,” Virgiliae Christianae 10 (July 1956): 103–123.
  38. In his article, Chitwood says, “Aronofsky confirmed one of those Easter eggs when asked what the crystal/egg means in the movie, saying it represents the apple on the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.” In a video interview included in the article, Chitwood asks Aronofsky about the symbolism of the crystal. Aronofsky asks him, “What did Adam and Eve steal from the garden?” Chitwood responds, “Uhhh, an apple.” Aronofsky confirms Chitwood’s response with a wink and a grin. The video then cuts immediately to the next question. On the one hand, I deeply hope that this is an error on Chitwood’s part and that Aronofsky, a man who has devoted nearly every movie in his cinematic corpus to exploring the biblical text and its themes, has read at least the first three chapters of that book carefully enough to know the fruit is not identified. On the other hand, the video evidence suggests that is not the case; Chitwood, “Video: What ‘mother’ Is Really AboutCollider.
  39. Anne Thompson, “mother!’: Darren Aronofsky Answers All Your Burning Questions About the Film’s Shocking Twists and Meanings,” Indiewire, September 18, 2007.
  40. Stern, “Midrash and Midrashic Interpretation,” 1870.
  41. Friend, “Bad Weather.”
  42. Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Westminster John Knox, 2006), 205.
  43. Ibid., 206.
  44. This question is far too expansive for the purposes of this essay. As a very brief entry point to this question, see Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, trans. I. Abrahams (Harvard University Press, 1987) and the essay by Stern that builds upon the work of Urbach, in which he contends that deriving a theology—a sense of who the rabbis believed God was—from midrash is notoriously difficult, not least of which because explicit rabbinic articulations of the character of God are “scattered,” brief, and “cloaked in figurative or imagistic language”; “Midrash and Theology: The Character(s) of God,” in Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Studies (Northwestern University Press, 1996), 73–94.
  45. Terri Schwartz, “First Look at Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ Graphic Novel Hits the Web,” IFC, October 21, 2011.
  46. Stern, “Midrash and Midrashic Interpretation,” 1864.
 

Eric Jarrard, a Harvard doctoral candidate in Hebrew Bible, researches both memory studies and the Hebrew Bible and biblical themes in contemporary popular culture. His dissertation is titled “ ‘Remember This Day on Which You Came out of Egypt’: The Exodus Motif in Biblical Memory,” and he has a forthcoming article in Biblical Reception, “Now You’re in the Sunken Place: Constructed Monsters in Daniel 7 and Get Out.”

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