A Serious Man isn’t a movie to be “solved.” There’s no secret meaning, no answer in the goy’s teeth. It’s a film that revels in its paradoxes because those paradoxes illustrate what it means to be Jewish right from the opening parable about the dybbuk. Arguably Joel and Ethan Coen‘s most oblique movie since Barton Fink, A Serious Man is also the brothers’ most straightforward examination of their Jewish upbringing and how it crashes up against their American roots. To be Jewish is itself a paradox—an outsider always living among other communities waiting for the inevitable next exodus, an exodus that’s also key to your identity. As Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) spends the film looking for answers, we are shown that God is not accountable to us for our personal misfortunes, but as the final scene demonstrates, we are still accountable to God.
To understand A Serious Man, or at least to embrace its paradoxes, we must first look to its opening scenes, which force us into a paradox within a paradox. The film’s epigraph quotes the Rashi, a medieval French rabbi who wrote extensively on the Talmud (books of Jewish law) and the Tanakh (the canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures including the Torah), “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” and then we get the parable of the dybbuk, a tone-setting prologue that refuses to be received with simplicity.
Velvel (Allen Lewis Rickman) and his wife Dora (Yelena Shmulenson) are Jews living in a shtetl (a small town with a large Jewish population). Velvel tells Dora that Traitle Groshkover (Fyvush Finkel) just helped him with his broken cart on the way home and he’s invited Groshkover over for soup to repay his kindness. Dora tells Velvel that Groshkover died three years ago, and that Velvel was interacting with a dybbuk, an evil spirit. Velvel thinks his wife is being silly, but when Groshkover comes over, she stabs the man she believes to a dybbuk. At first, the wound is bloodless and then it starts to bleed. Groshkover sadly leaves their home and we’re left to wonder if he’s an evil spirit or a hapless traveler. While Velvel frets over what will happen next, Dora is firm in her certainty. “Blessed is the Lord,” she says. “Good riddance to evil.”
We then cut forward to our main story of Larry Gopnik and his son Danny (Aaron Wolff). Larry is a professor on the verge of getting tenure and Danny is half-heartedly preparing for his bar mitzvah, but is more interested in listening to Jefferson Airplane on his radio and repaying his violent classmate Fagle the $20 he owes him for pot. Throughout the film, we’ll see that even though Larry and Danny don’t have a close relationship, their fates are intertwined and that Larry’s life expands beyond what he can see. For example, as he bitterly curses his extortionist student, Clive (David Kang), Larry gets into a fender bender. At the same time, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), the man who’s coveting Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) and also secretly badmouthing Larry to the tenure committee, gets into a fatal car accident.
As a series of misfortunes befall Larry, it’s tempting to draw a parallel to the story of Job. The Coens’ moral philosophies appear to be rooted in Old Testament wrath, this is a story about Jewish characters, Job is in the Old Testament and bad things happen to him, therefore Larry is Job. And yet a closer read shows that Larry is not a faithful man in the sense of being “A Serious Man”, a title that mocks him and the concept of how “A Serious Man” is viewed. Sy is viewed as “A Serious Man” and he’s a lecher and a creep whose gentle voice belies a manipulative and selfish individual. But Larry is not purely a devoted man who worships God and is set upon for no reason in a test of his faith. Larry is not a man of faith; far from it, Larry is a man looking for the math. He dreams of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which shows Larry’s desire to prove uncertainty with mathematical certainty. Larry doesn’t mind if the world is chaotic; but he thinks there should at least be a mathematical understanding of that chaos.
And yet for all of Larry’s reliance on math and proofs, he doesn’t understand his own behavior or the larger stories telling him to embrace his paradox. Larry is looking for a syllogism. If he is a good Jew, then good things will happen to him. If bad things are happening to him, there must be an explanation, so he seeks out three local rabbis for help. The first, Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), offers him a platitude about finding God in a parking lot (a joke that will be darkly comic at the film’s conclusion). The second, Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), offers a story about a Jewish dentist finding the words “Help me, Save Me” in the teeth of a goy, a fun narrative with no point other than being a fun narrative (an illustration of the extraordinary with no understanding or subtext beyond it has no subtext). At best, Larry must, in the immortal words of Mr. Park (Steve Park), “Accept the mystery.”
But the Coens aren’t simply making a movie to reinforce Rashi’s notion to “Receive with simplicity.” If anything, that’s exactly what Larry has done, and it has turned him into an outside observer in his own life, which is where the paradox of American Judaism comes in. Judaism is about being part of a community. The covenant Abraham forged with God isn’t a personal relationship, but a relationship with the Jewish people. When God brings the Jews out of Egypt, it’s not because he made a one-on-one pact with any individual Jew; it’s because of the covenant with the Jewish people. “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob,” says Exodus 2:24.
The problem with the notion of the community is that the world remains uncertain (as seen in the parable that starts the movie) and then American individualism compounds that uncertainty. Larry and his family are part of a modern Jewish community, but their connections with Jewish life are overshadowed by their connections to American life. Danny cares more about F Troop coming in clearly than he does his Torah portion (Larry constantly trying to get a “signal” is one of the movie’s better recurring gags). His sister Sarah (Jessica McManus) is more concerned with her social circle than anything relating to Judaism. Judith wants a gett (A Jewish divorce) not because of her faith, but because of Sy and all his pretensions. Even sad sack Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) with his constantly draining cyst is trying to uncover the mysteries of the universe so he can be a better gambler. The Gopniks are a Jewish family, but they’ve also assimilated into America. Like Schrodinger’s cat being both alive and dead, they try to exist simultaneously in two cultures, a paradox of identities feuding against each other.
Larry is not a passive Job figure who receives with simplicity what’s visited upon him. If anything, he’s a uniquely American Job figure, constantly bemoaning his position as if good fortune is owed to him, confusing passivity with morality. “I haven’t done anything,” and “What’s going on?” and “I didn’t do anything!” are notable refrains from Larry. He labors under the belief that because he doesn’t actively do evil, he must therefore be good. There is nothing godly about Larry Gopnik or his family other than going through the motions of Judaism. If anything, Larry views God as a manager and if he takes his complaint to the right rabbi, then everything will be sorted out. That’s the math Larry is counting on, and for Jews, it doesn’t exist. God is not accountable to us in the way that Christians can ask for personal forgiveness from Jesus. The Jewish God does not come here to ask us what he can do for us; the covenant is a relationship that we’re supposed to abide by even as our American individualism tells us we’re entitled to whatever we want (exemplified by Danny stealing money for the record club or Larry thinking he’s owed answers from various rabbis). Part of being Jewish is living in paradoxes. We’re not owed conclusions (in this roundabout way, the film’s rabbis fulfill their duty), even as Larry complains, “Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give us any answers?”
So are the Coens just being nihilists? Far from it. Although nihilism is an easy (and false) reading of the Coens’ work (they’ve even gone so far as to joke about it in The Big Lebowski by having The Dude remark about nihilism, “That must be exhausting.”), the brothers do have beliefs about morality in a chaotic universe, and that paradox—order in chaos—is rendered beautifully in the climax of A Serious Man.
At the film’s conclusion, Larry finally receives tenure. Something good has finally happened to him and he now has the financial security that has eluded him for the whole film. But then he’s hit with his legal bill and decides to break with his own morals; he gives Clive a C-minus (the minus a petulant little “fuck you” to the bribe that Larry is acquiescing to) to accept the $3,000 that was probably left there by Clive but has never been acknowledged (itself a paradox of corruption; how can the money be returned if it has no clear owner). The second the money is accepted, Larry gets a phone call from his doctor with bad news. Meanwhile, a tornado (which is how God appeared to Job in the bible) bears down on Danny’s Hebrew school parking lot just as Danny is finally able to repay Fagle for the pot. Cue Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and cut to credits.
The ending may seem abrupt, but it’s the perfect depiction of the moral universe that Coen characters typically inhabit, and especially the Jewish characters seen in A Serious Man. At the end of the film, Larry believes that there is no order to the chaos. “I don’t even understand the fable myself,” he remarks on Schrodinger’s Cat, showing us that Larry fails to comprehend the story of paradoxes and finds mathematical certainty far more comforting. Since his faith has never been rewarded and the world seems random, then there’s no consequence for his moral trespass. He can believe he can accept Clive’s bribe and go about his life because in America, transactions matter more than faith, and at least they make sense.
But the moral contract we Jews have with God is not one of reward but of wrath. Did Larry deserve all the other bad things that “happened” to him? Maybe. He’s a passive character who doesn’t really stand up for himself and doesn’t seem to have any beliefs beyond the childish notion that the world should be fair. But fairness doesn’t enter into it with regards to our actions. God doesn’t give us treats because we acted good; we’re just supposed to be good. But if you’re bad, you and your family have incurred the real force of God’s wrath.
Why should poor Danny be made to suffer? Look at the Old Testament or even just look at Rabbi Marshak’s (Alan Mandell) office. As Danny comes in (high as kite and ready to receive everything with simplicity), he glances at a portrait of Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Isaac. As the film’s editing shows us repeatedly, Larry and Danny are tied together and consequences extend far beyond our personal actions. Larry has sinned and now he and his son must be made to suffer. But since the film revels in its paradoxes, we don’t see the tornado’s devastation. Maybe the Hebrew teacher gets the shelter to the door open and hurries his students inside. Maybe the tornado goes in a different direction. Maybe the bad news is something Larry can recover from. Accept the mystery.