This week, with the year winding down and the snow piling up, I had a chance to revisit my favorite film of 2009, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. I’ve sung the praises of this masterpiece before, but watching it for the second time raised a fresh batch of questions about the film’s rich and strange universe of moral and theological complications.
I was particularly drawn to the relationship between the film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik, and his wife, Judith. He is a pale physics professor, with eyes by Bambi and hair by Schiele; she is his rapacious ringmaster, a venomous creature who can deliver more derision with a flick of an eyebrow than most humans can with carefully considered words. It’s giving away little of the film’s plot to reveal that it begins with Judith leaving Larry for the delightfully awful Sy Ableman—a baritone-voiced phony—and ends with the two reconciling, holding hands and swapping smiles at their son’s bar mitzvah. The soulful, sultry, and weed-addled neighbor, Mrs. Samsky, offers a brief spell of seduction, but it’s Judith, clearly, that Larry truly wants and, more devastatingly, needs.
There are, of course, many ways to read this bit of narrative, and more than one critic has accused the Coens of perpetuating negative stereotypes of meek Jewish men and grating Jewish women. But an altogether different explanation is possible, and it comes to us courtesy of this week’s haftorah.
As the reading begins, the prophet Ezekiel conjures a strange image:
“The word of the Lord came again unto me, saying, Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and for all the house of Israel his companions: And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand. And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these? Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand.”
Likewise, the rest of the chapter speaks of the reunification of the divergent kingdoms, that of Israel in the north and that of Judah in the south, which have split into two separate entities after a brief and bloody internecine battle in 920 BCE. According to most available accounts, the northern kingdom was the one most likely to succeed, surpassing its neighbor to the south in everything from urban planning to sophisticated warfare methods and blessed by far greater rainfall and therefore more robust agriculture. Judeans, on the other hand, focused mainly around Jerusalem, and spent a considerable amount of time fretting about ritual and tradition.
One kingdom, therefore, looked to the future, another to the past. And it’s a tribute to Judaism’s magical sense of time—or, perhaps, sense of magical time—that it was the Judeans who far outlived the crumbling kingdom of Israel. Judah took Judaism seriously, while Israel concerned itself with becoming a player in the complex geopolitical struggles of the region. Judah was provincial, Israel worldly. Israel lasted exactly 200 years before being overpowered by the Assyrians; Judah fared considerably better.
Why, then, would the prophet seek to reunite them? Why not bid adieu to the sinful Israel, with its penchant for Baal worship, and cultivate instead the mostly pure Judah? Such a spiritual equivalent of natural selection might eventually make for a more just, more righteous people. It would also, however, be utterly unrealistic: for a people to survive, the Bible knows well, it needs priests and politicians, prophets and soldiers, urban planners and religious scholars alike.
The same could be said of the Gopniks. Judith spends the duration of the film in search of earthly bliss: she philanders and conspires and is eager to get rid of her poor, hunched husband so that she and the able Ableman may have the house all to themselves. Larry, on the other hand, seeks the advice of rabbi after rabbi, eager to unearth some secret, divine meaning to the trials and errors of modern life.
They need each other, those two. There may be more alluring partners out there, more illustrious and more tempting neighbors and friends. But if the Gopniks are to survive, they need both the seeker and the scammer, the greedy and the godly, the serious man and the sensual woman. The same is true of us Jews. It always has been.