by E. Michael Jones
I was well acquainted with the rabbinical despotism which by the power of superstition has established its throne for many centuries in Poland, and which for its own security sought in every possible way to prevent the spread of light and truth. I knew how closely the Jewish theocracy is connected with the national existence, so that the abolition of the former must inevitably bring with it the annihilation of the latter.
Solomon Maimon, The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon (London: East and West Library, 1954), p. 135.
The Coen brothers’ latest film, A Serious Man, is set in Minneapolis in 1967, but it begins with a prologue in Yiddish, set in some shtetl in the Pale of the Settlement, which is to say in the part of Poland which Russia confiscated during the last decade of the 18th century. The exact date of the prologue is irrelevant because from the time that the Baal Shem Tov created Hasidism in the wake of the Shabbetai Zevi catastrophe and the Chmielnicki pogroms until the first writings of Moses Mendelssohn began to trickle into what Maimon referred to as “darkest Lithuania,” time stood still in the pale. Tevye lived his life in a world which Scholem Aleichem romanticized and which Solomon Maimon damned as the epitome of superstition, but it was a world which never changed, hence the lack of time cues in a movie otherwise obsessed with them.
A Serious Man is the Coen brothers’ most autobiographical film to date from Hollywood’s most successful siblings. Beginning with their collaboration with Sam Raimi’s horror flick The Evil Dead in the ‘80s, the Coen brothers have gone on to produce an oeuvre that is both commercially successful and generically diverse. Joel (born November 29, 1954) and Ethan (born September 21, 1957) Coen grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Both parents were professors. Edward Coen taught economics at the University of Minnesota and Rena Coen was an art historian at St. Cloud State University. Joel and Ethan, destined to be prodigies by both nature and nurture, amused themselves as children by making home movies on their Super 8 movie camera.
The Coens referred to A Serious Man as “a film . . . reminiscent of our childhoods.” The synagogue where A Serious Man was filmed was “was close to where we grew up . . . . Marshak was a rabbi that we knew as kids. He was a sage. He said nothing but he had a lot of charisma.” The kernel of the story was a “the kid’s stoned bar mitzvah,” which was based on “characters that we knew.” Given what they wanted to do, one of the first hurdles the Coens had to clear was “getting the Jewish community to cooperate.” Once word of the stoned bar mitzvah got out, the people at the synagogue were worried.
“You not going to make fun of the Jews, are you?” one of the Coen brothers mimics, and then both brothers burst out laughing, as if the question were the punch line for a private joke. The big question about A Serious Man is: “Is it good for the Jews?” The question elicits more laughter from the Coens. Then as if some explanation is necessary one of the Coens adds, “It’s not that we’re laughing at anybody.” And that statement elicits still more laughter. Then finally calming down, one of them adds with a straight face, “The congregants were very excited to be a part of the film.”
To say that critics have been perplexed by the film is an understatement. One reviewer described it as “gentle but dark.” The Jewish reviewer for the New York Post seemed more conflicted than most. This is not surprising since A Serious Man is certainly the most anti-Jewish film Hollywood has ever produced. It makes Jud Suess look like Fiddler on the Roof by comparison. The Jewish thought police raked Steven Spielberg over the coals for directing Munich, but Munich comes across as an Israeli propaganda film in comparison to the Coens’ A Serious Man.
The film makes a number of statements, all of them anti-Jewish:
1) the Jewish religion is a false religion which can offer not only no consolation for suffering, but no explanation for the most important events in a man’s life, in particular, the presence of evil;
2) all rabbis are clueless, fatuous fools;
3) all Jews are repulsive. The film goes out of its way to make Jews—from Larry’s brother Arthur, who spends the entire film draining his sebaceous cyst, to Larry’s family, which engages in high-decibel soup slurping with a Menorah in the background—seem as physically unattractive as possible; and,
4) a catastrophe is looming on the horizon.
A Serious Man is, beyond all that, a tale of rabbicide. If you read the trailing credits long enough, you will learn that “no Jew was killed in the making of this film.” That’s because, in this story, the rabbis discredit themselves so much that the killing remains a mere formality. But the question raised during the Yiddish prologue remains: If we kill the rabbi, will we be cursed? Or as Maimon puts it: Will the abolition of the despotic Jewish theocracy mean the annihilation of the Jewish nation? Or will it mean its liberation? Or have the Jews been cursed since they killed another rabbi and cried out in unison, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
These are questions more suitable for the Coen brothers than Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of A Serious Man. In a supplement to the DVD, the Coen brothers explained that they were looking for a suitable Yiddish tale to begin their movie. Unable to find one, they decided to make one up. The Yiddish prologue to A Serious Man is, as a result, both personal and archetypal. A Jew enters the hovel where he lives with his wife and tells her that a wheel fell off his cart on way home. Fortunately, even though the hour was late and the road deserted, a famous rabbi happened by and helped him. Full of gratitude, the Jew invited the rabbi to his house for a bowl of soup.
Expecting a sympathetic response from his wife, the Jew is shocked when she tells him that the rabbi in question died three years earlier and that he has been talking to a dybbuk—in Jewish folklore, the wandering soul of a dead person who has taken up residence in the body of a living person. In the middle of their heated discussion, both husband and wife freeze when they hear a knock at the door. The rabbi in question enters and sits down by the fire, only to have the wife confront him. When words fail to get the rabbi to confess his true identity, the wife stabs him with an ice pick. The rabbi laughs after being stabbed as if to prove the wife right. He is a dybbuk. But then, blood begins to discolor his shirt where the ice pick has been rammed into his chest, and he asks, “Is this the way you repay kindness?”
Is the rabbi a kindly old man who deserves not only hospitality but respect and gratitude? Or is it a dybbuk, which is to say, an evil spirit, sent to oppress them? The Coen brothers made up the story, but Solomon Maimon, refugee from the shtetl and the devotee of the Enlightenment, articulated the terms of engagement two centuries earlier when he wondered if rabbinic despotism was the only thing which kept the Jewish race together. If so, the Coen brothers have a dilemma on their hands. If the rabbi is a tyrant, he deserves to be killed, but if the Jew’s wife kills the rabbi, then his entire family will be cursed. This is clearly the Jewish version of a no-win situation. The wife never wavers in her belief that she has dispatched a dybbuk, but the husband is wracked with doubt. “We’re cursed,” he says when the rabbi gets up to leave and walks off into the blizzard raging outside their hovel.
Cut to a suburb of Minneapolis during the summer of 1967. The narrative now bounces back and forth between Larry Gopnik, a physics professor at what looks like the local branch of the state university, and Danny, his 12-year-old son. Larry is at his doctor’s office undergoing what looks like a routine physical exam, and Danny is studying Hebrew and about to be bar mitzvahed in two weeks. Before long, it’s pretty clear that Danny, along with everyone else in his class, hates Hebrew school. In order to overcome the boredom associated with talmudic study, Danny listens to Jefferson Airplane and smokes dope. This aversion to the Talmud is nothing new. Solomon Maimon hated Hebrew school too, characterizing “the subjects of the Talmud” as “dry and mostly unintelligible to a child.” The shul wasn’t much better than its curriculum. Jewish children from the pale were “imprisoned from morning till night” in “a small smoky hut,” where “the children are scattered, some on benches, some on the bare earth” (p. 31). Then as now, when “children are doomed in the bloom of youth to such an infernal school, it may be easily imagined with what joy and rapture they look forward to their release” (p. 33).
According to Heinrich Graetz, the father of Jewish historiography, the net result of immersion in Talmudic studies was the moral corruption of the Jews who studied it:
A love of twisting, distorting, ingenious quibbling, and a foregone antipathy to what did not lie within their field of vision, constituted the character of the Polish Jews. Pride in their knowledge of the Talmud and a spirit of dogmatism attached even to the best rabbis, and undermined their moral sense. The Polish Jews of course were extraordinarily pious but even their piety rested on sophistry and boastfulness. . . . The vulgar acquired the quibbling method of the schools and employed it to outwit the less cunning. They found pleasure and a sort of triumphant delight in deception and cheating (p. 5-6).
Between the beginning of the film and the bar mitzvah, Danny whiles away his time in Hebrew class listening to Jefferson Airplane through the earplug of his transistor radio and trying pass a $20 bill to classmate Fagel for the marijuana he has bought from him. Sensing something amiss, the rabbi pulls out Danny’s earplug, the room is filled with “Somebody to Love,” and the class explodes into the music-driven anarchy of the ‘60s. The students at the local Hebrew school have made a discovery: when the truth is found to be lies . . . all the joy within you dies.” When intellectual props have been kicked out from underneath the rabbinic enterprise, all that’s left is recourse to sensual pleasure—sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
Danny’s father, Larry Gopnik, discovers the same thing in a much more painful fashion. Larry Gopnik is a Jewish physics professor, but he is also a modern-day Job in a world which has replaced suffering with banality. Gopnik teaches at an unnamed university in the Midwest and—awaiting the results of a medical examination, as well as the decision over whether he gets tenure, and his son’s bar mitzvah—his world suddenly falls apart. When Gopnik arrives home in his Dodge Coronet to a meticulously barren recreation of a ‘60s suburb, things start to go seriously wrong. His wife announces that she has been having an affair with Gopnik’s colleague, the much older Sy Abelman, and that she now wants a divorce. As if this weren’t bad enough, she adds religious insult to marital injury by demanding a get, which is to say the Talmudic ratification of divorce so that she can remain an upstanding member of the local Jewish community. In order to spare their two obnoxious children any psychic conflict, the wife demands that both Gopnik and his brother, who spends most of the movie in the Gopniks’ one bathroom draining a sebaceous cyst, will have to move out of the Gopnik house into the Jolly Roger motel. Gopnik, the quintessential schlemiel, is dumbfounded, and, when he tries to get his bearings, his wife tells him to see their rabbi. “I have begged you to see the rabbi,” says Larry’s wife, and this becomes the theological refrain which runs throughout the entire movie.
Like Job, Larry Gopnik goes from one counselor to another, and they all tell him the same thing. Watching his awkward and physically repulsive older brother flounder around in one of Minnesota’s many lakes, Larry listens to a Jewish woman wearing leg braces explain that “it’s not always easy to decipher what Ha Shem [i.e., God] is telling us.” No one, it would seem, should be better prepared to deal with adversity than the Jews. “We’re Jews,” the lady with the leg braces tells Larry, “we have thousands of years of tradition to draw on—all the stories of people who have had the same problems.” Virtually every encounter in the film ends with the same bit of advice: “Talk to the rabbi,” the crippled lady tells Larry.
That admonition sets up the plot framework for what is a deeply theological film, whose plot revolves around Gopnik’s visit to three different rabbis. Larry Gopnik is Job, but he is living at a time when the Jewish religion under whose dispensation the Book of Job was written, is dead and obsolete. The rabbis who represent this religion, as a result, are incapable of explaining anything. Hoping to meet with the senior rabbi, Gopnik enounters instead his junior colleague, Rabbi Scott, who upbraids Larry for lacking “capacity for wonder” and the “right perspective.” Jumping up from behind his desk, Rabbi Scott goes to the window of his study and, pulling back the curtain, gives Larry the key to understanding all of his problems: “Look at the parking lot, Larry!” Larry’s problem, according to Rabbi Scott, stems from the fact that “You’re looking at your wife with old eyes.” When Larry informs that rabbi that his problem is that his wife is sleeping with Sy Abelman, the rabbi is at a loss for words. “Oh, sorry,” he blurts out. Instead of supporting Larry as a victim of adultery, the rabbi tacitly condones it by showing himself willing to help the wife get her get. After collaborating in the destruction of Larry’s marriage, the rabbi gets back to the vision thing by telling him, “This is life. This is an expression of God’s will. Things aren’t so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry.”
The encounter with the second rabbi is, if anything, more intellectually frustrating and more spiritually bankrupt than the first encounter. Rabbi Nachner, the man with the “life experience” Rabbi Scott lacked, listens patiently dunking a tea bag as Larry explains his feeling that “the carpet has been yanked out from under me.” Since his meeting with the junior rabbi, Sy Abelman has died in a car accident, but now somehow everyone is expecting Larry to pay for the funeral of the man that cuckolded him. Somehow this doesn’t seem fair.
“Somebody has to pay for Sy’s funeral, but why is it me? I’m so strapped for money now. I don’t know. What does it all mean? Paying for Sy’s funeral? He died the same instant I had the crash. Does that mean that I am Sy Abelman. Does it mean that we are all one? How does God speak to us?”
Rabbi Nachner responds by telling Larry the story of the goy’s teeth. A dentist in the rabbi’s congregation by the name of Sussman, while making an appliance for one of his goy patients, noticed Hebrew writing on the inside of the goy’s lower incisors, writing which when deciphered, said “Help me! Save me!”
“This in a goy’s mouth, Larry!”
Needless to say, Sussman was stunned: “Sussman can’t eat. Sussman can’t sleep. He examines the mouths of his patients, Jew and goy alike” and wants to know what this could mean. Sussman, who is an educated man (“Not like Rabbi Marshak but an educated man. He knows about the Zohar”) asks the rabbi if the answer lies in Kaballah. Sussman knows that every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent. Transposing the Hebrew letters to numbers, he comes up with the telephone number of the Red Owl Supermarket in Bloomington, Minnesota. He calls the number and asks the manager if he knows a goy with Hebrew writing on his teeth. Getting no satisfactory answer he goes to the Red Owl Supermarket, but finds nothing. Returning to Rabbi Nachner, Sussman asks, “What does it mean? Is the answer in Kaballah or Torah? What can such a sign mean?”
Intrigued by the story, Larry asks, “What did you tell him?”
“Teeth?” answers Rabbi Nachner. “Don’t know. God? Don’t know. Helping others? Can’t hurt.”
To which Larry responds: “It sounds like you don’t know anything.”
The story ends with a picture of Sussman playing golf and Nachner adding, “He stopped asking. He returned to life.” The moral of the story, according to Rabbi Nachner, is that “questions are like a tooth ache,” but Larry isn’t satisfied with this response. “I want an answer,” he objects, but according to the rabbi, “Ha Shem doesn’t owe you an answer.” And even if Ha Shem had the answer, the rabbi continues, “He hasn’t told me.” Subdued by the thought that nothing has any meaning, Larry asks one more question:
“What happened to the goy?”
“The goy?” Nachner answers. “Who cares?”
Solomon Maimon’s autobiography caused a sensation when it appeared in Berlin at the end of the 18th century. Like the Coen brothers, Maimon felt that Judaism was a false religion and that the rabbis were the enemy of the Jewish people. The Kaballah, as Nachner’s exposition of the goy’s teeth made clear, could be used to justify anything, including the claim that nothing had any justification: “The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Kaballah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on fancy.”
Brother Nathanael Kapner, who was born in 1950 and is four years older that Joel Coen, felt the same way about the Jewish religion he was raised in. Like Danny Gopnik in A Serious Man, Kapner went to Hebrew school. Unlike Danny he didn’t get stoned or listen to Jefferson Airplane. Kapner was a pious Jewish boy, something which makes the epiphany he had in a Pittsburgh synagogue, all the more startling:
I recall my parents taking me to my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah at a farther part of the City of Pittsburgh, where I grew up. We entered into an old, musty smelling synagogue which had the Jewish Star of David everywhere. After only 10 minutes of being inside, I got very nauseated and wanted to vomit. The synagogue seemed to have a deathly pall about it. And I couldn’t bear looking at the Jewish Star everywhere. I learned later that the Star of David is an occult symbol that was popularized by the Kabbalists of the 13th Century in Europe. It was then at the age of 8, through my experience in that old, musty smelling synagogue, that I knew that Judaism was a religion of death.
Kapner was exposed to Christianity as a child, but the rabbis kept him from acting on what he saw:
The neighborhood where I grew up was made up of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Every year at Christmas time in the 1950s, all of our Gentile neighbors put up the Nativity Scene on their lawns. I simply loved looking at the Nativity Scene! And I wanted to know more about Jesus Christ. But we were forbidden to even mention Jesus Christ’s name unless we used it as a curse word.
A boyhood friend of mine named Ricky Rago was a Roman Catholic. One afternoon after playing baseball, Ricky Rago invited me over to his house and we went into his bedroom to play Monopoly.
All over his walls were pictures of the 14 Stations Of The Cross. I was 10 years old at the time and these pictures of Christ’s sufferings made a deep impression on me. I promised myself that one day I would learn the meaning of these sufferings of Jesus Christ.
Hebrew school, in Kapner’s experience, wasn’t so much an introduction to the Torah, as it was an inoculation against Christianity. As part of his Hebrew school curriculum, Kapner was required to take a course in Comparative Religion, in which he and his classmates studied Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. After that build up, Kapner was shocked to hear his teacher announce that they were not going to study Christianity. “You see children,” Mrs. Schechter, his teacher said,
Christianity was made up by a manic-depressant by the name of Saul of Tarsus who wanted to blame the crucifixion of a criminal named Jesus Christ on the Jewish people. And Saul of Tarsus you should know was a “self-hating” Jew. He hated being a Jew so much that he even changed his name to “Paul!”
Now it happened dear children that 500 years after Jesus Christ was crucified, the Roman Catholic Church took the crazed writings of Saul of Tarsus and made a religion out of it. They called this religion, “Christianity.” Thus we are not going to bother studying this false and hate-mongering religion.”
Kapner’s father, unsurprisingly, only reiterated what Kapner had learned in the synagogue:
When I got home I asked my father what he thought about Saul of Tarsus. My father answered, “Saul of Tarsus tried to convince Jews to become Christians. But we are born Jews and we should die as Jews.”
Solomon Maimon noticed something similar in the attitude of the rabbis of his day: “As I observed in most of the rabbis a good deal of pride, quarrelsomeness and other evil qualities, they became objects of dislike to me on that account” (p. 81). Confronted with what seemed like an insuperable conflict between faith and reason, Maimon vowed to leave Poland, along with his wife and family, and move to Berlin, where he could “destroy by enlightenment the remnant of superstition which still clung to me.” This decision set Maimon permanently at odds with the Jewish people, rendering him by and large unemployable as a tutor “because the parents of these young people were anxious lest their children should be led astray and by independent thinking on religion, be made to waver in their faith. . . . They could not rely up on their children having sufficient judgment to be able to enter upon this course without passing from one extreme to the other, from superstition to unbelief, and perhaps they were right.”
Maimon’s behavior didn’t help matters any. Like the Coen brothers, he went out of his way to outrage Jewish sensibilities. While in Posen, Maimon deliberately touched what the Jews felt was a sacred stag horn at entrance to the synagogue: “Horror-struck they expected my death on the spot, but as nothing happened their anxiety for me was converted into hatred. They looked on me as one who had profaned the sanctuary.” Spurred on by his hatred of “the spirit of fanaticism” he found among the rabbis, Maimon “began to push matters a little further, frequently slept through the time of prayer, went seldom to the synagogue and so on” until he brought on the persecution that he had warned against. The Jews, for their part, deprived of a rational religion, had no way to incorporated Maimon’s critique into their practice, and so Maimon, like his predecessor Spinoza, was expelled from the synagogue.
Solomon Maimon was an advocate of the Enlightenment. He suggested that the study of mathematics and science would break the hold of the superstitious rabbis and bring Enlightenment to the Jewish people, but things turned out differently than expected.
Larry Gopnik is a product of the Enlightenment. He is well-versed in both mathematics and physics, but physics isn’t what it was when the Maskilim in Berlin were in awe of Sir Isaac Newton and his marvelous system. Physics, as Gopnik teaches it, is Heissenberg’s uncertainty principle. In one of the film’s many dream sequences, Larry is dwarfed by a huge blackboard covered with incomprehensible equations. Explaining Heissenberg’s uncertainty principle to his students, Gopnik sums up everything by saying “it proves that we can’t really know what’s going on, but you’ll be responsible for it on the midterm.”
Unlike Larry Gopnik, the successful brother who makes a living teaching a theory in physics which doesn’t explain anything, Arthur, his older brother, is a loser in everyone’s estimation. He sleeps on the couch in the Gopnik’s living room. He spends most of his day draining the cyst on his neck, but unlike his brother, Arthur has come up with a system that actually works. The cabbalistic “Mentaculus,” is “a probability map of the universe,” which allows him to win money at cards: (“Some goys put together a private game. I think they’re Italian.”) even if it can’t keep him from soliciting at the town’s notorious gay bar and getting him arrested for sodomy. “What’s sodomy, dad?” Larry’s son asks, when the police show up at the Gopnik’s front door with Arthur in handcuffs.
When Larry consults a lawyer about his brother’s arrest, the lawyer asks him the same question: “Have you talked to the rabbi?”
Larry: “I talked to Nachner.”
Lawyer: “Did he tell you the story about the goy’s teeth? Go talk to Marshak. He’s a wise man.”
Before long, Larry is dreaming about people telling him to talk to the rabbi. In one dream sequence, the late Sy Abelman, still wearing the golfing outfit he died in, engages Larry in a debate over mathematics which ends with Sy banging Larry’s head against the black board while screaming over and over “I fucked you wife. See [Rabbi] Marshak.”
Taking the advice of both the living and the dead, Larry finally goes to see Rabbi Marshak. “I need help,” Larry tells Marshak’s secretary. “I have a lot of Tsuris [troubles] in my life. This is not a frivolous request. Tell him I need help.” The secretary opens the door walks into Rabbi’s study. Rabbi Marshak is sitting behind desk as she explains Larry’s request. She returns and tells Larry, “the rabbi is busy.”
“He doesn’t look busy,” Larry responds shrilly.
Secretary: “He’s thinking.”
The rabbis are not only totally useless when it comes to explaining the presence of evil in the world or giving advice, their rituals don’t help either. Danny’s bar mitzvah is the highpoint of the film; with Sy Abelman dead, it looks as if Larry and his wife are going to get back together. As they sit in the synagogue waiting for Danny to go up and sing the Torah, Larry’s wife tells him that “Sy admired you so much. He wrote letters to the tenure committee.” The look on Larry’s face indicates 1) just how he feels about his wife bringing up the now-dead Sy at a moment like this; as well as 2) the realization that he now knows who was writing all of those anonymous letters about Larry’s moral turpitude to the tenure committee. Our sense that Larry is finally out of the woods is undermined further by the fact that Danny has to get stoned to go through with the ceremony. After a few tense moments, when it looks as if Danny might pass out in front of everyone, he finally finds his voice, sings the Torah, and, after it is all over, Rabbi Nachner greets Larry’s totally stoned son as “a member of our tribe.”
As a reward for his performance at the bar mitzvah, Danny, still stoned, gets to meet Rabbi Marshak, the man who refused to discuss his father’s troubles because Marshak was busy “thinking.” After a long walk through Marshak’s cluttered study, Danny sits at the rabbi’s feet, and after almost an entire film of anticipation, the senior rabbi finally opens his mouth and says: “When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies. Denn wot?” Without waiting for an answer, the wise old rabbi continues by naming the members of the Jefferson Airplane. “It was wonderful,” he says of the song he has been listening to for the past two weeks and hands Danny back the transistor radio with the $20 bill in the case which his teacher confiscated from Hebrew class.
Cut to Danny listening to Jefferson Airplane in Hebrew class once more. This time, however, the Rabbi is interrupted by the school secretary, who tells him that a tornado is approaching. The Rabbi then tells the children that they all need to take shelter in the synagogue basement.
After getting arrested for sodomy, Arthur has reached the end of his rope. He runs out of their motel room screaming. Larry finds him sitting beside the motel’s empty swimming pool sobbing: “Ha Shem hasn’t given me shit.” In the most moving scene in the whole movie, Larry embraces his brother Arthur, and tries to offer him the consolation that has been denied him by the three rabbis.
“It’ll be okay,” Larry tells his brother. “We get Ron Meshbesher to take your case.” Ron Meshbesher is the third lawyer Larry has had to consult. (Solomon Schlutz, the senior partner in the firm handling Larry’s divorce, keeled over with a heart attack before he could give Larry any advice in the real estate battle Larry was having with his goy neighbor, the one who takes his son hunting when the boy should be in school.) Since Ron Meschbescher is a criminal lawyer, he requires a retainer fee of $3,000 up front. Three thousand dollars is precisely the amount of money that a Korean student passed to Larry in attempt to bribe him to change his failing grade. Larry looks at the retainer agreement from Ron Meshbesher. He then looks at his grade sheet. He then looks at the envelope from the Korean student containing the $3,00 bribe. With the rain from the thunderstorm which has spawned the tornado now approaching his son’s school pelting his window, Larry takes out a pencil and erases the F next to Mr. Park, the Korean student’s name, and puts a C- in its place.
No sooner is the deed done than the phone on Larry’s desk rings. It’s the physician who gave him a clean bill of health at the beginning of the film. Something has showed up on the X-ray. Could Larry come in to discuss the results.
“Can’t we discuss them over the phone?” Larry wants to know.
“No, in person would be better.”
“When,” Larry asks.
“Now,” says the doctor. “Now would be good. I’ve cleared a place in my schedule.”
Meanwhile, the Hebrew students have now gathered in the schoolyard, where they are being battered by the storm. Outside in schoolyard, one of his classmates tells Danny that “The wind is going to rip that fucking flag off the flag pole.” The storm in this instance seems to symbolize the sexual revolution of the ‘60s, the revolution which New Left Red Diaper babies like David Horowitz created to punish the United States for treating their Stalinist parents so badly. Horowitz’s participation in the sexual revolution—in particular, his affair with Abby Rockefeller—destroyed his marriage and almost destroyed his life when he took to driving the sports car he bought as compensation for the break up of his marriage at unsafe speeds. He then converted from New Leftism to Neoconservatism but never stopped being a Jewish revolutionary, and his revolutionary activity never stopped being harmful to American culture.
When it comes to the Jews, America is doomed one way or another. Suburbia, to get back to the film under discussion, is a creation of Jews like the Levitts, who gave us Levittown, the suburb that set the pattern of banality for the rest of the country for the post-World War II era. The Levitts came up with the mass produced slab house that the Coen brothers found so insufferable growing up. As in the pale of the settlement where the Jewish descendents of Solomon Maimon blamed the Czar for the tyranny of the rabbis, so in America, where the next generation of Gopniks finds the world their fathers created intolerable, and instead of killing their own rabbis, they kill the culture which harbored them instead. Like David Horowitz, they always run the danger of perishing in the conflagration they themselves started. That seems to be the meaning of the tornado at the end of the film.
Outside the synagogue, the rabbi is struggling unsuccessfully to find the key to open the door to the synagogue basement so that he can lead his charges to safety. Danny Gopnik calls to Fagel the drug dealer as if to pay him back the $20 he owes him, but his gaze is drawn instead to the tornado bearing down on all of them, about to destroy them. The Jews, the Coen brothers seem to be telling us, are facing some sort of catastrophe: either 1) the sexual revolution of the ‘60s which wiped out a significant portion of the baby boomer Jews, bringing about the demographic crisis to which Alan Dershowitz among others has alluded or 2) the tornado symbolizes some catastrophe looming for the Jews in 2010. After the neocon Jews pushed America into a disastrous war with Iraq which has led to a mountain of unrepayable debt, Jews like Mr. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Mr. Rubenstein of the Carlyle group (not to mention Alan Greenspan, Ben Shalom Bernanke, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin) presided over the looting of the American economy, piling more unrepayable debt onto the backs of the American people. Then, as if that weren’t enough, the first group of Jews is now demanding that President Obama attack Iran.
At around the same time that the DVD of A Serious Man was released, neocon warmonger Daniel Pipes was writing an article on National Review Online entitled, “How to Save the Obama Presidency: Bomb Iran.” And what was the Catholic reaction to this effrontery? William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, wrote an editorial calling for economic sanctions against Iran.
Then, just to show that great minds run in the same circles, on the same day, Deal Hudson, editor of the now defunct Crisis magazine, wrote an editorial calling for the same thing. Now how is it that these great Catholic minds came to the same conclusion on an issue of no concern to Catholics on the same day? If you’re really stumped, I recommend a short review of the political career of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Santorum, who used Jewish money to buy Catholic votes, and never did anything in return for the Catholics who elected him to office. Santorum ended his career in the Senate by campaigning for war with Iran. According to the late Tom Herron, Santorum’s Iran-speech was both his political swan song and a job application. Then, lo and behold, where does former Senator Rick Santorum pop up after losing the election? At the American Enterprise Institute, where Jewish financiers like private equity king David Rubenstein can pay his salary directly.
The scene of the rabbi struggling to find right key to open the door to the synagogue basement is the second time that obliquely Christian themes made their appearance in A Serious Man. (The first came when Larry’s daughter, hearing her uncle say for the nth time, “Just a minute,” from the other side of the bathroom door, exclaimed “Jesus Christ.”) Sooner or later, confronted by the fact that the rabbis do not have the keys of the kingdom and are blocking the door to salvation by refusing to go in themselves and preventing others from going in as well, the Jew considers becoming a Christian. After being spurned by both the rabbis and Enlightened Jews like Moses Mendelssohn, Solomon Maimon had reached the end his rope and concluded that “there was no alternative left but to embrace the Christian religion and get myself baptized in Hamburg” (p. 126).
Unlike Nicholas Donin and Joseph Pfefferkorn and Eugenio Zolli, the chief Rabbi of Rome who converted because of the heroic witness of Pope Piux XII during World War II, and Nathanael Kapner, Solomon Maimon never made it into the Church which is the ark of salvation. “I am a native of Poland,” told a Lutheran minister in Hamburg,
belonging to the Jewish nation, destined by my education and studies to be a rabbi; but in the thickest darkness, I have perceived some light. This has induced me to search further after light and truth and to free myself completely from the darkness of superstition and ignorance. As this could not be attained in my native place, I went to Berlin, where with the support of some enlightened men of our nation I studied for some years—not indeed with any plan but merely to satisfy my thirst for knowledge. But as our nation is unable to use, not only such planless studies, but even those based on the most perfect plan, it cannot be blamed for becoming tired of them, and pronouncing their encouragement to be useless. I have therefore resolved, in order to secure temporal as well as eternal happiness, which depends on the attainment of perfection, and in order to become useful to myself as well as others, to embrace the Christian religion.
True to the vision of the man who founded their sect, the Lutherans never had a clear understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, and so passages like following were bound to cause problems:
The Jewish religion, it is true, comes, in its articles of faith, nearer to reason than Christianity. But in practical use the latter has an advantage over the former; and since morality, which consists not in opinions but in actions, is the aim of all religion, clearly the latter comes nearer than the former to this aim. Moreover, I esteem the mysteries of the Christian religion for that which they are, that is allegorical representations of the truths that are most important to man. This I make my faith in them harmonize with reason, but I cannot believe them literally. I beg therefore most respectfully an answer to the question, whether after this confession I am worthy of the Christian religion or not. If I am, I am prepared to carry my proposal into effect; but if not, I must give up all claim to a religion which enjoins me to lie, that is, to deliver a confession of faith which contradicts my reason. (p. 127).
If the Lutheran pastor was handicapped by the exaggeration of faith bequeathed to him by Luther, Maimon was equally handicapped by the truncated form of reason he derived from the Enlightenment. As a result, Maimon’s conversion to Christianity never happened. In addition to impugning Maimon’s motives (“your intention is to embrace the Christian religion merely in order to improve your temporal circumstances?” the Lutheran pastor misunderstood the relationship between faith and reason, claiming that Maimon was “too much of a philosopher to be able to become a Christian. Reason has taken the upper hand with you, and faith must accommodate itself to reason” (p. 128).
As a result of this rebuff, Maimon concluded that “I must therefore remain what I am—a stiff-necked Jew. My religion enjoins me to believe nothing, but to think the truth and practice goodness. . . . With this I bade the pastor goodbye.”
Ultimately, Maimon fared no better with the Enlightened Jews of Berlin because, as he put it,
The Jewish nation is, apart from accidental modifications, a perpetual aristocracy under the guise of a theocracy. The learned men, who form the nobility in the nation, have been able, for many centuries, to maintain their position as the legislative body with so much authority among the common people, that they can do with them whatever they please. (p. 147).
Like Solomon Maimon, Nathanael Kapner had to leave home in order to escape from the rabbis’ power over him. In Kapner’s case, it wasn’t to Berlin that he fled, as Maimon had in the 1780s; it was to Los Angeles, where he began his undergraduate studies in 1968:
I finally left my home and synagogue to go to college in Los Angeles in 1968. But I forgot about my promise. It wasn’t until 1970 that one of the Jesus Freaks, who were very popular at that time, gave me a New Testament. I opened it up and started reading the Gospel of St Matthew. I was struck by the “Jewishness” of the writing.
And I soon found myself captivated by the person of Jesus Christ! He was a man who rubbed shoulders with the common people. He was a man who taught the people from every-day life experiences. And what I liked most of all about Him was when He said to the religious leaders, “The harlots and tax collectors go into the kingdom of heaven before you.” I could almost see Him saying this to Mrs Schecter, who called Him a “criminal.” I simply found myself falling in love with Jesus Christ! I devoured the entire New Testament from cover to cover and could not put it down. I did read about the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and it made me cry. And I did read the ‘crazed writings’ of St Paul and knew that there was nothing ‘crazed’ about it at all—but were words of hope and purpose. I said to myself, “Judaism is bankrupt. But the Christian message is full of promise and life.”
When I finished the last Chapter of the Book of Revelations, now at the age of 21, I got down on my knees, wept, and asked Jesus Christ to forgive all my sins and be my Saviour.
Soon afterward I met an old pious woman at a Church gathering who came up to me and said, “God has so much for you and so much for you to do.” Like a cryptic oracle, long awaiting its coming, I am just beginning, 37 years later, to see this prophecy come true.
As someone who had significant input in the composition of Fides et Ratio and the heir of the Apostles, Joseph Ratzinger, both as bishop and pope, would seem to have an advantage over the poor Lutheran Pastor who turned Solomon Maimun, and yet if not hampered by a defective understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, the pope seems equally hampered by a desire to engage in dialogue with the rabbis, whom virtually all Jewish converts see as oppressors of the Jewish people. In his visit to the synagogue of Rome in January 2010, the pope cited Vatican II as the theological justification for his visit, claiming that
The teaching of the Second Vatican Council has represented for Catholics a clear landmark to which constant reference is made in our attitude and our relations with the Jewish people, marking a new and significant stage. The Council gave a strong impetus to our irrevocable commitment to pursue the path of dialogue, fraternity and friendship, a journey which has been deepened and developed in the last forty years, through important steps and significant gestures.
As we have come to expect from meetings like this, what he said may have seemed supine and groveling to Catholics, but it was never enough to placate or mollify the stiff-necked rabbis, who continued to harp on Pope Pius XII, expecting—if not demanding—that Pope Benedict denounce him as a war criminal. The pope went on to add that, “I too, in the course of my Pontificate, have wanted to demonstrate my closeness to and my affection for the people of the Covenant.” But that overture met with an equally cold response. By now it should be obvious that trying to placate rabbis is a hopeless task. But worse than that, in his efforts to placate the rabbis, the pope is turning his back on the Nathanael Kapners, and Solomon Maimons, and—who knows?—Jews like the Coen Brothers, who see the rabbis as the oppressors of the Jewish people. Progress in Catholic-Jewish dialogue is another word for suppression of the truth. Dialogue with the rabbis means collaboration with the forces who are determined to keep Jews ignorant of Christ.
In his meeting with the rabbis at the synagogue in Rome in January, the pope attempted to find common ground in the Ten Commandments, because
The "Ten Commandments" call us to preserve and to promote the sanctity of the family, in which the personal and reciprocal, faithful and definitive "Yes" of man and woman makes room for the future, for the authentic humanity of each, and makes them open, at the same time, to the gift of new life. To witness that the family continues to be the essential cell of society and the basic environment in which human virtues are learned and practised is a precious service offered in the construction of a world with a more human face.
The sentiments are noble enough, but the pope’s statement ignores the role which the rabbis have played in promoting divorce, both at the time of Christ and in 2010, and in the intervening period as well. Like Larry Gopnik’s wife, Solomon Maimun’s wife wanted a divorce, and both Mrs. Gopnik and Mrs. Maimon discovered that the best place to go for assistance in getting one is to the rabbis. Maimon was reluctant to grant the divorce, but, as he puts it, “my wife went with my son to consult some orthodox Jews, whose advice she thought she could trust and they recommended her to press at once for a divorce, and on no account to let my son remain with me.”
So much for rabbis supporting “the sanctity of the family.” When Maimon refused to go through with the divorce, “the presiding judge became furious, began to call me names, pronounced me a damnable heretic, and cursed me in the name of the Lord” (p. 142).
Before this travesty continues any further, the pope should sit down with his advisers and analyze the possible out comes of any future visits to synagogues and, along with that, the future of Catholic Jewish dialogue in general. As Woody Hayes used to say, three things can happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad. The odds involving the outcome of Catholic Jewish dialogue are similar. The pope has indicated his concern for the Jewish people. If that is the case, why does he insist on speaking exclusively to rabbis? In what sense do they represent the interests of the Jewish people. If the testimony of Solomon Maimun, Nathanael Kapner, and the Coen brothers means anything, the rabbis are the oppressors of the Jewish people, not representatives of their interests. By entering into dialogue with the rabbis, the pope is turning his back on Jews like Nathanael Kaplan. If he doubts my word on this, the pope would do well to consult no less an authority than Abe Foxman, head of the ADL, who informed the American bishops, after their repudiation of the Keeler Statement, that dialogue and conversion were mutually exclusive alternatives.
It’s difficult to disagree with Foxman. But if that’s the case, which path is the pope going to chose? If he continues down the path of dialogue, he will willy nilly deny the Gospel by refusing to preach it to Jews like Larry Gopnik because giving up the conversion option is the condition sine qua non of dialogue. If the pope chooses both dialogue with the rabbis and proselytism with the less important Jews, he runs the risk of being seen as a hypocrite. The church cannot deny the Gospel, and she cannot tolerate double standards. The only viable option for the pope is the option exercises by the first pope, St. Peter, who told the Jews in Jerusalem, “Jesus the Nazarene was a man commended to you by God. . . . You killed him, but God raised him to life.” “Cut to the heart” by what Peter said, the Jews asked Peter and the Apostles, “what must we do, brothers?” To which, Peter replied, “You must repent, and every one of you must be baptized.”
Catholic/Jewish dialogue has become an empty ritual disconnected from both the reality which the Jewish people are forced to live under their despotic rabbis and the reality of the Catholic faith. It has become an idol, the worship of which is forbidden by the first commandment. It is another religion, one that undermines the clear testimony of the Gospel and delivers the great majority of the Jewish people into the hands of their oppressors. Adding insult to injury, the pope went on to claim that one of the fruits of Catholic-Jewish dialogue was "a renewed respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament." A Serious Man is a work of fiction, but fiction in order to be compelling has to tell the truth. And the truth it told about the rabbis is that the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament is conspicuous by its absence when it comes to counseling the Larry Gopniks of this world. Larry could have profited by reading the book of Job, but none of the rabbis felt it was relevant to his situation. If they had, they would have mentioned it.
In this regard, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the means of social communication, Inter Mirifica, might provide a helpful complement to Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on the Jews. The pope should take to heart the Council’s praise of “new avenues of easy communication of all kinds of news, of ideas, and orientations.” Inter Mirifica goes on to claim that the cinema, “if . . . properly used . . . can be of considerable benefit to mankind.”
So, if next year this time, the pope feels tempted to submit himself and the Church he represents to more abuse from the rabbis by visiting another synagogue, he should think twice. Rather than inflict more damage on the Larry Gopniks and Nathanael Kapners of the world, he should give Walter Cardinal Kasper a call, and the two of them should watch A Serious Man instead.
This article was published in the June 2010 issue of Culture Wars.
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