In the recent Darren Aronofsky’s Hollywood $125-million blockbuster “Noah,” super-power rock creatures play a prominent role. They are protectors of Noah and co-builders of the ark. In the Bible, they are known as “nephilim,” (“fallen ones,” or some suggest “those that cause others to fall down”), in Genesis 6:4 immediately before the story of Noah. These giants are also mentioned later in the Torah (Numbers 13:33, story of the 12 spies).
The movie opened to positive critical review, while fundamentalist Christian groups tended to revile it or denounce it while refusing to see it (and some Muslim countries have already banned it). Perhaps this is due mostly to Aronofsky’s unabashed declaration that Noah was the “first environmentalist,” and that the Noah account through his film contains “a strong message about the coming flood from global warming.” Not surprisingly, conservative religious and media outlets (who tend to deny global warming or even “climate change,” and are often hostile to environmentalism) have led the most vociferous denunciations of the film. Not surprisingly, Jewish reviews have tended to be more positive. Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, writing for Haaretz, wrote that the film’s plot elements were most often derived from the Midrash and other Biblical sections, and even the Book of Enoch. He concludes that the film was “a very Jewish retelling of the story” and affirms the Jewish values of compassion demonstrated in the film:
Jewish tradition teaches that Noah was a vegetarian and the moral failings of his generation were all encompassing. But the source of their error was a misinterpretation of God’s directive to conquer the world. Their mistake was in thinking that God gave the world to man after which He was no longer concerned with him.
In the Jewish version of the story, Noah and his family live a vegan lifestyle (Adam was a vegetarian and until Noah saved the animals from the flood, humans were forbidden to eat meat), while others have followed the way of Cain and embraced an urban lifestyle that includes the slaughter of animals for food, murder of rivals, and abuse of the environment.
In general, other Jewish reviewers (the film studio frequently consulted with rabbis and had a special early showing for rabbis, as well as showings for Christian leaders as well) have been more positive than Christian ultra-conservatives, with some noting that in this movie Noah is not a one-dimensional “saint,” but rather a zealot who obeys G-d.
While some liberal theologians could see the rationale of most of the film, the studio was cautious about giving advance opportunity for conservatives (especially Christian fundamentalists) to criticize the movie, so Aronofsky and his Hollywood studio minimized advance notice of the role of the nephilim (called “Watchers” in the film) in helping Noah in his environmental mission.
So who are these nephilim according to the Jewish tradition?
The Midrash (Yoma 67b, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 22) tells a story about the angels suggesting to G-d that too much attention is paid toward man since they are evil. G-d warns the angels that they too would fall prey to their evil inclinations if they were on the earth and not protected in heaven. G-d sends the angels to experience the earth and they also sin. One explanation is that the nephilim are these “fallen angels.”
In Jewish thought, all is created by G-d. There is no real opposing force. Any opposing force would be an illusion also created by G-d (like a satan, Bava Batra 16a). So the nephilim are not “fallen angels” at war with G-d, but spiritual experiments or pedagogical instruments.
Some suggest that there is intimacy between the humans and these spiritual beings. Rashi and the Ramban (following a teaching of the Rashbi in the Talmud) oppose teaching that the nephilim intermarried with humans.
Others see a stronger connection between the bnei elokim and the nephilim, and explain that the benei elokim fall and become nephilim because of their moral and spiritual failings (Genesis Rabbah 26:5; Rashi, Genesis 6:2).
One midrash considers Adam and Eve to be nephilim, since they were parentless. It is like they fell onto earth. The Rambam views bnei elohim in a secular sense (they are sons of judges).
It could be that the Torah is merely teaching by way of metaphor. The Sages taught that the Torah “exaggerates (lashon havay),” quoting Deuteronomy 1:28 which describes the Canaanite cities as extending all the way to the sky (Hullin 90b). The Rambam explains that an angel is simply nature, which G-d sets in place as a messenger (Moreh 2:6). He explains that a physical appearance of an angel is a prophetic vision and not a physical reality and that cases like the snake in the Garden of Eden or the Bilaam’s talking donkey should be considered metaphors (Moreh 2:42). Here too, we are not dealing with nephilim as super-natural beings on earth.
Violence and corruption filled the earth and G-d decided that the world needed to be destroyed and restarted. We need a world filled with words, not violence. As Sigmund Freud put it: “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” We can no longer assume there are ultra-pure spiritual beings (non-humans) among us. With the flood came a new reality where we must not expect angelic intervention to save us. As the sages taught: “Ain somchin al ha’neis” (we may not rely upon miracles).
But let’s engage a thought experiment. What if there are still nephilim on this earth? What if there are righteous spiritual individuals so far beyond mundane concerns and petty self-interest that they are like fallen angels? The rabbis teach that there are always lamed-vavnikiim (36 totally righteous individuals on earth). We should all strive to become like these individuals. Our role is to help build the ark (safe spaces that lead to a better world).
We can all view ourselves as nephilim today. Part of us is made from the earth and part of us is G-dly (fallen from the sky). Which aspect of our self will we feed? An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life (in a fashion similar to the Jewish teaching the war between the yetzer hara and yetzer tov) .
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.“ It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, false pride, fear, superiority and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – joy, peace, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.”
Whether one embraces a rational or mystical approach, we can embrace a moral message about the nephilim. They are beyond this world and a part of a building a new world. They must be our partners in building a more compassionate world.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”