“A Serious Man kicks off with a Yiddish-language frame story that takes place in a 19th-century Eastern European shtetl, where a married couple has an enigmatic encounter with an old acquaintance who may be a dybbuk,” recounts Dana Stevens . “The import of this parable is cryptic to the point of inscrutability.”
It seems to me that the Coen Brothers’ dybbuk is the Jewish folkloric equivalent of Schrodinger’s Cat .
When we first meet the main character, a physics professor named Larry Gopnik, he’s writing equations on the board: “So if that’s that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn’t that right? And that’s Schrodinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead?” Likewise, we can’t know whether Fyvush Finkel is alive or a dybbuk. We can only evaluate probabilities. When a Korean student named Clive Park complains to Larry that he shouldn’t have failed the Physics midterm because “I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat,” Larry says:
you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean — even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.
But the fable actually tells us that the math doesn’t capture reality. When Clive attempts to bribe Larry, Larry says “actions have consequences … Not just physics. Morally. … And we both know about your actions.” Clive says, “No sir. I know about my actions.” To which Larry replies “I can interpret, Clive. I know what you meant me to understand.” Clive explains this is “Mere surmise. Very uncertain.” Later, when Clive’s father accuses Larry both of taking Clive’s money without improving his grade and also of defaming his son by saying he tried to bribe his way to a better grade, Larry says “Look. It doesn’t make sense. Either he left the money or he didn’t.” Mr. Park replies “Please. Accept mystery.”
That’s Larry’s problem. He tries to interpret life with mathematical precision, but it’s all mere surmise. Later he has a dream where he follows elaborate mathematical equations to establish “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you,” he tells his students. “Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the midterm.” That’s a mystery: Life doesn’t make sense, but we’re still responsible for it, even if we had no idea what we were doing. Like killing a man thinking he’s a dybbuk, if he turns out not to be. Or when, by doing nothing, we become responsible for buying the monthly selection of the Columbia Record Club.
Of the uncertainty proof, the ghost of Sy Ableman says “Except that I know what’s going on. How do you explain? … I’ll concede that it’s subtle. It’s clever. But at the end of the day, is it convincing?” Larry: “Well, yes it’s convincing. It’s a proof. It’s mathematics.” Sy: “Excuse me, Larry. Mathematics is the art of the possible.” Larry: “I don’t think so. The art of the possible, that’s, I can’t remember, something else.” As it happens, that’s politics . We’re political rather than mathematical animals. That’s why, as Jefferson Airplane tells us throughout the film, “When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies,” you don’t reevaluate your initial equations, but want somebody to love.
Dana Stevens also says “a familiarity with Jewish arcana would no doubt help you to pick up on the jokes embedded in every scene.” Maybe. The film opens with a quotation from Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” That’s Rashi’s gloss on Deuteronomy 18:13, “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your God.” To be wholehearted, “There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire, a soothsayer, a diviner of [auspicious] times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer … For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord” (18:10-12). Actually, there is a soothsayer around Larry. His brother Arthur has compiled something called “The Mentaculus,” a series of equations that form “a probability map of the universe.” Judging from Arthur’s success at cards, it actually does predict the future — but Arthur is worse off than Larry (and apparently more abominable before the Lord).
There’s also, maybe, an interpreter of omens. “These are signs and tokens,” Sy tells Larry when he brings him a bottle of wine to smooth things over for stealing Larry’s wife. And Sy invites Larry to a restaurant called Embers to talk about future arrangements. (And perhaps Larry’s wife is putting the kids through a sort of fire with the divorce.)
But interpreting omens is stupid. Why look for messages on the backs of people’s teeth when their mouths can actually speak to you? Rabbi Nachtner is right when he says:
The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from Hashem, don’t know. Helping others, couldn’t hurt. … We can’t know everything. … These questions that are bothering you, Larry — maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away. … We all want the answer, But Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.
As Rashi puts it: “Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him, and do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with simplicity and then, you will be with Him and to His portion.” Or, as Rabbi Marshak says at the end of the film, “When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies, then what? … Be a good boy.“
Larry’s not a serious man because he’s too serious a man. (Or something like that.) He’s sort of an anti-Job: While Job insists his sufferings are undeserved (and his three friends assume Job must have sinned because the Lord is just), Larry assumes the universe must be just (while the three rabbis insist it’s all a mystery). And at the end of Larry’s story, when God arrives in a whirlwind, He seems to be saying that sometimes He does pay attention. Or maybe not; that’s not really clear: All we know is that Larry does something bad just before something bad happens to him. We might surmise it’s divine punishment — though it seems wildly disproportionate — but, in the end, we can’t know everything.
A further thought: When Larry, standing on his roof, spies Mrs. Samsky sunbathing naked, it recalls 2 Samuel 11, in which David, on the roof of the palace, sees Bathsheba bathing naked. Unlike David, Larry does not bed Mrs. Samsky, though he has a guilty dream about it.