Comparison and Contrast Between A Serious Man and The Book of Job Plus Schrodinger’s Paradox Just for Fun
A Serious Man poses some questions of Biblical proportion: What does God want from me? Are the bad things that happen some sort of a sign? Am I righteous? What have I done to deserve this agony?
Larry, a physics professor who teaches the theory of uncertainty, begins to live it. According to Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox, which appears among the physics equations on the board in Larry’s classroom, a cat is placed in a box with a flask which may or may not break and emit radioactive poison. According to quantum physics as long as we don’t check to see what happened to the cat there is a superposition of states in which the cat exists in every possible state simultaneously. In other words, until you open the box and look the cat is both alive and dead – a quantum system that is a mixture of states.
The simultaneous car accidents in which one man lives and one man dies sort of echo this theme of alive and dead, as does the story of the Dybbuk at the beginning of the film. The two scenes in the synagogue juxtapose a funeral followed by a bar mitzvah. Larry does seem a bit like the cat in the box being acted upon rather than acting, uncertain whether he is spiritually dead or alive. Larry has no context for answers, only questions, confusion, and pain.
Several reviews say the film is “loosely based” on the Book of Job. It does seem to re-frame some of the themes and characters. As readers of Job we are privy to the reasons for Job’s suffering and are given God’s response to Job’s questioning, while the reasons behind Larry’s misfortune go unanswered. But throughout the course of his troubles Job himself, like Larry, has no idea why so much tragedy has befallen him.
Job’s three friends assume he must be guilty of something to be experiencing this misfortune. Larry visits three Rabbis who offer no explanation. One gives him an inane allegory, the second an inscrutable story with no explanation, and the third, who we are told is wisest, is unavailable to Larry but does talk with his son after the bar mitzvah. The ancient Rabbi delivers his message (if it is a message) to Larry’s son in the form of Jefferson Airplane lyrics: “When the truth is found to be lies, And all the joy within you dies, Don’t you want somebody to love.”
According to Matthue Roth, who reviews A Serious Man from a Jewish perspective, “Talmud [is] 15,000 pages long, it’s filled with complex debates that are all replies to relatively straightforward questions — and the most maddening part is, three quarters of the time, there are no direct answers. The Talmud is the worst kind of mystery: the kind that finishes with an open-ended conclusion.”
The film ends with a tornado coming towards Larry’s child and a scourge about to overtake Larry’s body; both experiences echo Job’s. What Larry does not experience in A Serious Man is the encounter with God or the subsequent restoration. In essence, the Coen Brothers don’t open the box so we can find out whether Larry is dead of alive. The questions left hanging brought to mind Ecclesiastes more than Job: “All is meaningless and chasing after wind.”
In Job a fourth friend, Elihu, dismisses the accusations and explanations of the other three, telling Job that sometimes God lovingly uses pain to help man escape an ultimate spiritual death. He also tells Job that he should stop pleading righteousness and accusing God of unfairness. Larry’s repeated insistence that “I didn’t do anything” is reminiscent of Job’s plaintive declaration of his own righteousness and questioning of God’s justice. In light of who we are compared with everyone else this might carry weight, but in light of who we are compared with God, this is pride. Eventually God himself shows up, and, after giving Job a lesson in humility, makes sure that Job understands the difference between himself and God. Job’s response is “I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” In other words, Job is willing to stop questioning God.
Perhaps the quote at the very beginning of A Serious Man could relate a bit to this final idea in Job. It was written by Rashi, a 9th century French rabbi whose commentaries on the Talmud might affect Jewish thought in a similar way that Augustine’s theology influences Christian thought. Rashi says, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” This is not so far from the message of Elihu to Job, which is reiterated to Job by God himself in the last few chapters of Job. It boils down to this: You are not God and don’t always get to know why.