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A SERIOUS MAN
November 20, 2009

From time to time, Sarah and I like to escape from synagogue and Jewish community concerns. Last Saturday night, we saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s film A Serious Man at the Mariemont theatre. In terms of our original intention, we made a mistake. We had known that the movie had Jewish references in it, but we didn’t know how Jewish it was, and we met at least a dozen members of the congregation, plus Rabbi Barr, and other members of the Jewish community. We didn’t escape from the Jews, but the movie was worthwhile; we have continued to talk about it through the week.

As the previous Coen brothers’ film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was based on Odyssey, “A Serious Man” was based on the Book of Job. My thesis is that the main message of the film addresses the issues of the Biblical book, although some elements of the film are part of this particular story, and don’t correspond to anything in Job. There are also one or more secondary themes.

The Book of Job is part of the third division of the Hebrew Bible, Ketuvim. Its authorship and date are unclear. The Talmud in Bava Batra attributes the book to Moses, but no critical scholars accept that attribution. The book probably dates from the 7th-5th centuries BCE.

Job is depicted in the book as a righteous man who suffers terrible misfortunes. His three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, come to comfort him, but they reiterate the conventional view that he must have done something wrong, and that his suffering is a punishment for his sins, so they really make him feel worse. Job persists in maintaining his innocence. Then a fourth friend, Elihu, comes and takes a different line. To be sure, the righteous suffer, but their suffering is part of God’s plan, in order to make them better people. In the Talmud, this idea is called “yissurim shel ahavah,” the chastisements of love. Finally, God speaks to Job from a whirlwind, and says, to summarize a magnificent passage very drastically, “You can’t understand how I run the world.” Job agrees and accepts God’s decree. The Book of Job has a happy ending, as Job is compensated for all his losses.

Among the Jewish commentators to the Book of Job, I would single out Maimonides, who held that Elihu is right. According to the Rambam, Job needs to become a better person, not by changing his actions, which are fine, but by studying philosophy. I am always surprised when I encounter an apparent denigration of right action, but, in fact, for Maimonides, the highest activity in life is apprehending eternal truths.

My view of the Book of Job is this. God’s speech from whirlwind is the climax of the book. It teaches us that our knowledge and understanding of the world, and of the “big questions” of life, are limited. As we read in Mishnah Avot, “Rabbi Yannai said, ‘We cannot understand either the prosperity of the wicked or the sufferings of the righteous.’ If we remain loyal to God, it will be on the basis of faith. From this perspective, the conclusion to the Book of Job, in which Job’s wealth is restored and he has a new set of children to replace, so to speak, those who have died, is an anticlimax, even an embarrassment.

I have wondered if the conclusion was tacked on to the book to make its message more conventional, but, in fact, most scholars seem to think that the conclusion is integral to the book. Perhaps we should distinguish between the thought that loyalty to God is based on faith, and that there are no guarantees in life (to which I subscribe), from the notion that, if we have faith in God, everything will turn out well for us, (something which I don’t believe).

In the film, A Serious Man, it seems clear that Larry Gopnik, a professor of physics, is Job. His strange brother lives with him, won’t leave, and entangles him in various kinds of trouble. His wife has an affair with one of their friends and wants a divorce. His teenage children are difficult, in ways that teenagers often are (His son, Danny, about to become bar mitzvah, is a pothead) His anti-Semitic neighbor gives him a hard time. He is up for tenure at the university, and that always stressful experience is made worse by his encounters with a disgruntled student who apparently tries to bribe Gopnik for a better grade, and who may have been (but apparently was not) writing anonymous denunciations of him to the tenure committee.

The three rabbis at his synagogue fail to help him. The assistant (“Rabbi Scott”) tells a seemingly meaningless parable about a parking lot. The senior rabbi (Nachner) tells a long story about a dentist who discovers a mysterious Hebrew inscription on the teeth of a non-Jewish patient. The rabbi emeritus (Marshak), whom people continually recommend to Gopnik, won’t see him.

His wife’s lover, Sy Ableman, dies in an automobile accident, at the same time as Gopnik is in a less serious accident, and Judith Gopnik persuades her husband to pay for the funeral. His son manages to get through his bar mitzvah, stoned. After the service, Rabbi Marshak gives him back his transistor radio, which a Hebrew teacher had confiscated. At the end, the students of the Hebrew school are trying to go to the basement to reach safety from an approaching tornado, but the teacher fumbles with his keys and can’t open the door. It appears that, despite his fears, Gopnik does receive tenure, and he may reach a reconciliation with his wife. On the other hand, his doctor asks to speak to him in person about the results of an x-ray, an ominous sign.

My basic feeling is that the film is a counter-canonical Job. If the climax of the Book of Job is God’s speaking to Job from a whirlwind, in the film, there is just a whirlwind, no God. The three rabbis would seem to correspond to Job’s three ineffectual (or worse) friends. There seems to be a parallel between Gopnik’s attempts to explain to his students the limits to human knowledge represented by quantum physics (with its icons of Schrodinger’s cat and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), and the limits to our knowledge of the world and life. (There also may be a parallel between Gopnik’s filling his blackboard with complicated equations and his son’s Hebrew teacher’s filling his blackboard with verb conjugations.)

I have some questions about my own interpretation; there are several loose ends. The film opens with a scene in Eastern Europe, in which a man returns to his house in the middle of a blizzard, having gone to market to sell geese. He tells his wife that, on his way back, a wheel came off his wagon, but he was helped by a rabbi whom she knew long before. The wife becomes very agitated, says that the rabbi died years ago, and claims that the mysterious helper must have been a dybbuk. When this person in fact arrives, the wife confronts him and then stabs him with an ice pick. At first, it appears that he doesn’t bleed (which would mean that the wife is right), but then he begins to bleed, and he goes back out into the blizzard.

What does this mean? I would think that the goose seller corresponds to Prof. Gopnik, although the only obvious connection is that both their wives give them a hard time. The uncertainty about the status of the rabbi or dybbuk introduces the theme of uncertainty which pervades the film, and it may be echoed by the appearance of Sy Ableman’s ghost to Gopnik at the end of a lecture.

If the three rabbis are Job’s three friends, then who corresponds to the Elihu, the fourth friend in the Book of Job? Maybe nobody (and this may be all right. As I said, we should not expect a 1-1 correspondence between the Book of Job and A Serious Man).

Another element of the film which would appear to be significant, since it was repeated several times, but which I don’t understand, was the Yiddish song played on a phonograph. The song is “Der Milner’s Treren,” “The Miller’s Tears,” and it was sung by Sidor Belarsky. But what does it mean? The only thing that I can think of is that the song expresses unhappiness and resignation: “The wheel turns, the years pass, and I am lonely as a stone. Where will I live? Who will care for me? I’m already old; I’m already tired.”

Another theme of the film, which may be part of the main theme or may be secondary, is the insufficiency of reason. The goose seller in the opening scene kept saying that he didn’t believe in dybbuks, but he may have been wrong. The ghost of Sy Ableman tells Larry that his mathematical equations, in which he (Larry) puts so much store, don’t get at the real truth. Conventional religion is found lacking, and perhaps scientific rationalism is also lacking. Then what? I will come back to that point.

At the same time, I think that the inconclusive story about the Hebrew words on back of the non-Jew’s teeth was a send up of such phenomena as people’s seeing the face of Jesus in bowls of oatmeal, and also of such Jewish parallels as gematria and the “Bible Codes”, which are total nonsense.

An obvious, but, to my mind, secondary, theme of the film is a satire of aspects of American Jewish life. Some people have got upset about the depictions of rabbis and of Hebrew school teachers. They are certainly exaggerations, but we have are enough reports about stultifying Hebrew schools, and I have heard enough rabbis say inane or vacuous things, that I am not bothered by that aspect of film.

More serious, to my mind, are the references to Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews. The casual use of the word “goy,” while authentic for 1967, made me cringe. I noted that, when Rabbi Nachner came to the end of his story, Larry asked what happened to the man who had Hebrew words incised on his teeth. The rabbi answered, “The goy? Who cares?” Also, while Gopnik’s neighbor is presented in a stereotypical way, as anti-Semitic, racist, and valuing hunting over education, Larry’s dream of the neighbor’s shooting his (Larry’s) brother as the latter tries to flee to Canada raises the question of how much of the portrayal of the neighbor was real and how much was in the mind of Larry (and of us, watching the film). A parallel is the scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in which the character played by Woody goes to dinner at the home of Annie’s non-Jewish family. They see him as a Hasid in black coat and peyos, and he sees them as pigs. (That scene was deleted from the video of the film.) I missed the final credits of A Serious Man, but I am told that they included the statements that animals were harmed in the making of the film, but that no Jews were harmed. Is that a criticism of excessive Jewish inward-looking? Maybe. I am not sure.

Two of Larry Gopnik’s actions seemed out of character for a Job figure. One was his improper overture to his sexy neighbor Mrs. Samsak, whom he had seen, from his roof, sunbathing nude. The second was his decision to change his student’s grade from an “F” to a “C-“. Do those actions have significance in terms of the larger themes of the film? Perhaps the encounter with Mrs. Samsak is supposed to say that love, even when transgressive (and Larry had sex with his neighbor only in a dream, but his going to her house was a hint in that direction), is redemptive. Perhaps his decision to change the student’s grade represented the idea that helping one’s relatives (He used the bribe money to pay his brother’s legal expenses) is more important than abstract principles of academic procedure. As Albert Camus said, “I believe in justice, but I'll defend my mother before justice." Or perhaps his decision to change the grade represented his accepting the student’s claim that he understood the physics of the course even though he couldn’t do the mathematics.

Although the rabbis are presented in very unsympathetic terms, they may not have been all so bad. Rabbi Nachner says, near the end of his long story about the “goy’s teeth” that we don’t know what it means, but living a more righteous life can’t hurt. When Rabbi Marshak returns the radio to Danny, he quotes part of the Jefferson Airplane song which had been played earlier in the film, “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope [It should be “joy”] within you dies,” and says “Then what? . . . .Be a good boy.”

There may or may not be a connection between the parts of the statement, but the idea that we cannot know the ultimate truth but can only choose to act, and that the point is to act rightly, would be a positive lesson from film. Seen in this way, the rabbis are prisoners of conventional religion, but they have some sense of reality and of right. I would add that Larry Gopnik’s statement, repeated several times, that “I didn’t do anything,” may fit with this idea. “I didn’t do anything,” is not a defense; we have to do things. As Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

If I am right about the basic message of the film, that it represents an atheist, existentialist, point of view, what do I make of it? Obviously, that is not my point of view, but I believe that it is a point of view with which we have to struggle. If you think that there is some neat proof that will vanquish atheists and agnostics, think again. If you think that people really get what they deserve, think again. Before Sarah and I saw the movie, I had intended to speak tonight about the controversy about the atheists’ billboard. Besides mentioning the obvious issues of freedom of religion and freedom of speech, I was going to say that atheists keep religious people honest. If our beliefs and attitudes were never challenged, we might not think about them or test them ourselves against reality. I have continued to think about A Serious Man all week, getting new ideas even as I wrote this sermon. Sarah said that that is one of the signs of a good movie, and she is right.

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