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A SERIOUS REVIEW OF A SERIOUS MAN

From the Cyber Rav--  Rabbi Rafi Rank
rafirank@mjc.org

Rabbi Rafi Rank

The Coen Brothers, famous for such block busters as No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski, have taken on their most ambitious subject yet: God. Though some characterize A Serious Man as a modern retelling of Job, it deals less with the evil that afflicts the righteous than with the existence of God Himself. The movie is extraordinary for its hutzpah, boldly portraying Jewish life in Minnesota, in the mid-sixties, without apology or explanation, complete with references to the goys, HaShem (God), and olam habah, Hebrew for the “world to come.” The movie is clearly the Coens’ least popular venture to date. But their tremendous past successes allow them an occasional box office suicide, and since they couldn’t possibly have written this movie for widespread consumption, they must have really thought it important for Jews to see and ponder. I accept the challenge.

The plot. Larry Gopnick, a Jewish physics professor, is beset by a series of problems including an impending divorce, damning anonymous letters sent to his tenure review committee, a ne’er-do-well brother who has moved in with his family, and two children who are not terribly cooperative. Larry is a moral man. He resists accepting a bribe from a student desperate for a passing grade. He remains respectful of a clearly anti-semitic neighbor. He is a conscientious provider for his family, and yet, his life is falling apart. A friend assures him that Judaism provides a wealth of answers for the trials to which he is subject, and convinces him to see the rabbi.

He first sees the junior rabbi who suggests that the problem is simply perspective. Larry suspects God is absent, according to the rabbi, because he has forgotten how to see God in the world, but the rabbi’s reasoning leaves Larry floundering. Larry then sees the senior rabbi who tells him a tale of “the Goy’s Teeth,” which essentially leads nowhere. Our problems with God, the rabbi reflects, are like toothaches—they afflict us periodically and then they pass. Larry finally attempts to see the rabbi emeritus, the famous Marshak, but Marshak refuses; he’s too busy.

Scenes of Larry on his roof, rearranging the antenna for better TV reception, are telling. The reception never gets better—one channel becomes clearer while another gets fuzzy. When it comes to getting a clear message from the heavens, the Coen Brothers let us know that the reception is pretty fuzzy, if accurate at all.

By the movie’s conclusion, a ray of hope appears both personally and professionally for Larry. In response to his mounting financial debt, he commits a trivial fraud, modifying one student’s failing grade to a barely passable “C-” in exchange for a substantial bribe. It is at that point, that Larry is hit with more bad news. Simultaneously, the audience sees Larry’s youngest son outside his Hebrew School, openly exposed and staring dead-on into a rapidly advancing, raging tornado. In sum, whether Larry is moral or crooked, bad things happen.

Many have walked away from the movie confused, but I wonder if it is confusion or resistance to the Coens’ primary message—nothing really matters. It doesn’t matter if you’re good. It doesn’t matter if you’re bad. There are no answers. God either doesn’t exist, or if He does, He is a cosmic source of evil. The bad will seek you out and eventually overtake you.

The Coen Brothers’ memories of Hebrew school, Jewish and non-Jewish tensions, and the beginning of the sixties’ drug culture, range from the parodic to the painfully accurate.  How can Jews not love a movie that is as hutzpadick as this one! I am one of those Jews. But I don‘t love the movie for its theology or for the way it trashes clergy. If you’re going to trash Judaism or clergy, and you have every right to do so, then trash with honesty. Provide rabbis with dialogue that reflect actual Jewish answers to congregants with tzuris (troubles). None of the rabbis do that. The first two rabbis are buffoonish, and Marshak, the elderly, bearded, pious yet worldly rabbi who never speaks to Larry actually spoons up some wisdom for the Bar Mitzvah boy. But the wisdom is only a pithy quote from the Jefferson Airplane, no more.  Marshak either dismisses any questions we have of Jewish tradition, or worse—truly believes that there is nothing more to say. Rabbis are rarely at a loss for words. Marshak’s reticence is a Coen Brothers’ fantasy, a disingenuous stratagem used to drive home their own nihilism.

As a professor of physics, Larry understands and even explains the Uncertainty Principle to his students in class. That’s a contemporary scientist at work. He nevertheless seeks certainty within the metaphysical universe. That’s a medieval Jew at work. The certainty he seeks will elude him and lead only to disappointment. This should come as no surprise since sadly, we have permitted most of our theological questions to be framed by Orthodox thinkers who resist new ways to think about God or God’s involvement in the world. It is no wonder that A Serious Man begins with a 19th century Eastern European Yiddish vignette. The theology the Coen Brothers reject rests squarely in the Middle Ages. They replace it with no more than a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Ouch, or better yet—Oy!

In short, the people who brought you one God and ethical monotheism now bring you nothing more than atheism and nihilism. I think the Coen Brothers could use a hard dose of Conservative Judaism, or in the very least modern, liberal, theological thinking. And yes—I’m serious.

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