Former Hollywood Director Talks…
New “Roadmap Genesis” Film
Nolan Lebovitz, a former Hollywood director who wrote and directed the film “Tortured” — starring Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus from “Matrix”), Cole Hauser (“Good Will Hunting”), and James Cromwell (“The Green Mile”) — probably never imagined that he would someday leave his Hollywood career path, become a rabbi, and make a landmark documentary called “Roadmap Genesis.”
But, frankly, I’m glad he did. The film speaks truth with boldness. When I asked him what its main message to America is, he had a very simple reply.
“We’ve lost our way.”
There is tremendous Biblical illiteracy in our culture, he explained. In fact, part of what motivated Nolan was to promote literacy of the Bible. And why shouldn’t we promote it? As he pointed out, Genesis formed the foundation for America.
“Roadmap Genesis” opens the Book of Genesis and, using fascinating interviews with Christan and Jewish leaders alike — from Ken Ham and Mike Huckabee to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Alan Dershowitz — makes a compelling case: our culture, more than ever, needs the principles found in Genesis.
You can order a copy of this superb documentary here. (I’ve already ordered two, and I encourage you to order copies to give to friends and neighbors. It is worth it, trust me.)
I had a chance to speak with Rabbi Lebovitz over the phone about “Roadmap Genesis” and other topics — from Hollywood Bible epics to antisemitism in Europe. I broke the ice of the conversation with the Ridley Scott film “Exodus: God’s and Kings.” Like me, he found the portrayal of Moses as a schizophrenic to be deeply troubling and inauthentic to the Bible.
“…Moses is the greatest leader of the Jewish tradition, and it is the single greatest story of redemption in the world,” said Lebovitz. “I would argue that it’s the greatest moment of clarity. If you see that moment as psychotic, as someone who doesn’t know and can’t recognize or differentiate normal and abnormal, and if you watch the movie [“Exodus”], Christian Bale does that. I would say Moses had a clarity about him that was one of a kind. Absolutely one of a kind. ‘Roadmap Genesis’ just starts from a totally different place [than Exodus].”
What are your main challenges in making a documentary like this successful?
The battle we are fighting is word of mouth. We don’t have a huge marketing machine behind us like the studio to promote our film, and we really need the help of everyone who sees the movie and sees the website to tell their friends about it. No one sees “Roadmap Genesis” and walks away saying that’s inauthentic. These are literally some of the great Jewish and Christian leaders of our time speaking [in the documentary] about a text that is near and dear to all of our hearts, and we’re trying to inspire people to connect with it. So on one hand we lack the sexiness of a Hollywood driven epic film because we’re a documentary, and on the other we don’t have the marketing machine behind us. Those are the two battles we face, but I would rather have authenticity and fight those two battles than be the opposite.
Genesis alone has such rich content that you could really spend a lifetime studying it, as I’m sure you well know. How did you choose which parts of Genesis to emphasize in your documentary?
I tried to pick parts that seemed most relevant to me today. I tried to show the narratives that we all know.
What became apparent to me early on in the movie is that there’s a huge disparity in the knowledge of the leaders and the knowledge of the man-on-the-street I interviewed throughout the movie. So I had to rely on narratives in the book of Genesis. I have to mix in narratives that people are very familiar with, and there are people less familiar with them. So most people are familiar with the creation of the world narrative, most people are familiar with Cain and Abel, Joseph. People are less familiar with Jacob’s Ladder. People are less familiar with Abraham arguing with God over Sodom and Gomorrah.
So you have a mix in the film between passages that I thought should be made relevant so people could buy in to the text itself. There is a certain level of familiarity. I didn’t want to feel like the movie was just presenting something totally foreign altogether. At the same time, I wanted all the text that I used to feel relevant to our times because that’s really the message of the movie. The message of the movie is that the book of Genesis should be a road map for the way people live their lives today.
To be honest, if I had enough time, I believe I could have made that case for the entire book. But you’re limited with how patient people are when sitting down on their couch, watching a film in 77 minutes. I think it ended up being in the sweet spot.
So the limitations force you to be strategic and weigh all those factors.
That’s right. Part of it, also, are different [world] events. It took us approximately two years to make the movie. So when I look back now at the different footage, we have, for example — after the interview finished but the camera was still rolling — footage of people asking if they had caught the Boston Marathon bomber yet who was in hiding because that was one of the days that was filmed. We have days right after the three boys were kidnapped in Israel, which was the last interview with Governor Huckabee. So you see all the world events in between those two stages. We have these world leaders whose calendars were very much affected by it, very much affected by it; and we have people who are very local in the sense that the Archbishop of Chicago was very concerned with how he portrayed Chicago and spoke on behalf of the Catholic community there.
Then I think you have people who viewed themselves as universal spokespeople, like Ken Ham from The Creation Museum. I think he views himself as a spokesperson for creationism in all senses everywhere. I think his community views him like that. I wanted people who were not only very smart and super familiar with the text, obviously, but I wanted people who actually represented a community.
I think it was the best way to show that there’s a special relationship between the Bible in general and the book of Genesis in particular, and that there’s a special relationship between the United States of America and the Bible in general — and the book of Genesis in particular.
I could travel from the East Coast to the West Coast interviewing Christians and Jews and Republicans and Democrats and forge bonds between people who otherwise would not converse, talking about the book of Genesis. People are amazed at how they walk away feeling inspired by the film because we live in a society today that really focuses on our differences. We really only talk about wedge issues because of the media and because of lobbyist groups and because of so many different partisan interests. We focus on what divides us instead of what unites us. I feel like that’s what the movie is trying to do; the movie is trying to start a new kind of conversation where we begin from a place of agreement.
People are amazed after they see the movie that people from the Right and people from the Left both see themselves as stewards for the environment: what it means that God created the Earth, what it means to take care of the earth. I’m talking about pastors and rabbis and conservatives and liberals, they all say this in the movie.
So just think if we started from a place like that, how much good we could do for the environment, right? For the Gulf Coast and New Orleans and beaches here in California, and how much we could do for clean air and clean water. We could do so much good before we get to any kind of litmus test of “do you believe in global warming?” But the instinct, according to the media, is to start conversations with any kind of public figure with “do you believe in global warming?” We could accomplish so much good before people have to declare themselves one way or the other.
I can sense that problem as well. It’s almost instinctive. Even in a recent conversation I had with an actor (Haaz Sleiman) with a Muslim background who is playing Jesus in “Killing Jesus,” he was talking about a similar tension and saying: “the real challenge is loving your enemy and just listening and trying to find common ground.”
Listening is courageous.
Yes, that’s a great phrase, “listening is courageous.” I love that. This next question is more for our readers who are parents. You mentioned in other interviews that becoming a parent started this journey for you. I personally have a three-year-old daughter. Frankly, when I look at the world there’s a lot of fear that kind of overwhelms you as a parent. How does “Roadmap Genesis” guide or help parents who feel overwhelmed with fear when they’re trying to raise their kids in this world?
I like to look at my own journey and tell people that we’re not stuck. Even though everyone can intellectually understand that they’re not stuck in life, it’s very difficult to practically change your life. It takes a lot of what we call chutzpah to say, “Even though everyone expects me to go to the same job, everyone expects me to fit into this little box, I won’t do that anymore because I expect better of myself and I want something different for my family, and for all the right reasons I’m not going to do tomorrow what I did today.”
I think that the single most important thing we can do is to try to raise our children to be better. We don’t ask our kids if they want to learn math. We don’t ask our kids if they want to read Shakespeare, and we shouldn’t ask our children if they want to read the book of Genesis.
The book of Genesis is very much in the connective tissue of Western Civilization and in this country because of our Judeo-Christian background. So we reach this point where for some reason the Bible was carved out of mainstream education, which is a major problem because if you don’t read the Bible, you don’t understand — as it’s explained in the movie — so much of art and culture that is based on the Bible. So much of the connective tissue that connects one community to the next is based on the Bible. So much of our joint responsibility is based on the Bible. Then we end up in this very fragmented society where we have so much fear, and we put up these walls and it’s a problem. It’s a major problem.
Part of the ways to bring down the walls, especially when we raise our children, is to expose them to a single narrative that they all share in common. They will introduce values that they will all share in common. You look around the world today, you don’t have to watch horror movies anymore; you just turn on the news — people being beheaded, being burned in cages, and all kinds of things that I think Hollywood writers couldn’t even imagine. Those people who are doing those horrific acts, they are raised totally believing in their narrative. We [in the West] raise our kids with nothing but doubt, where there’s no foundation to actually be sure of anything.
You’re right, it’s totally moral relativism. Total moral relativism. The only way to solve that is to ground their education from the very beginning and to say, “This was there from the beginning and this was the narrative that the great men and women read — the men and women we want you to emulate — they read this book, began their education with this book. You also will begin with this book.”
That’s powerful. That’s a great way to phrase that. You mentioned the terrorism we see on the news. I’m from the corner of Christianity with people like Corrie Ten Boom, and we really feel great love for Israel and for the Jewish people. I’m very concerned about the rise of antisemitism in Europe. I just wanted to hear your thoughts in the context of this film “Roadmap Genesis.” How does the film address this disease of antisemitism?
Several of the Christian leaders in the movie talk about Israel, but I would start by saying that I’m the grandchild of four survivors of the Holocaust. So I have a very unique perspective when it comes to this. I don’t think Europe has ever changed. After the Holocaust it became apparent that it was no longer in vogue to say the things they wanted to say. So for a long time they just kept it to themselves. I wrote a blog about it in a piece for the Jewish Journal where I said that anti-Semitism in Europe is no different than the Teutonic Plates underneath California. They are always there. Sometimes we feel it, sometimes we don’t. Sometime we dismiss it because it’s a tiny earthquake out in the middle of nowhere, and the only times we end up talking about it is when it ends up being a massive earthquake that’s devastating.
But antisemitism in Europe is always there; it’s part of the condition. What has changed is the question. What has changed for me, to be totally honest, is that I have met Christians all around this country that have opened my eyes to a world that can be friends with the Jewish people and be supporters and allies of the State of Israel in a way that I never believed was possible. These people are in the movie — from the Friends of Israel Gospel ministry Jim Showers and Bill Sutter to Governor Mike Huckabee. These are friends of the Jewish people that, had they been around in the 1930s, maybe history would not have panned out that way.
We screened the movie in an evangelic church in Orlando, and after the screening I did a question and answer and a woman said to me that every Sunday she prays for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, but I was the first rabbi that’s ever walked through the door. The only thing I could say in reply was, “Thank you for your prayers, and I’m so sorry.” Maybe it’s because we’ve been conditioned for 2,000 years to not be trusting, but we have to change. We have to change.
In many ways I feel like, for whatever reason, I didn’t set out to become some inter-faith rabbi when I go speak to Christian audiences. But in many ways I feel like when I do get the opportunity to screen this movie for Christian audiences I am definitely an ambassador for the Jewish people. Somebody needs to say thank you and if that job belongs to me I will gladly take it. I was at the AIPAC National Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. when Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke. There were so many Christian leaders there that it was overwhelming. It’s overwhelming to see leaders of the Jewish and Christian faith stand together with moral clarity.
That’s so powerful. My wife and I were praying very hard for Israel in this past election, and my response to what you way is that I hope that the friendship you described increases more and more — certainly on our side too we can do more, but it’s a joy to see that friendship increasing.
To be totally honest, it is a unique relationship that could only be produced in a country like America. That’s why it’s not, to me, it’s no great surprise that it’s happened before. It’s only in the last 20-30 years that something like this could have happened where Jews and Christians both feel equally comfortable here in this country, and we can speak to each other. When I screen this film and do these questions and answers, I always say that we are like the cousins we only get to see once a year, twice a year, so we never really have substantial conversation. We hear about the issues of the other one but we never really get to say, “Is there any way I can help?”
We are willing to do that with strangers more often than we are willing to do that with our own family. Like it’s more effort to walk up to your family member and say, “What can I do for you?” Just think about how many times you open the door for a stranger and how many times you hold the elevator for a stranger, how many times people don’t do that for their own family. You’re so comfortable with your own family you wouldn’t even think to ask, you wouldn’t think to open the door for them or you wouldn’t think to pull out their chair. It’s unfortunate. But in many ways I feel like we are cousins and we need to start treating each other better.