A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 325: Josef the Golem

Golem 1

Yesterday I posted a drawing I had done that took inspiration from the mythology of the Indigenous people of North America. Today, my chosen subject is rooted in the myths of the Chosen People.

As a Christian, I have to admit that I have been terribly ignorant of the vast store of knowledge, insight, perspective and folklore that comes from the Jewish people. Frankly, for someone that follows a Jew named Jesus, that is a sad state of affairs. In fact, most Christians figure that they read the Old Testament so they have a good handle on what makes someone a Jew. Certainly, understanding the Torah, the Writings, the Prophets goes a long way and is a crucial foundation. But as with other people groups with a long and varied history, full of the great and evil deeds and circumstances that shape a community, there is behind the obvious a gigantic storehouse of things that inform them of who they are.

In the case of the subject of this drawing, “gigantic” is an apt adjective. The Golem is a reoccurring figure in the mythology of Judaism. It pops its rocky and dirt-encrusted head up every now and again in our popular culture. Golems figured into Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a movie released in 2014 that was totally misunderstood by the Evangelical Christian community who were looking for a direct read of the Flood account in Genesis. What they got was a traditional Jewish midrash, a genre of rabbinical literature that is interpretations of stories in scripture, often with added and even fantastic elements, including Golems: Large, powerful, mute creatures made of rock and soil. When these creatures showed up in the movie Noah, Christians went “Hunh?” and Jews went “Look, Golems!” And thus was displayed the gaping chasm that can exist between the two groups separated by a common Scripture.

As I was drawing with Conte crayons and thinking of the natural earthy pigments that give them their color, I started thinking of these earthy creatures. I did a little research and came upon some stories of Golems in Jewish tradition. I discovered that the Golem is inscribed with Hebrew words in some stories, such as the word emet meaning “truth”. In these accounts, the Golem could be deactivated by removing the aleph from the word leaving met: “death”. My Golem has the Hebrew word for “truth” on his forehead.

My favorite story was the most famous Golem narrative, that of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a late 16th century rabbi in Prague. In this story, the rabbi makes a Golem from the clay of the riverbanks of the Vitava river and brings it to life to defends the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms. I absolutely loved this story (in fact, I wish someone would turn it into a movie!). The rabbi’s Golem was known as Josef and was said to have been able to make himself invisible and summon the spirits of the dead (seriously, is this not a great movie idea?!).

For my drawing, I’ve given you Josef the Golem, defending the ghetto of Prague. By this I don’t claim to be a greatly informed Goy but just a guy who really likes Golems. And a guy who is still learning – every day – to appreciate the marvelous amount of wonderful stories and incredible imagination of his fellow human beings.

Golem 2

Ronald Kok, Josef the Golem Defends the Prague Ghetto, Conte Crayons, 2017

 

Sympathy for Aronofsky’s Noah

Noah

I realize I am a month or two late weighing in on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah but that’s what happens when you wait until movies come to the cheap theaters. Frugality has it’s price, ironically. However, I did finally see the latest movie to raise the hackles of well-meaning Christians everywhere. Going into the movie well after its initial release, I was prepared for what I was going to see so maybe it isn’t fair to judge others too harshly. Yet what I saw didn’t make me want to walk out, demand my money back, take to the Christian radio airwaves to voice my displeasure, post a rebuttal to the movie on my Facebook page, or feel I had to defend the integrity of the Noah story as found in the book of Genesis.

Instead, what I saw when I watched Aronofsky’s Noah was an extremely biblical movie. Was it accurate, scene-by-scene, character-by-character, event-by-event with the story as it unfolds in the Bible? No. Of course not. But that would just make it a movie based on a bible story and not a biblical movie. Noah was heavy with moral choices, temptation, sin, redemption, struggle, violence, love, hope, fear, death, prayer, and, yes, God. Therefore, it was an extremely biblical movie. It raised tough questions about the nature of God and the nature of humanity. It gave voice to conflicting interpretations of scripture and conflicting perspectives on our relationship to the created world and to the Creator. It displayed the frightening and confusing side of hearing and not hearing from God. And it wrestled with the harsh calling that God sometimes places on people who are asked to carry out his plans and purposes.

Unquestionably, a biblical movie.

But what about the Rock Monsters? Wow, people are hung up on those Rock Monsters (which is a good name for a band, by the way… though it has likely been taken). What about the stow-away on the ark? What about the infanticidal obsession of Noah? What about the fact Noah kicked butt almost as well as Maximus from Gladiator? What about the seemingly endless list of things so many Bible-believing folks got their knickers in a twist over?

I’ve got one word for you: Midrash.

Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel are the screenwriters of the movie. Both are Jews and both have said in interviews that what they set out to create was a midrash of the story of Noah. Midrash is a traditional form of exposition in Judaism, a means to get at the underlying meaning of a text. Storytelling being a foundational aspect of their faith and a meaningful way to interpret scripture, midrash has meant for the Jews that stories abound around the biblical text. They are there not to be on a par with scripture but to provide windows in which to see it by, points in which to keep the conversation with scripture going with great vitality and interest. Midrash is a way to constantly interact with the Bible and allow it to live and speak into the lives of believers.

Midrash is not  a Christian tradition and therein lies the conflict so many felt with the way the movie was created and presented. As I heard the criticisms coming fast and loud from Christians, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were guilty of practicing some very arrogant assumptions regarding the story of Noah. Christians behaved as if this was their story and how dare Aronofsky mess with it, with his ridiculous Rock Monsters and magical, fantastical, and outrageous elements blasphemously added to it.

The irony in that great leap to conclusions is that Aronofsky was making a movie that he felt was very faithful to the story and very honoring to God (amazingly, as I understand he considers himself an Atheist). Ultimately, he is a Jew who made a movie about one of the foundational stories of Judaism in a very Jewish way and he got lambasted for it by people who claim faith in the greatest Jew of them all.

Okay… but what about the Rock Monsters?

Noah-Watcher-V2-luca-nemolato

Again, midrash. There is an obscure text that is part of the story of Noah in the book of Genesis referring to “the Nephilim”. This Hebrew word can be translated as “fallen ones”. If you’ve seen the movie, you know these creatures (called “the Watchers” in the film) have fallen from heaven, once angels of light, now misshapen beings of mud and stone. Which gets me to elements of Jewish folklore; more specifically to the Golem. A Golem is a character of Jewish folk stories made of mud and stone, a misshapen and often awkward creature, i.e. a Rock Monster.

So can we leave the Rock Monsters alone now? No, the Bible never mentions them helping Noah build the ark. Again, midrash. Midrash. Midrash. Midrash.

If you are a Christian reading this who did not like the movie, that’s totally fine. But don’t demonize the film makers; don’t think the entire movie was some plot to undermine faith and dismantle the Bible. Aronofsky has said he wanted to make a very entertaining movie and I believe he succeeded. If anything, the man should be applauded for having the chutzbah to take on a story that has such resonance for such a large and disparate group of religious people; religious people, it should be noted, who are known to get a bit snippy when someone messes with their interpretation of scripture.

Evidently, Aronofsky wrote a poem at the age of thirteen inspired by the Noah story which won an award from the United Nations. Since then he’s always wanted to make a movie of the story. This is no fly-by-the-seat-of-your-togas biblical epic done by a Hollywood hack who could really care less; it was a labor of love for its director and co-writer that was literally years in the making. A great deal of thought and creativity was poured into it. You may not like it but give the guy a break and lay off the “Aronofsky as Anti-Christ” rhetoric.

And while we’re at it, maybe we should all take some time to consider how a movie such as Noah could very legitimately be made from another perspective other than the Christian one. In fact, for people who are always lamenting the loss of God in the public sphere, this very high-profile movie sure kept God front-and-center for its 2 plus hours of running time. It didn’t provide easy answers. I thank God for that because faith is not about easy answers. If it was, faith would be as banal as a TV sitcom and as bland and bad for you as a fast food meal. Faith isn’t a well-groomed path in the suburbs, it’s an often beautiful but sometimes terrifying hike in a wilderness.

By raising questions and creating controversy, getting people to talk about scripture, God and faith, Noah was a very successful and very biblical movie.

And the Rock Monsters were pretty cool, too.