I saw the Coen brothers’ new film A Serious Man, and I don’t know what to think. Is it good for the Jews or not? I couldn’t help but squirm during the film, thinking about what my non-Jewish fellow viewers were thinking about “Hashem,” “goy,” the rabbis and other such nuances of our Jewish lives. The whole experience left me in quite a state of confusion; what was the point of the film? What is the connection of the Yiddish opening to the movie itself? What is a dybbuk? What are we to think about the rabbis? And what about the Hebrew letters on the teeth?
Whenever Jewish movies come out they inevitably evoke a range of emotional responses. A reasonable reminder about such phenomena is that movies are first and foremost about entertainment and not necessarily part of a conspiracy to humiliate Jewish moviegoers. The film conjures up a number of cogent Jewish issues. It is, at its heart, an extremely engaging and evocative film that should move us to reflect on some of that very discomfort that had us squirming. What should Jewish learning look like for children? What should Bar Mitzvah preparation entail? What does it take to have a deeply thoughtful conversation with a rabbi?
Thank you, Joel and Ethan Coen, for giving us an opportunity to have an important Jewish conversation. Indulge us as we use your film to be the palette upon which we launch our dialogue, delving into Jewish big ideas and investigating some “essential questions.” For it is essential questions aplenty that drive this movie.
First, a quick primer in “essential questions.” Here is what Grant Wiggins, one of the authors of Understanding by Design writes about essential questions:
One meaning of “essential” involves important questions that recur throughout one’s life. Such questions are broad in scope and timeless by nature. They are perpetually arguable.… We may arrive at or be helped to grasp understandings for these questions, but we soon learn that answers to them are invariably provisional. In other words, we are liable to change our minds in response to reflection and experience concerning such questions as we go through life, and that such changes of mind are not only expected, but beneficial. A good education is grounded in such life-long questions, even if we sometimes lose sight of them while focusing on content mastery. The big-idea questions signal that education is not just about learning “the answer” but about learning how to learn.
A Serious Man is about essential questions, from the first vignette till the closing scene. Why do the good suffer? Given the suffering, what then is the purpose of life? How are we to navigate this imperfect world?
Some would say that the Coens’ point is that, back in Europe, the Jewish answer was a primitive backward superstitious religion that did not work; people were stabbed for being possessed. Welcome to America, where we learned how to be more, well, American. This did not work either. All those ethics-focused Jews were preaching one thing while stealing the other’s spouse and undermining their tenure. What’s a Jew to do?
Don’t look for signs. Even Hebrew letters on a “goy’s” teeth are a meaningless marvel. Certainly don’t look for answers that involve the corny spirituality of an assistant rabbi’s parking lot.
This pattern of searching for answers and their rejection thereof reminds me of the lesson God teaches Elijah the prophet and his immediate rebuff of that lesson in Kings I. Elijah has run away from Jezebel and those seeking to kill him. Elijah of the Bible is a prophet greatly confident in his belief, yet finds himself not, so to speak, on the same page as the people.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks him.
“I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away,” is Elijah’s response.
And He said, ‘Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.”
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah repeats his answer. Enough. God lets him know he will no longer be the prophet — instead the mantle will be passed to his disciple Elisha.
God attempts to let Elijah know that his harsh attitude is not working for God; God is not in the wind, or the earthquake or the fire. God is in the still small voice.
For the Coen brothers, God will not be found in the Hebrew school lesson, not in the college math class, not with the philosophical Pollyanna rabbi, and not with the storytelling rabbi. There is no truth in the supernatural; not in dybbuks, not in Hebrew letters inscribed on teeth.
Truth is not found in drug-induced dalliances or in extramarital relationships. The lone meaningful interaction that seems authentic is when the older, white-bearded rabbi slowly hands the young Bar mitzvah student back his transistor radio and in his European-accented English repeats the Jefferson Airplane lyric: “When the truth is found to be lies/and all the joy within you dies.” Their eyes meet in knowingness and the rabbi says, simply, “be a good boy.”
There may be no satisfying answers to our huge questions of meaning or fairness. But that does not alter our responsibility to do good. Larry Gopnik’s bad luck with his money, his brother, his wife, and his work ultimately should have no bearing on his moral decisions. Maimonides in his last section in the Laws of Repentance puts it this way;
Let no person say: “Behold, I perform the precepts of the Torah, and engage myself in its wisdom so that I will receive all the blessings described therein…or so that I will escape the curses therein. It is improper to serve the Lord in such a way, for whosoever serves the Lord in such a way, he is a worshipper because of fear…And the Lord should not be worshipped that way. The worshipper because of love engages himself in the study of the Torah and the observance of precepts…for no account in the world, neither for fear of evil nor in order to inherit the good; but he does the true thing because it is true.