Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Serious Man

Last night I rented and watched the Coen Brother’s new movie, A Serious Man. While I have heard that some Jews found it offensive, I did not. I grew up in a similar environment, and knew all the characters first hand.

The movie is a parable of a parable, the original being Job, the story of a decent man plagued by God over a bet God has made with Satan. God wants to see if Job will abandon his faith if life turns against him. In the movie the Bet is whether or not physics professor Larry Gopnik (the movie’s Job) will accept a bribe and give a failing student a passing grade. The devil is Sy Ableman, who does all he can to destroy Larry’s family and career. It is interesting that the label “Serious Man” is bestowed by Rabbi Nachtner (your typical middle aged, middle-minded, mainstream pseudo-sage) on Sy rather than Larry. Mainstream clergy always mistake the devil for the able-man?

The deeper question asked by both Job and Larry is this: What is the nature of God? Neither book nor movie gives us a definitive answer. That isn’t their concern. Their concern is to strip away any ideas you may have about God, and see what happens next. In the film this is made clear by the recurring “Greek Corus” provided by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane and repeated by the reclusive sage, Rabbi Marshak: “When the truth is found to be lies; and all the joy within you dies…What then”

Rabbi Marshak and Grace Slick offer two different but complementary answers. For the Dark Sage (nacht means “night” in Yiddish and German), the answer (given to recent Bar Mitzvah Danny Gopnik) is “be a good boy.” Be a mentsch. This is the only mitzvah (obligation) Danny has to adhere to (bar). There is no truth, no lasting joy, there is just the madness of life. And how best to deal with it? Be a mentsch, be a decent human being.

Grace and Jefferson Airplane offer a slightly different answer: “When the truth is found to be lies; and all the joy within you dies… Don’t you want somebody to love, don’t need somebody love, wouldn’t you love somebody to love? You better find somebody to love.”

Decency and love, that is all there is. Will these somehow make life better? As the tornado of God moves closer to destroying the lives of our characters the answer is clearly “no.” There is no escaping the wildness of God and the amorality of creation.

Job (along with Ecclesiastes) is my favorite book of the Bible. Together, the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes strip away everything we think we know about God and life, leaving us no place to hide. Facing the awesome reality that is God evokes in me a sense of reverence, awe, fear, and respect (though not worship; God needs no worship).

Religion, mainstream or new age, is all about hiding from the truth behind self-serving lies. If we do what pleases God, God will do what pleases us. Nonsense say Job, Ecclesiastes, and the brothers Coen. God is beyond anything we can imagine, and a true encounter with God leaves us naked and raw.

The question is what do you do after this encounter? Do you fold? Do you give into nihilism or narcissism? Do you become even more fundamentalist and militant? Or do you redouble your efforts at being a mentsch and finding someone to love?

A Serious Man opens with a quotes attributed to the 11th Century Rabbi, Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” With this it sets us up for the answer. Accepting with simplicity means accepting reality without hiding behind theories of reality. It means being open to the glory and madness of life without clinging to one or the other. It means being a mentsch and finding love. That is all there is. It is quite enough.


Raksha said...

Re >>Job (along with Ecclesiastes) is my favorite book of the Bible.<<

Minority opinion: Am I the only person on earth who dislikes the Book of Job and considers it completely pointless?

Re >>Together, the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes strip away everything we think we know about God and life, leaving us no place to hide. This is the tough love that God offers, and that deserves our utmost reverence, awe, fear, and respect (though not worship; God needs no worship).<<

Why does this aspect of God deserve reverence and respect? It will get none from me. And what does "tough love" mean in this context anyway? Going through undeserved misfortunes doesn't make you a better person. If you can somehow manage to remain a mensch it's in spite of those misfortunes, not because of them.

Jonathan K. Cohen said...

The Book of Job has resisted my attempts to study and understand it for years.

I will, however, agree with one thing Raksha says. I once had the opportunity to talk with a survivor of the gulag. He described experiences that we easily pass over when we read them in the newspaper -- going blind from a scant diet of moss and bark, for example. But what he said was: "Suffering does not make you noble. It just makes you bitter." That Job is restored to wealth and health is a device of the author; whether Job will ever recover in any other sense is left unanswered.

Remi said...

I just finished watching this for the second time. The connection of Sy and Satan is interesting, and the very methodical way Sy goes about destroying Larry's life very much fits the paradigm of testing.

However, the Book of Job does not come off as amusing, whereas I find myself laughing uproariously at the situations presented in A Serious Man. This leavening is important, and makes A Serious Man's questions of faith and our relationship to God easier to take.

Oh, and a small correction, the final Rabbi is Marshak. Nachner is the Rabbi who tells the story of The Goy's Tooth to everyone.

Phoenix000033 said...

I suppose what bothers me the most is the idea that God and Satan HAVE bets over us.

Is it wrong that I don't want to believe God would use me for His amusement?

Am I just being naive?

Rabbi Rami said...

Great comments. Raksha raises an important point about my poor use of tough love. I didn't mean that God self-consciously does anything, and certainly not undeserved misfortune. I meant that life doesn't give a shit about you and just does what it does. This is what I mean having no place to hide.

The book of Job is a philosophical exploration of the nature of God and suffering squeezed into a parable about God winning bet with Satan. The parable (written as prose) has nothing to do with the philosophical discussion (written as a poem).

What Job discovers is that God cannot be reduced to human categories; that justice and fairness are human inventions and not part of God or nature; and that we would be foolish not to respect the wildness of life.In the end (though most English translations fail to make this clear, see Stephen Mitchell's version) Job abandons his quest for justice and marvels at the fact that he is part of the awesomeness of creation.

When I look at the natural world I cannot help but feel a sense of awe and reverence, and, having lived through Hurricane Andrew, not a little fear as well.

For some reason I find Job and Ecclesiastes liberating.

As for suffering making you bitter, I would say that there is no universal corollary here. Read my blog about the two woman who survived the Holocaust, or talk with the Dalai Lama or read Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and MLK Jr. There are many responses to suffering, bitterness is only one.

To Remi's comments. First, I think Job was meant to have humorous elements--the staging of the servants popping on and off stage to tell Job about one tragedy after another was probably very funny in its day. But then it is anachronistic to apply contemporary standards of humor to an ancient text. And thanks for correcting my character error.

Raksha said...

Rabbi Rami: I'm relieved that you weren't offended by my earlier comment. I questioned your use of the phrase "tough love" because I got the impression you were going on automatic pilot when you wrote that, not really thinking about what it meant and just using it because it came easily to mind. It's not a term or a concept I'm overly fond of anyway. Very often, it is simply a cover and a rationalization for callousness.

As for justice and fairness being human inventions, I couldn't agree with you more! I realized years ago that justice is something God left out of the creation of the world--but that doesn't mean we humans are free to do the same. It's the complete opposite, and it's precisely why we are commanded: "Justice, justice shall you pursue." That's because there isn't going to be one shred of justice in the world that we don't put here ourselves, and very often--fight the PTB tooth and nail for its manifestation.

I know I'm not telling you anything you don't know perfectly well already. I also know I'm anthropomorphizing to some degree when I say that justice is something God left out of the creation of the world, as though God had made a conscious decision to that effect. For the record, I'm a pantheist and don't believe that God is a "person" any more than you do. However, I've have always used the traditional theological language for convenience, just becausse it makes certain things easier to talk about.

Again, I'm glad you weren't offended by my earlier comment.


Jive Dadson said...

Note that near the end of the movie everything seems to be smooth sailing for Gopnik and his offspring. The curse of the dybbuk is lifted. Or is the sin of the grandmother who killed a man whom she mistook for a dybbuk absolved? It is impossible to say which. In either case, all is almost well that almost ends well. Then Gopnik accepts the bribe for giving a passing grade. Immediately Gopnik gets a call from his doctor that can only mean he has cancer. Gopnik's son is tormented by a bully as a tornado threatens.

Fade out.