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.