Monday, February 21, 2011

More Coherent Thoughts on A Serious Man

So...A Serious Man by The Coen Brothers (2009).

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this film.

I don't give a hoot what the reviews say: this is a 'comedy' only in the sense of what you'd find in Yiddish Theater; which is to say, it's a tragicomedy. No, that word doesn't quite work. It's comedy only in the Woody Allen sense (i.e. that when you fall down a manhole etc.); It's almost a psychological thriller, especially the way it's shot, with all kinds of distortions of reality. Funny things may happen, but it's not funny.

A modern retelling of the book of Job, we watch the protagonist (a college professor in 1960s Minnesota) deal with his stoner son's bar mitzvah, bitch daughter, his wife's affair and demand for divorce, a bribery attempt, someone trying to derail his tenure, racist neighbors, his brother the crazy sodomite, and generally becoming unhinged. Like Job, he consults three 'friends' (in this case, 3 rabbis) who fail to offer any succor.

Many critics have talked about how the Coen Brothers capture that look of the late 60s perfectly, and while I wasn't around then, I've been in those kinds of synagogues and JCCs and college buildings, all wood paneling and limited but dramatic light.

If you like the Coen brothers, or Yiddish Theater (they brought back Fyfush Finkel!) this movie is awesome. If you don't do well with cringe-inducing psychological pain, steer well clear. Also: if you've not experienced Judaism at all, this will be a little like watching a foreign flick; basically, all the punchlines are for those of us 'in the know'. Beautifully shot, excellent acting, at moments painful to watch.

A special note on the portrayal of the rabbis. Many people have taken their general lameness, to indicate an attack on religion (or at least Jewish religion). I don't see it that way. I think we've all encountered rabbis that have trouble hearing the real question (or even the person in front of them), who offer drab platitudes, etc. The Forward has an op-ed piece arguing that liberal Judaism (that is, non-Orthodox Judaism) is in trouble because it has no firm theological foundation, that Reform Judaism especially is so broad and so diverse it's nearly impossible to gain any kind of consensus (of course the Conservative movement is in trouble because those at the Seminary and in the RA are insisting on standards that the rest of the movement doesn't abide, so that argument kind of falls flat).

I think the movie is saying something else. The problem is exactly the problem of the book of Job: we want easy answers. We want someone to tell us how the world works, someone to give us a 'proof', to show us the math. We want all these metaphors about God (King, Father, "He", etc.) to be right and to have someone to hold accountable, to hold us accountable in a literal sense. We want what Art Green calls Naive or Childish religion (this, incidentally, is the same religion that uber-Atheists like Christopher Hitchens rail against, and when you try to point out that this isn't the religion you buy into, they dismiss you as not really being religious).

The reality is that religious experience requires commitment and engagement. We have to work for it, just as we have to work to make the numbers fit, work to make our bodies healthy and whole, work to earn bread for ourselves and our families. In this sense, Orthodoxy has it right; there are expectations placed on the practitioner. Or, rather, there are tools and methodologies through which one discovers meaning; keeping kosher, observing shabbat, studying Torah etc. Where liberal religion has failed is to take those seeking a spiritual experience (and most congregants out there are; they may not have the language to describe it, but they're seeking something) and give them equally valid tools--study and practice--to help people find and create meaning. Instead, we talk about programs, institutions, organizations, dues, etc. Which are good things to talk about, but are the means to the end; that is, to provide people the opportunity to find meaning using Jewish language and imagery and texts surrounded by other Jews.

Why is this so? Because it's easier. It's less threatening or challenging. Talking about 'stuff' doesn't make us feel inadequate or illiterate the way talking about text or prayer or God does. Because rabbinic schools are really good at teaching us what others think but need to learn how to help rabbis talk about what they think, and more than that, learn to create the safe space so others can talk about what's important to them.

So people come and keep expecting answers handed to them and when those answers are pat or cliche, they get disillusioned. Of COURSE those answers are going to be cliche; they're not YOUR answers!

In that sense, as one rabbi Sklar put in this collection of thoughts,
"It’s the most Jewish movie I’ve ever seen…You leave the theater with a host of questions, no easy answers and, frankly, arguing about what it all means."

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