Is Lawrence Gopnik cursed to live between two worlds?
The Coen Brothers latest film, A Serious Man, begins with a quote from Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, universally known as Rashi, a medieval French rabbinical scholar and commentator. Born February 22, 1040, Rashi's commentary on the Talmud — or the "Oral Torah” that which Jewish tradition dictates was passed down to Moses — is still read today 900 years after his death.
"Receive with sympathy everything that happens to you."
Rashi didn't intrinsically know the answers but his words are interpreted the truth by many contemporary scholars and believers. As physics professor, Lawrence Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg)'s friend says, “Jews have tradition”. And many stand by it. For better or worse. But what if you don't heed Rashi's interpretation to the letter? What do you do then?
It seems to me that the Coens' masterful film is the perfect metaphor for contemporary spiritual life today. How does one reconcile the seeming ambiguity of ancient tradition with the daily struggles of rational life as we knew it in 1967 – or indeed today.
By biting the bullet, that's how. With conviction.
Rationality plays no part in the Shtetl Wife (Yelena Shmulenson) determined, unequivocal action. For her, the ancient knowledge that “the evil one took you” is not negotiable. There's nothing to talk about. It simply, IS.
Gopnick's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has conviction to spare when she asks for a Get. She has no concern with claims of moral turpitude. For her, the correct religious protocol = correct way of life. Don't ask questions and you won't hear any lies.
While black and white are as clear as day for these women, rationality and traditional are at war for our central protagonist. Being a good man, or in fact “doing nothing” leads to despair while doing equates to freedom. What Gopnick knows in his professional life – every action has a consequence – he doesn't heed away from the classroom. He doesn't have the conviction to read the signs quick enough. By the time he registers one, something else has entered the frame to test him. No one can provide him with the answer. And he certainly struggles to help himself.
There are elements of Gopnik's life that are out of his control. By the end of the film, we are all well versed in the role of symbolism in the film and we can extrapolate what will happen to our protagonist once the credits role. Which is exactly part of the mastery of A Serious Man. We can read Lawrence's signs. I saw messages from above coming through the aerial for heavens sake. If only he could receive “F-Troop” clearly… perhaps then he would gain clarity in his own life? Too much? Maybe so. But if we can't read signs in our own life, at least we can successfully read them in his. It's always so much easier when it's not happening to you…