“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”
2009 saw the release of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, which received critical acclaim, though many fans believed it pale in significance in comparison to the likes of The Big Lubowski and No Country For Old Men. Arguably their most autobiographical work, it appears A Serious Man was born out of the brothers’ desire to return to the world of their youth, though they rarely comment on speculation. Set in Minneapolis, where the brothers’ were born and raised, the film echoes the midwestern feel of other works of theirs (No Country and Fargo, which was also set in Minneapolis).
What sets this film apart is how deeply entrenched it is in Jewish character and temperament, with constant, often detailed references to Yiddish, American-Jewish culture and Jewish theology. There’s the mildly rebellious teenage son who reluctantly attends the local Talmud Torah, who we see practicing his Bar Mitzvah leining as well as becoming Bar Mitzvah while high as a kite on dope, which he smokes in the Synagogue bathroom beforehand. Throughout the duration of the film, we meet a handful of rabbis, all of who are assisting Larry Gopnik, the main character, who is searching for answers to the “tsuris” he is experiencing in his life.
Larry’s life begins to crumble when he learns that his job as professor of physics at a university college is in jeopardy, and on top of that, his wife plans to leave him for Sy Ableman, the serious man, and desperately wants a gett so she can remarry within the faith. As his anguish intensifies, Larry becomes increasingly desperate to meet with the revered religious scholar and posek Rabbi Marshak. Unable to ‘get to him’, he makes do with Rabbi Scott and Rabbi Nachtner, both of whom he meets with in the hope that they will have the answers to the divine plan, which seems to have turned Larry’s life upside down.
But it’s a story recounted by Rabbi Nachtner during his meeting with Larry that is quite possibly the most meaningful, albeit odd, scene of the film, and indeed the most telling. As Larry begs Rabbi Nachtner to explain what it is that Hashem is trying to communicate to him by placing such obstacles in his path, Nachtner begins telling a longwinded and bizarre account, in the hope it will provide some comfort to Larry.
The story goes that Dr Sussman, a respected dentist known within the community, goes to see Nachtner in a state of unease and confusion. Dr Sussman is with a patient who is affectionately referred to, simply, as “the goy”, making a mold of his mouth. Once the mold has set, upon closer inspection, Sussman sees that something is engraved on the inside of the goy’s bottom teeth. It appears they are Hebrew letters, which spell out the word Hoshiayni, “Help me, save me”. Determined to understand the meaning of this strikingly peculiar occurrence, he begins madly searching through the molds of his other patients, “Jew and gentile alike”, to see if there are any similar engravings on their teeth. He inspects his own teeth, his wife’s teeth while she’s sleeping, and even toys with the kabbalistic system known as gematria, figuring out what numbers are ‘kabbalistically’ assigned to each of the letters. He puts the numbers together and dials them on the telephone, his call answered by an employee at a grocery store. Sussman can’t sleep, he can’t eat, and he is being driven mad by his pursuit to get to the bottom of the situation.
He meets with Nachtner, pleading with him to offer some sort of advice on how he should interpret the divine message he believes has come to him in the form of the goy’s teeth. Does the goy need Sussman? Is it Sussman’s duty to save the goy, though we don’t know what from? Is the message to be found within Kabbalah and Torah? Is Hashem telling Sussman that he needs to be kinder- more patient, more empathetic, more sensitive? Seemingly prematurely, Nachtner finishes speaking. The story is over.
Larry asks Nachtner what he told Sussman in response to his queries, Nachtner answering brilliantly, “Is it relevant?” As if to say, doesn’t the story speak for itself? Apparently not. So, who placed the message there? What does it mean? Presuming G-d is trying to get a message across to Sussman, what is it? We don’t quite discover what, and why should we? There are no answers. “He (Sussman) returned to life,” says Nachtner. He went on living, despite it all. Went back to his comfortable, middle-class life and learned to live with the mystery and make do with it as he saw fit, realizing that no one, absolute answer will suffice in answering the unanswerable.
The story is initially advisory it seems, though it eventually amounts to coming across as indecipherable. But this scene should not be curtly disregarded. It is indecipherable, but it is incredibly telling, and it says so very much about the collective Jewish conscience.
Rabbi Nachtner possesses an embellished, though distinctive Jewish quirkiness and charisma. In an odd way, his storytelling and quick asides are heartwarming- we understand them; they are a language we get. In response to Larry’s question, “Why does He (G-d) make us feel the questions if He doesn’t give us any answers?” Nachtner responds, “He hasn’t told me.”
“The teeth- we don’t know. A sign from Hashem? Don’t know. Helping others… couldn’t hurt.” Nachtner hits the nail on the head. The embodiment of Jewish humor. Its criticality. Its essentiality.
“What happened to the Goy?” asks Larry, which appears to be a perfectly relevant and reasonable question. “The Goy,” says Nachtner, startled. “Who cares?” Nachtner’s total lack of understanding as to how the Goy is in any way of relevance or consequence in the equation, and the way in which he is overlooked, as if he is not central to the story is a little uncomfortable, perhaps, for the non-Jewish viewer, though the Coen Brothers don’t shy away from the reality that often, the mentality of ‘the goy’ is prevalent, at least historically.
Though both Joel and Ethan Coen deny planting any underlying, hidden messages in scenes such as this, if we are to take anything from the scene, I would suggest that it is, simply and inexhaustibly, learn to live with the unanswerable. It goes without saying that such an attitude is deeply part of the human condition, though the flavor and texture of the scene is deeply Jewish. Jews and Judaism has always been about an interaction with the primal and unanswerable questions of human existence. It seems that Judaism throughout the ages has encouraged the grappling and the struggle, the compulsion to impose reason and leave nothing un-debated, not simply to dig up the answers, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for the sake of asking the questions- the thrill and joy of engaging with the never-ending conversation on the human narrative. Perhaps not knowing too much about something is healthy for the human appetite. If this is so, this appetite is something Judaism has always valued.
Jewish figures throughout history, both biblical and post-biblical, have always felt a compulsion to challenge G-d, and amazingly, Halakhah sees this approach not as apostasy, but rather quite the contrary. In stead, Halakhah and Jewish tradition at large views this incessant demand for answers as a deeply religious act, because in essence, it holds G-d accountable for His responsibility for the world. This, I believe, is one of Judaism’s great and enduring strengths. It refuses to see human suffering as strictly redemptive- Larry refuses to blindly accept ‘the will of Hashem’ and as such praise G-d for blessing him with such trials and tribulations. Rather, he demands answers from the Almighty, for “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen 18:25). It’s in our DNA. And yes, we don’t always get the answers we want, but the act of striking up a dialogue between heaven and earth is an act our tradition not only sanctions, but also sanctifies.
The scene also says something about our gravitation towards the abstract. Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish people had no concrete residence- no geographical home, no Jerusalem, and no army, for centuries of exile. Whether it was during the Golden Age of Spain or the pogroms and ghetto walls of Europe, the Jews always transcended beyond the concrete, breaking free from the finite walls of physical existence, delving into the existential. In that sense, one gets the feeling that though the miracle of Jewish survival is our return home, the Jewish people will always be, in a way, the eternally wandering people- the people of the Haggadah, the people Bob Dylan sang of in ‘Like A Rolling Stone’:
“Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street and now you’re gonna have to get used to it… How does it feel, how does it feel? To be on your own, without a home, like a rolling stone?”
In many ways, the Talmud itself was a response to homelessness. It was born from the necessity to translate Torah into practical appliance, transforming what was designed and intended to govern Jewish existence into that, which could administrate Jewish life in exile. From there, the Talmud became tractates upon tractates- rigorous disputes, the rabbis or antiquity insistently imposing reason and leaving absolutely nothing un-debated, not because we can be certain we will always get the answers, but because debate and discussion for its own sake makes us better and stronger, and perhaps even more human. For this reason, author Amos Oz in his book, Jews and Words, contends that ours is not a bloodline, but rather a textline.
When we had no home in the world, we found our home in the word- drawn always to the abstract, assigning it sacred space and nurturing that human fascination with the world- its mystery, learning to love its mystery and in return learning to live with it and be made better by it. Halakhah itself, argues Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, is a rebellious system, which urges us to be “bothered” by the abstract. Live in wonderment- don’t settle for the mundane. See everything that is prosaic as an opportunity to be called into dialogue. Everything is worth looking at.
I find it hard to revisit this scene and not contemplate all that it suggests about the Jewish condition. What seems to speak most loudly is the way in which we are prompted to reconsider the way we see things. ‘Embrace the mystery’, it seems to cry out. The more concealed something is, the more holy it is- the more hidden and inaccessible something is, the more meaningful it is. The world is abstract and textured and multifaceted, but the world is the world, and we have to live with its strangeness and peculiarity, and in doing so, we learn how live in the world as opposed to escaping it. That, I believe, is precisely why Joel and Ethan Coen chose for the film to open with a quote from Rashi appearing on the screen. That’s the take home message. Learn to love the world along with all its imperfections and mysteriousness. Learn to understand and appreciate that everything in this world is worth looking at. Everything is essential viewing- everything contributes something to the weird and wonderful mosaic of the human story. Grapple with the world and turn life into a dialogue. Receive all that happens to you with simplicity, and always walk humbly with your G-d. That is the Jewish way.