A Serious Man (2009) is the most explicitly Jewish film thus far from Joel and Ethan Coen. It is a black comedy, blacker even than their previous film No Country for Old Men. Its violence is purely emotional, but none the less harrowing for that. It begins with a quotation from Rashi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” It then proceeds to a folk tale in Yiddish about a man named Velvel who is helped on the road by an acquaintance of his wife; he invites the man back to his home for a bowl of soup. His wife, however, is convinced the man is a dybbuk, a body possessed by the soul of a dead person, and she stabs him/it with a fork. The visitor stumbles out into the snow, and we are left with the question: who was right, the man or his wife? Was the visitor a righteous man or a demon? How can one know?
Fast forward to 1967, and another Jewish household. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulberg) wants to be a righteous Jew living a decent life. He is married, he is a physics professor, he is near to receiving tenure at his university, he has two children, a girl and a boy. The boy will be bar mitzvah soon. But below the surface, almost nothing is right: his son smokes pot incessantly, his daughter steals from his wallet, saving money for a nose job, his wife has decided to leave him for a widower friend. Someone is sending anonymous hate mail about him to the tenure committee. He is pursued by a wild assortment of large and small misfortunes, from fender benders to the Columbia Record Company to a student who intends to bribe and/or blackmail him. He is nervous about one scowling, gun toting neighbor, and attracted to another, a woman who has “trouble” written in her eyeliner. His brother lives on the couch, constantly draining his “sebaceous cyst,” drawing complaints from the police about gambling and sodomy.
Like Job, he has comforters who do not comfort. He seeks advice from friends, who offer platitudes. He seeks out his rabbis: the youngest mouths senseless banalities, the middle-aged one offers a story without an ending, and the ancient, allegedly-wise one — no, I won’t spoil the surprise. Advice comes from other sources too, including his son’s stereo: the Jefferson Airplane repeats over and over again, “You gotta find somebody to love,” offering the answer that Archibald MacLeish suggested at the end of his play on Job, J.B..
If indeed the Coen brothers intend to suggest Job to audiences, they do it without invoking any of the resolutions that Job-stories generally offer. MacLeish suggested that love was the answer. The tacked-on ending to the Biblical book insists that all will be restored to the righteous in the end. This movie, though, ends on the bleakest of notes, with an ominous phone call and an approaching storm. Disaster clearly lies ahead — and yet since the viewer is in 2009, and the story ends in 1967, the world didn’t come to an end.
One might be tempted to say, well, then, it’s all meaningless. And that, too, is a possible answer.
For me, watching this film as a rabbi, this film was nearly unbearable to watch. I was furious with the rabbis, furious with the wife, furious with the friends — but I have to ask myself, what would I say to Larry Gopnik if he walked into my office and demanded an answer? The film was sharpened by coincidences: this winter I have watched too many friends suffer through inexplicable troubles, things they did not bring upon themselves, misfortune upon misery, and the Coens are right: all these events demand a cry of Why?
The quotation that opens the film, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” is Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13, from Parashat Shoftim, “You will be tamim with Adonai your God.” Tamim is a Hebrew adjective which can be translated “simple,” “blameless,” or “wholehearted.” The son who “does not know how to ask” in the Haggadah is tam. Noah is described in Genesis as an ish tam, a simple man (Genesis 6:9.) Job is also described as tam v’yashar, a blameless and upright man (Job 1:8.) Larry Gopnik is a simple man in a different way: he seeks answers in the elegant simplicity of mathematical equations.
Rashi suggests that understanding may be beside the point. We are free to ask “why?” but there are no clear and easy answers. What remains is the possibility of remaining a decent human being in the face of it all. Another quotation from rabbinic literature comes to mind: “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.” (Mishnah Avot, 2.5)
Another Rabbinic Point of View
For another rabbinic take on this film, read Rabbi Anne Brener’s billiant article on it in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.
An Israeli take on the film
Ella Leibowitz’s article in Haaretz on A Serious Man offers yet another completely different view on this film.