Some months ago I took a train to the north of Chicago to visit an old writer at his home. I had written an article about him for my university’s paper and had become rather enamored on his writing in the process. The essay of his that I had found most enrapturing concerned his wife’s advanced dementia and the death of his parents, ending on the line, “All any of us can do is show our love for each other – while we yet have the time.”
Yet, the man I met that day was nothing like the man I had expected to meet. He lacked the grandfatherly sentimentality of his essays. He was a man like many men. He spoke ordinary words. There was a coarseness to him, roughness from decades of life. It ran through the wrinkles of his skin, yes, but also through his speech, through what he said and how he said it. He said most of the great essayists he admired were dead. He said matter-of-factly, without any particular inflection, that his wife’s condition was only going to get worse. It struck me, while on the train ride back, that this wise writer was a serious man.
Who and what a serious man is, exactly, eludes quick definition. Somehow, though, I can recognize when I have met one, often after hours and in some cases years of retrospection. My father, for example, is a serious man, though the aspects of his seriousness I have only come to grasp in the course of my own maturation. Yet, what I mean by a serious man is not characterized by humorlessness or stolidity or even masculinity itself. There assuredly are women who fit the ‘serious man’ motif. Being a serious man is certainly a disposition rather than a singular emotional state, defined by essence as well as conduct. This disposition involves facing up to suffering and one’s own relative smallness with both courageous acceptance and un-enfeebled hope. It is a disposition that reminds me, most immediately, of the book of Job.
In an attempt to answer the question “What does it mean to be a serious man?” I want to explore this ancient Hebrew account of one man’s response to immense suffering as well as the relevantly-titled film A Serious Man, produced by the Coen Brothers as an oblique re-telling of the book of Job set in an American Jewish community in the 1960s. Through this exploration, I hope to uncover some of the defining aspects of the ‘serious man’ motif and grapple with the problem of suffering, which seems to go hand in hand with the story of any serious man.
The Man Behind the Book: Job
The book of Job belongs to the wisdom literature of Hebrew scripture and presents the account of a man who suffers greatly despite his righteousness. The book of Job, part folk tale and part dramatic poem, essentially aims to answer the theologically mind-bending question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, which can be thought of as a reformulation of the problem of evil. Thus, Job’s narrative constitutes a theodicy, an explanation of how God and evil can coexist.
Yet, the book is no theological treatise, for Job’s tale is a personal and moving one. The book is, after all, Job’s book, and it rightly begins with a description of who he is as a man: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (1:1). Job’s life is prosperous: he has land and many heads of livestock and children for whom he makes cautionary offerings to God, reasoning that “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts” (1:5). However, Job lives in land in which Satan goes to and fro, and when this satanic figure challenges Job’s righteousness by claiming that Job serves God only because he has been blessed with possessions and health, Job’s servitude and confidence in God are put to the test. In a rapid sequence of grave misfortunes—some natural and some perpetrated by other humans—Job is deprived of his land, his horticultural welfare, his progeny, and his bodily health (in 2:7). What is Job’s response to this cataclysmic personal suffering?
“Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (1:20-21)
Despite horrendous suffering, Job surrenders himself to the will of God, recognizing that what he has lost was not his inherently, but rather gifts of God’s benevolence, possessions which he would lose in death at any rate. Thus begins the discussion of what it means to be a serious man.
Though Job acknowledges God’s sovereignty, he struggles to cope with his anxiety at an existential level. In the remaining forty or so chapters, Job continues to lament his suffering and seeks an explanation through a series of speeches delivered by him and his three friends. We are reminded by the narrator that Job “did not sin or charge God with any wrong” (1:22), which confounds the theological sense of the group, which understands suffering as a punishment for sin. Thus, the trio of friends challenge Job’s claim to innocence and righteousness, for God punishes only the sinful.
Throughout the discourse, several thoughts are voiced that shed light on Job’s seriousness. First, Job does not ignore the weight of his suffering or refuse to confront the sorrow of his condition, which would amount to quietism; that is, doing nothing in the face of life’s struggles. Like most people, he demands answers. However, his refusal to content himself with simplistic solutions sets him apart. Though his friends repeat conventional wisdom about God’s retributive justice against sinners, Job desires “to speak to the Almighty and to argue [his] case with God” (13:3). Though the statement can be seen as hubristic and brash, Job’s desire for an audience with God seems to have more to do with his longing for definite answers than it does with his insistence on being mistreating before God. For Job, his friends’ threadbare answers are insubstantial compared to the eternal decrees of the Almighty, as Job describes: “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay” (13:12). These strongly ephemeral terms of “ashes” and “clay” evoke a major thematic push of the book as a whole: the lives of humans are fleeting and insignificant before the grandeur of God. Job grapples with this unsettling notion directly rather than talking around the issue, saying, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope. . . . As the cloud vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.” (7:6, 9). Very much in the vein of the book of Ecclesiastes, Job laments the ephemerality of life and the final separation from the world in death. Perhaps Job’s ability to face up to his relative powerlessness allows him to comprehend a world in which God’s rule—not his own—is supreme. And yet, a final aspect of Job’s seriousness causes him to extend his suffering beyond himself. Rather, than localizing his suffering, Job is concerned with a universal injustice, as he questions, “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (21:8). This universal worry is only assuaged by a universal answer. First in the voice of Elihu, a younger man who has joined the discussion, and later in the voice of the Lord Himself, God’s divine knowledge and supremacy are adduced to explain God’s ability to adjudicate on matters of justice hidden to humans. In the words of Elihu: “If it were His intention and he withdrew His spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to dust” (34:14-15).
After accepting God’s supremacy, Job is vindicated, thereby demonstrating God’s ultimately just treatment of the righteous man; his prosperity is restored twofold and he dies “old and full of days” (42:17).
Job’s seriousness, then, is built upon his encounter with suffering, to which he responds in a committed, forthright, and humble manner. Though he cannot expect to avoid suffering, he can make sense of it by framing suffering under the direction of an all-knowing God. This same message—that righteousness does not free one from suffering (but, perhaps, prepares one for it)—surfaces poignantly in a scene from Terrance Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, which portrays the American campaign against the Japanese in the battle of Guadalcanal during the Second World War. In the scene, the disembodied voice of a dead Japanese soldier speaks to his transfixed American enemy:
Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was. Do you imagine that your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness? Truth?
No. It would seem that righteousness does not disengage one from worldly suffering. Seriousness, though, may equip one to combat it.
A Serious Man
With these basic criteria for the ‘serious man’ motif, I’d like now to turn to A Serious Man. The film centers on a small-town, Jewish professor of physics named Larry Gopnik, whose life is suddenly upended by a series of tragedies mirroring those of Job: his family is taken from him as his wife demands a get (Jewish divorce) and his unassuming brother is accused of gambling and sodomy; his livelihood is threatened by the uncertainty of receiving tenure and a student’s attempt to bribe him; his land is threatened by a domineering neighbor; and, he begins to question where Hashem (God) is and what He wants from him. The movie unfolds masterfully, cycling between Larry’s familial rupture exacerbated by the intrusion of his wife’s lover, Sy Ableman, his work life confused by financial worries, his search for spiritual guidance from three Rabbis (à la Job’s three friends) and his son Danny’s preparation for his bar mitzvah. Not only does the movie build off of the book of Job, it also engages with other compelling Jewish archetypes, including the relationship of father and son (seen especially when Danny, newly bar-miztvahed, walks into the office of the elder Rabbi Marshak, from which his father has been excluded, and passes a conspicuous painting of the Binding of Isaac), the temptation of King David (seen when Larry, standing on his roof top to fix the ever-problematic TV antenna, glances at his neighbor’s wife sunbathing naked), and Jewish chosen-ness (expressed by Rabbi Nachtner in his frequent references to non-Jews as goys). What it means to be a serious man, however, remains a primary focus of the film.
Interesting to note is that Larry, the presumed eponymous “Serious Man,” is not once referred to as such. His refrain, much like Job’s, is “I haven’t done anything.” He does stumble to say, “I’ve, I’ve tried to be a serious man.” However, only Sy Ableman is referred to as a serious man by both himself and Rabbi Nachtner, likely on account of his commanding presence. Yet, he employs circumlocution to avoid talking directly about the extent of his involvement with Larry’s wife—very much in contrast to Job’s forthright engagement with suffering.
The only other character who describes himself as a serious man is the Yiddish husband from the enigmatic opening to the movie, which involves a Jewish couple welcoming a traveler into their home. Here, the man’s declaration of himself as serious stands in contrast to the superstition of his wife, who suspects that the visitor is a dybbuk (a sort of malevolent spirit). Does this mean that a serious man is a rational man, a man who reasons toward truth? A later scene in the movie suggests that the man intent on rationalizing everything, oddly enough, is the one most likely to be perplexed by the world and be too incapacitated by uncertainty to face the world seriously. As Larry stands before a board chalked with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, he announces, oxymoronically, that what we know is that everything is uncertain—we can never really know what’s going on. The spectral Sy Ableman, though, retorts “one can see it’s subtle, clever, but is it convincing?”
While reason may resolve logical dilemmas, Larry, like Job, needs something more existentially convincing to conquer suffering.
While the movie deals with serious tragedy, it is not without humor, which seems to show that a serious man need not be humorless. Rather than a means of brushing away questions, the movie’s humor tends to illuminate seriousness. For example, when Larry consults the ebullient junior rabbi with his concerns about losing track of God, he is told to look at the world through a fresh set of eyes, that even a parking lot can evoke the wonder of God if considered with the perspective of “someone who isn’t familiar with these autos and such.”
The scene recalls the superficial responses of Job’s friends, though it is not without truth—God is present everywhere. The problem, really, is in the presentation, which is decidedly unserious.
Two further details add some clarity to the Coen’s take on suffering and seriousness. First, an epigram appears on screen before the prologue, an old Jewish saying: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” What is this? An injunction against over-interpretation? A command to bear through suffering without giving it much thought? Maybe it’s simpler than that.
Second, the movie ends on a brilliantly-executed dual cliffhanger: Larry’s doctor, whom he has seen at the film’s opening, requests an in-person meeting to discuess some foreboding X-rays; meanwhile, Danny stands before a gargantuan, grey tornado, as dark and obscure as his father’s potential prognosis. With an understanding of Job, the scene carries prominent theological meaning: first, Job’s children are killed by “a mighty wind,” and the storm threatens to do the same to Larry’s son. Second, in the Hebrew scripture, God speaks to Job from the tempest, reminding him of his uncertain human knowledge. Thus, the torrent in the film might stand both for destruction and divine knowledge. And what message emanates from the storm? The words of the film’s title song by Jefferson Airplane, listened to by Danny throughout the film and uttered by the rabbinically wise Marshak as Danny enters the office: “You gotta find somebody to love.”
A simple message, indeed.
In the foreword to a collection of short stories titled Slow Learner, the postmodern writer Thomas Pynchon asserts that a serious man is one who writes about serious issues, namely death and suffering. It seems, though, that what one writes about does not suffice. Rather, how one writes is what matters, for humor that resorts to escapism and simplistic remarks that seep with sentimentality cannot do justice to the problem of suffering, which is perhaps the central problem of human life. Similarly, a serious man is not defined merely by what one does but how one does it, for what a serious man does is clear—he bears through suffering. What makes him a serious man is how he does so—with the understanding that his suffering is not somehow special, but rather a part of a universal scheme, to put the matter a bit crudely.
But, the film’s ending reminds us that more is called of the serious man: he is called, simply, to love. Though the command may seem simple, its truth lies in its presentation. A love that is humble, committed, and selfless. A love that is serious. Like that of Jesus, who, through his selflessness and example as suffering servant, is undoubtedly a serious man. So, I am reminded of the words of another serious man I met not too long ago: “All any of us can do is show our love for each other – while we yet have the time.”
Cum Caritate (With Love),
 All quotations are from The New Revised Version of the Bible.
 I make this distinction to demonstrate that both natural and manmade evils befall Job, meaning that no single agent acting maliciously against Job; rather, the entire system of the world has, for the moment, conspired against his material well-being.
 To convince, deriving from the Latin vincere “to conquer”