What the Coen Bros. Masterpiece ‘A Serious Man’ Teaches Us About Spirituality in 2019
The Coen brothers’ religious odyssey, which turns 10 this year, has never been timelier.
A full decade into the afterlife of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Yiddish tale of misfortune, A Serious Man, and still, the wonder of its multidirectional messaging on personal and professional uncertainty encapsulates some of the most poignant questions of the 21st century. While the Coens’ film didn’t predict, with any level of specificity, an accused celebrity rapist being elected the commander in chief, the ever-quickening global doomsday clock responding to climate imbalance and perpetual wars, or the rise of right-wing fascism that threatens the symbolism and semiotics of Western democracy, A Serious Man does portray, with precise realism, the dizzying, reflexive response to confounding circumstances by asking and re-asking the simple question: “Is there any point in trying to understand life at all?”
A Serious Man is a timeless watch born from a timeless read, the Book of Job, wherein the titular character’s faith is tested by God—Job loses his riches, his children, his property is burned to the ground, and he’s stricken with painful illness—all because of an absurd bet the deity makes with Lucifer. In the Coen’s remix set in 1967, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, eats a torrent of gut punches—from his wife filing for a divorce after falling in love with his friend, Sy, to an entitled student blackmailing him for a passing grade, to his divorce lawyer literally keeling over in front of him—that compel him to seek religious counsel from three different rabbis to get a sense of what the hell God is trying to show him. These sessions are equal parts farce and pathos but, if taken using a fluid definition of spirituality, provide insight into the ways both Larry and, more broadly, a spiritually disillusioned 21st century audience might recover a sense of divine order.
Larry’s first office hours with a rabbi occurs by happenstance. Though he seeks sage wisdom from one of the synagogues’ established old-heads, Rabbi Marshak, the scorned husband ends up confiding in the bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who is described succinctly as “a man in his twenties.” Larry’s confusion surrounding his wife’s betrayal has disrupted his life to the point of paralysis. He’s beginning to lose his sense of God’s will. Rabbi Scott’s response could be fodder for anti-millennial harangues from boomers the world over:
“(...)I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem [God], which is the problem here. I too have forgotten how to see Him in the world. And when that happens you think, well, if I can’t see him, He isn’t there anymore, He’s gone. But that’s not the case. You just need to remember how to see Him. Am I right?”
Rabbi Scott stands up and giddily walks toward the window with the kind of dorkish smile that only Helberg can draw upon and sighs, “I mean, the parking lot here. Not much to see...But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn’t familiar with these...autos and such...somebody still with a capacity for wonder...someone with a fresh...perspective. That’s what it is, Larry!(...)It sounds to me like you’re looking at the world, looking at your wife, through tired eyes.”
Which, you know, is fine advice if a bird dropped a load on Larry’s shoulder or he lost his cell phone before a beach outing, but isn’t quite sufficient given the wreckage of Larry’s life. Noticing the insufficiency, the plucky preacher remarks, “You can’t cut yourself off from the mystical or you’ll be—you’ll remain completely lost. You have to see these things as expressions of God’s will.” Scott stumbled upon a point: Larry could easily fall into self-pity, into even more isolation, but the young rabbi advises him to maintain an open mind toward the spiritual realm even as it seems to be working against his interests. And that’s a lesson that goes beyond just Jewish tradition.
Spirituality isn’t based within any one religious faith. Every religious practice is based on a reckoning with human suffering. But spirituality can also mean a sort of alignment of the belief, the soul, and manifesting said belief in actions. The work of critic bell hooks in her book All About Love: New Visions situates spirituality as a belief in the interconnectedness between mind, body, and behavior as opposed to a belief in a particular being. She refers to the spiritual as that “dimension of our core reality where mind, body, and spirit are one.” This connectivity is not based on religion but a relationship with “an animating principle in the self-life force (some of us call it soul) that when nurtured enhances our capacity to be more fully self-actualized and able to engage in communion with the world around us.” hooks would likely agree with Rabbi Scott, then, that Larry’s crumbling marriage threatens an isolation that will diminish his ability to be faithful to the larger body of believers. He can’t nurture his capacity to be his full self in the world if he sees himself as being cut out from it. This lesson, extrapolated across a nation that grows more lonely and loveless by the day, is the first act of self-saving.
Rabbi Scott’s advice was the initial step to action—which, as any viewer of this film could notice, Larry struggles with actually doing something to change his situation, or at the very least his attitudes around that situation. After asking another preacher, this time the jovial middle-aged, Rabbi Nachtner, how exactly we’re supposed to hear God, his second counseling session sees Larry on the receiving end of a rambling parable about a mysterious Hebrew message that a dentist, Lee Sussman, finds etched behind a goy’s lower moulds. He roughly translates the writings to “Help me” and becomes obsessed with finding out the answers to this ridiculous dental sign. The questions start pouring in: “Can Sussman go home? Can Sussman eat? Can Sussman sleep? No. What does it mean? Is it a message for him? For Sussman? And if so, from whom? Does Sussman know? Sussman doesn’t know.” After this search takes him from his own wife’s moulds, to the back alley of an old grocery store, to the very seat that Larry sits in now, Larry asks wantingly, “So what did you tell him?” The Rabbi seems surprised. “Sussman? Is it relevant?” We wind all the way back to the question of what the text actually means. “We can’t know everything,” Rabbi Nachtner concludes. Larry’s exhausted: “It sounds like you don’t know anything!”
But Larry isn’t really listening. He’s stuck on the need for an answer to the meaning of text, the meaning of God’s will, neglecting to engage with Lee Sussman’s obsessive acts. Trying to run around finding resolutions to the mysteries of the universe is pretty futile because at the end of the day, we’re all going to the same place. By the end of that conversation, Nachtner is absolutely puzzled when Larry asks, “What happened to the goy?” “The goy? Who cares?” What Nachtner doesn’t say is that the act of pursuing a spiritual understanding is futile, but that it has to be couched in the awareness that there are no conclusions. Larry is always asking stupid questions. “What’s going on?” is a very common refrain, as well as, “I didn’t do anything!” which, in itself, provides a kind of explanation for why these catastrophes seems to compound. What we can do, and what is relevant, is the path from critical consciousness to enlightenment. Larry hasn’t taken responsibility for his station.
He’s stuck in a place of inaction, which, when faced with the aspects of Western civilization that feel insurmountable—the anxiety epidemic, overwhelming greed, social inequalities, etc.—can only make matters worse. Hooks writes extensively on responsibility as not necessarily denying the realities of personal or institutionalized injustice but, rather, “Taking responsibility means that in the face of barriers we still have the capacity to invent or lives, to shape our destinies in ways that maximize our well-being.” Larry Gopnik and the nation at large each have the tools to shape our futures out of an uncertain present but that takes a belief in the power that exists within us. Larry lacks the self-responsibility and assertiveness to act on the changes he wants to experience in his life. Unfortunately for him, that inaction is paid back to him in his inability to actually talk to the head Rabbi he’s been chasing for the film’s runtime.
Larry never sees Rabbi Marshak but the stonewalling is a lesson in itself. What that lesson is, and what the movie is trying to get across, is of course left to interpretation—but one could imagine that this is the Coen brothers’ way of portraying a God, or a universal force that is exhausted by the questioning of relatively inactive people. As much as it’s a sardonic articulation of the multiplicity of paradoxes and personalities within this Jewish community, A Serious Man is just as much about responsibly handling the power we wield, and understanding the weight and influence of the stories that we tell ourselves to get by. Larry Gopnik has so much trouble with the realities of uncertainty—despite the fact that he’s teaching a whole course on its mathematical theory—that he fails to recognize his interpretive power to remake and reimagine his existence. Bogged down by the burden of unpredictable uncertainty, the Coens shower their viewers in disappointment and in the hope that we can, collectively, make small, radical changes to the communities we’re able to touch—despite the storm peaking over the horizon.