For many centuries, sensitive readers of the Hebrew Bible have taken their interpretive skills and tried to make sense of perhaps the most perplexing of all the Biblical books, the Book of Job. Job is a righteous man who becomes subject to a perverse wager between God and Satan which seriously tests his loyalty to his Maker. Job is a successful man with a beautiful family. Bit by bit, all the things he has in this world are taken from him and he is left with nothing. The question is whether or not he will turn against God because of his misfortunes. The Book of Job inaugurated in the Jewish tradition an examination of theodicy, God's justice.
More recently, the Jewish writer Franz Kafka created his own variation on the character of Job. In his books The Castle and The Trial he takes ordinary human beings and subjects them to the vicissitudes of blind fortune. His Joseph K. is summoned out of the blue to undergo a trial whose details he is not aware of. K. is left without any rational means to understand the torments he is undergoing. He asks and asks, but no one will tell him why he is being summoned to the court.
The landmark 1996 film "Fargo" by American Jewish filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen presents us with a variation on the theme of God's justice. As in a number of their movies, the Coens look at the life of a single human being whose world collapses in on him for reasons that are not completely under his control.
In "Fargo" the character of Jerry Lundergaard looks for a way out of his mundane existence and engineers the failed kidnapping of his heiress wife. Looking to find a way to get a chunk of money to lift him out of his frustratingly mediocre life selling cars in his wealthy father-in-law's dealership, he hatches a lunatic scheme to have his father-in-law provide him with the money that he so desperately needs, but which the penny-pinching miser will not give him in any conventional way.
"Fargo" is a very dark comedy that shows its protagonist to be a less-than-savory man who is sick of playing by the rules. He has lost his faith in moral justice and decides to take the law into his own hands, with disastrous consequences.
In their 2009 film "A Serious Man," the Coens, for the first time in their career as moviemakers, decide to go back to their Minnesota upbringing and tell a story that touches on the Jewish depredations of Job and Kafka. This time their protagonist, Larry Gopnik, a nerdy college professor whose life is starting to completely unravel, is an innocent Job-like figure whose world has quickly turned against him.
His marriage is faltering as his wife Judy is conducting an extramarital affair with Sy Ableman, a recently widowed member of their Jewish community. Larry's son is buying lids of pot from the local supplier and is stealing money from his sister to pay for his stash. Larry's neighbor is an uber-Gentile whose harsh gaze frightens the timid man. Larry's college career is fraught with tension as he is up for tenure and finds himself being harassed by an unhinged Korean student who is extremely unhappy with a failing grade he has just received. The hits just keep on coming.
Like Kafka's protagonists, Larry finds himself caught up in a world that he does not understand. He finds himself trapped in the detritus of a Midwestern Jewish community in the late-1960s where tradition has eroded and where the mores and certainties of the past have faded away.
In the film's brilliant prologue, we witness a short sequence, done in Yiddish, of a young married couple in the Shtetl who are bickering over the husband's embrace of a mystical rabbi. The wife insists that the rabbi is dead but remains "alive" because he is a Dybbuk, or mystical spirit. The husband refuses to believe her and mayhem ensues.
The prologue sets the viewer in an enchanted world where reality has been undermined by the irrationality of the mystical.
Entering into the world of late-1960s Minnesota, we see that enchantment become configured into a Jewish community whose members have almost completely lost the thread of what is moral and what is not.
Larry Gopnik is a simple man whose life collapses because of the immorality and bad deeds of others. He approaches the three rabbis of his synagogue over the course of the film, but each of them stammers and cannot articulate any reasonable way of dealing with the calamities that are building in Larry's life. Larry is living out the tortuous indignity that has become so familiar to many of us in the modern world. Choosing morality over manipulation, altruism over selfishness, goodness over evil, Larry finds that his decisions have left him alone, depressed and overwhelmed.
The world around him has changed and he does not recognize it. He has lost control over his family and finds that nothing he believes in exists anymore. When he turns to the rabbis who theoretically should provide him with answers to his questions, he discovers that they too are part of the incoherent and morally compromised world that is crushing him.
Boldly, the Coens take on the world of contemporary American Judaism in one broad stroke. Emerging out of the Kafkaesque fog, "A Serious Man" entertains the ways in which American Jews have become morally and spiritually vapid. Turning away from the traditional morality, the Jews of the movie are void of any sense of justice. At the very moment that Larry is desperately grasping for a sense of permanence and security, he is faced with the perplexing apathy of his peers. No one seems to be impressed by the fact that Judy has taken up with a widower and is in the process of not only humiliating him, but doing so in such cruel ways that Larry cannot help but become paranoid and consumed by anxiety.
Larry has done nothing wrong, but is being challenged by the wickedness of others who he once trusted. His world has become completely unhinged.
For those of us who struggle with the fallout of living by the old moral code, the themes of "A Serious Man" are deeply resonant and emotionally devastating. We have seen our lives torn apart by the selfishness of others, which is all too often reinforced by the very institutions that we falsely think will protect us. Larry Gopnik, like Kafka's Joseph K. and like Job in the Hebrew Bible, is caught up in a world that is brutally destroying him, but which he cannot make any rational sense of.
The support he so desperately seeks is not forthcoming. The three rabbis he turns to offer him nothing. The Judaism that he seeks does not exist anymore. He is living in a world of magical enchantment that has undermined his sense of reason and its ties to reality.
Echoing the Kafkaesque, "A Serious Man" presents us with the tragedy of a life well lived that quickly turns into a grotesque nightmare. Unlike the earlier "Fargo," there is little humor to help us deal with any of it. The movie indicts the institutions that have failed us and the people who have abused our trust. The picture of human morality presented in the movie is bleak and disheartening. Our hero is trapped in a labyrinth not of his own making and can only sink deeper and deeper in that abyss, never to be redeemed in spite of his valiant sense of what is right. The truths that we have learned from religion have failed us because the human covenant necessary for the stability and security of our lives has broken down completely.
As the end-credits to the movie roll on the screen, we see the strange phrase, "No Jews were harmed in the making of this movie," which serves as the bitterly ironic coda to a tale of wanton destruction and demoralizing anomie wrought by Jews against other Jews.
"A Serious Man" presents the perennial questions of what human beings do when they are faced with persecution and calamity. In the vast wasteland of American Judaism in the late twentieth century, we find that all that is left is a vacuous life of Social Darwinism where only the wicked can prosper and where the simple goodness of one lone human being counts for nothing. It is a deeply troubling assessment of the human condition that provides, as in both the Book of Job and in the novels of Franz Kafka, no answers, only the anger and resentment of justice thwarted with the mechanisms of our Jewish community serving to reinforce the immoral and the unjust.