Despite these adversities, Professor Gopnik remains a decent man of faith. When he seeks counsel from his temple’s 3 rabbis, the first tells him to look differently at the world; the second tells him a shaggy dog story about a goy on whose teeth there is miraculously engraved in Hebrew the words help me. (What does it mean? The rabbi doesn’t know. What happened to the goy? The rabbi doesn’t care.) And the third very old and very wise rabbi refuses to see poor Professor Gopnik.
The striking cinematic contrast between the Yiddish fable and 60s Minnesota leads the audience to wonder . . . were those shtetl Jews the actual forebears of the Gopniks? Is the fable a foreword? Did the killing of the old man/dybbuk put a curse on Gopnik? Will the Minnesota story somehow explain the mysterious fable? Or do the Coens intend us to recognize that both parts of their Serious Man story are fables?
Indeed one reading of the film might suggest that the Coens are demonstrating that everything humans can know, not just about God and the meaning of life but also about physical reality, is a fable. Consider the physics that Professor Gopnik actually teaches. Here he is answering the Korean student who stubbornly claims to have understood the physics of Schrödinger’s dead cat/live cat but flunked his midterm only because he did not understand the math! “You can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math . . . the stories I give you in class are just illustrative, they’re like fables, said to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean—even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.” The dead cat/live cat is Schrödinger’s famous illustration of the superposition of possible outcomes based on the principles of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger’s cat along with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is what the Coens show us of Gopnik’s physics.
I take it then that the lack of certitude is the underlying theme of the Coens’ fables, whether in the shtetl, in Professor Gopnik’s life, or in the formulas that fill his blackboards. And belief in God in the face of that incertitude is the impossible test of faith given to the Jews. There are observant Jews who do not believe in God. What separates them from the Almighty is the Holocaust. How could they be the “chosen people” if God allowed so many of them to be sacrificed in the ovens of the final solution? They cling to their rituals out of Jewish identity and not out of faith. The Coens have implausibly left the Holocaust and Israel out of this dissection of their Jewish roots—perhaps because in the shadows of the Holocaust and the Jewish beleaguered homeland, they found it impossible to mock their Minnesota Jewry.
In any event, the Jews of A Serious Man seem childlike, a congregation that knows nothing of suffering and has never been tested. For them, Judaism is a matter of neither faith or saving ritual. The Coens present the religious experience of their Minnesota Jewry in 2 ceremonies at the local temple—the funeral of Sy Abelman, killed in a car crash, and the bar mitzvah of Danny. Abelman’s transparently hypocritical eulogy (the man was awful) is given by the rabbi of the goy’s teeth. Delivered in a strangely cheerful style, the rabbi goes on at length about what death means for Jews. “We speak of L’olam ha-ba, the world to come. Not heaven. Not what the Gentiles think of as Heaven . . . we are not promised a personal reward . . . a first-class VIP lounge where we get milk and cookies to eternity.” The Coens’ Jews have neither a heaven nor a hell—only a smug sense of superiority over those silly gentiles.
And then there is the bar mitzvah at which Danny is so stoned he has trouble finding and focusing on the part of the Torah he is supposed to chant. To the relief of his family and the entire congregation, he finds his place and begins the time-honored ritual that makes him an adult member of the Tribe of Israel. Danny is having a drug trip, not a religious experience. Jews who have gone through similar rituals will know that Danny (like most American Jews) has no idea what the Hebrew words he is reading mean. He has been taught to chant, not to understand.
The religion pictured here involves neither redemption nor faith in God and if Danny is their exemplar, the Coens feel nothing but alienation. Danny’s actual “religion” is the psychedelic rock of the Jefferson Airplane. In a bizarre irony after his bar mitzvah, Danny is allowed to enter the study of the great but reclusive rabbi for words of wisdom and advice. This is the rabbi who refused to see his father. As Danny enters the room the camera lingers on a Rembrandt painting hanging on the wall: it is Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac.
Danny is understandably wary and still tripping on pot as he sits before the sage. In a totally unexpected moment the rabbi, after a long pause, finally and slowly speaks, “When the truth is found to be lies. And all the hope within you dies”—the first lines of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” Those are his words of wisdom. The Rabbi then reaches in the drawer and pushes across his desk Danny’s radio that had been confiscated by the Hebrew teacher. Now the rabbi’s advice, “be a good boy.”
Every one of the actors in A Serious Man is brilliantly cast and, except for the professor, each of them gives the lie to the maxim that to be a success, an actor has to be likable. Job was vexed by God with horrors such as the death of his children; Gopnik’s ordeal is one of petty humiliations. But then the Coens turn the knife in their Jewish specimen. Just when it seems Hashem is their existential joke, Professor Gopnik commits a sin, he raises the Korean student’s grade and pockets the money (he needs it for legal fees). In a twinkling, the tornado comes roaring down on Danny and his Hebrew school and the professor gets a phone call from the doctor about the chest x-ray taken at his annual physical that must be urgently discussed.
What does it all mean? Gopnik poignantly asked the second rabbi, “Why does Hashem make us aware of the questions if he is not going to give us the answers?” The Coens of course gave their Serious Man that line. Presumably they thought it was sad and funny at the same time. And when the telephone call, the funnel cloud, and “Somebody to Love” ends their Jewish film, we wonder, should we laugh or cry? Humor—not spirituality—is the only consolation the Coens have to offer.