Mick LaSalle’s SF Chronicle review of A Serious Man does the Coen brothers an injustice—although his little man was jumping out of the chair‚ because he fails to recognize the movie’s roots. And it’s set in the ’60s not to show, as LaSalle said, that “everything happened, and it all amounted to nothing,” but because the Coens are talking about, literally, the Religion of their Fathers. No other time—or place, a suburb of Minneapolis where they grew up—would do. The Coens are working with sacred material, on the level of what Tom Stoppard did with Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. A Serious Man is a retelling of Job, with its comic potential realized.
Jews, like Buddhists, are skeptical believers. Jews don’t pray in search of salvation or out of fear, but to maintain their side of an odd contract. Job is the biblical book that has long demarcated the bounds of their difficult relationship to God. Job is a thoroughly righteous man picked by God to prove to Satan that His chosen people really love Him and aren’t just doing it for the goodies, wealth and happiness. The throne of heaven was at stake, and if Satan had won, humanity would have been abandoned as God’s naive folly. Every conceivable affliction and misfortune is visited upon Job; God’s special effects department was clearly told not to worry about going over budget. It’s the sacrifice-of-Isaac test in spades. Job holds up stoically—Jesus complaining on the cross was pretty much a wimp in comparison—but the book owes its enduring relevance to the question it leaves unanswered: Why is there evil in the world? Jesus died for everyone’s sins for all time forward, but if evil exists to test the capacity of humankind to follow God’s laws even in the absence of just reward for righteousness, and Job passed the test for humanity, why are we still getting tested?
Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death at the end of the 19th century presaged Existentialism, the dominant philosophical movement of the 20th, which has as its central tenet the not-so-compelling revelation “we’re here, so we might as well learn to live with it,” and whose most prominent exponent, Martin Heidegger, was a faithful Nazi Party member. It was a century that would have made an excellent affliction in Job.
Job got to go, more or less, face-to-face with the big guy, so the question of His existence wasn’t an issue then. The question of evil got resolved in Job, if you can call it a resolution, in favor of God, who gets to allow evil to exist without having to explain His reasons. But if the resolution instead turns out to be that evil exists because there is no God, then these centuries of sacrifice and endless self-examination and gefilte fish will have been shown to be pointless. So we are putting the best face on a difficult case. That’s why “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof is half sarcastic and half sentimental, and how the joke from Annie Hall about relationships applies as well to Woody Allen’s relationship to his religion: A man tells his psychiatrist that his brother thinks he’s a chicken. When the psychiatrist asks why he doesn’t just have his brother committed, he says, “I would, but I need the eggs.”
My grandfather was a rabbi in Poland in the 1890s, but abandoned his faith when he came to America. After grandma died, he started back into it, dovening—praying aloud but too softly to be overheard—every day and attending services regularly. I once asked him whether, after all his decades as a lost sheep, he really believed his prayers were being heard On High. He said, “Honestly, I don’t know. But what can it hurt?” In the face of the argument of Job, Jews pray mostly because there’s just nothing better to do. (You got something better? Let me know.)
Here’s another relevant joke. Schmuel’s clock breaks down, so he takes it into town to what he always assumed to be a clock repair store because of the huge grandfather clock in the window. But when he asks the storekeeper whether he can fix it, the reply he gets is, “I don’t fix clocks. I’m a mohel (ritual circumcisionist). So Schmuel asks, “Then why is there a big clock in your window?” and the mohel says, “And just what do you suggest I put there?”