My wife and I finally had a chance to see the Coen brothers’ new movie, A Serious Man. In addition to enjoying the Coen brothers’ movies, we had to see it because it’s set in our neighborhood, St. Louis Park, MN. Some scenes were shot in a local synagogue and the old Talmud Torah building in which the Coen boys studied (affectionately called, “Talmud Torture”). And several of those who had minor parts are friends or acquaintances.
Enough people have reviewed the film so all that I’ll say generally is it is indeed like a modern day take-off on the Biblical book of Job, with a lot more irony and less resolution. What I want to explore in greater depth, though, is the treatment of the three rabbis.
The old European rabbi (Marshak) is barely accessible to the public and one approaches him with foreboding. But, Marshak expresses a deep humanity to the fully-acculturated and Americanized bar mitzvah boy. When the modern-day Job, Larry Gopnik, tells his tale of personal and professional disintegration, the Junior Rabbi (Scott) responds with a sunny theory about life’s meaning. When Gopnik finally meets with the Senior Rabbi (Nachtner), he offers Gopnik what we learn is a canned story that is either utter nonsense or a deep parable for theological counsel, further exasperating Gopnik. And Marshak—he closes his door to Gopnik, as if to say that Gopnik will have to accept whatever questionable wisdom there is from the present generations of rabbis and not look wistfully toward some nostalgic age when rabbis allegedly knew the true meaning of life’s pains.
In short, you’re served rabbis who are detached (Marshak), demented (Nachtner), or deluded (Scott)–not exactly an advertisement for rabbinical school. Yet, their words of “wisdom” reappear in various scenes in the film, in the mouths of Gopnik and other characters. Now remember—this is a Coen brothers movie, so you have to be prepared for their ability to play with our minds, and leave us guessing whether a scene is meaningful, meaningless or just plain paradoxical. But is there some truth to their portrayal of rabbis? Do rabbis appear that detached and inaccessible from others? Does trying to live life on a different spiritual plane (which anyone can attempt) make those who do the envy of others because it looks like they’ve “figured things out”? If you were writing the script, how would you portray the rabbis?
At the end of the movie credits, there’s an advisory which reads, “No Jews were harmed in the making of this film.” But, did the Coen brothers help or harm the image of the rabbi and American-style liberal Judaism? What do you think?
Rabbi Hayim Herring