Brittany Brooks is a senior from Midland City, Alabama, who is majoring in Religious Studies and minoring in Anthropology. She has a beautiful, lovable, four pound sister named “Eva the Diva” and enjoys the “awesomeness” that is taught in the Department. This post was originally written for Dr. Sarah Rollens’ course, REL 360: Popular Culture/ Public Humanities.
The Indie film A Serious Man is a work that is fascinating, perplexing, gloomy, and funny all at the same time! It tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a seemingly normal physics professor, and the randomly negative series of events that seem to rock his world; consequently, these unfavorable events leave him asking “Why?” As Larry pursues the meaning of his many misfortunes, he winds up empty-handed, much like many of us baffled viewers. While I did not have an explanation for Larry’s woes, what I did take away from A Serious Man is the idea that perspective, which is often based on one’s beliefs, assumptions, and/or opinions, will heavily influence any meaning any person tries to construct out of anything.
The quest for meaning for Larry led him to different characters throughout the film, each with varying perspectives. One character is Rabbi Scott, the first rabbi Larry sees, who likens life to a parking lot:
Rabbi Scott: I mean, the parking lot here. Not much to see. It is a different angle on the same parking lot we saw from the Hebrew school window. But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn’t familiar with these… autos and such… somebody still with a capacity for wonder… Someone with a fresh… perspective. That’s what it is, Larry.
Larry Gopnik: Um…
Rabbi Scott: Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world. He is in the world, not just in shul. It sounds to me like you’re looking at the world, looking at your wife, through tired eyes. It sounds like she’s become a sort of… thing… a problem… a thing…
Rabbi Scott’s idea of the “right perspective” is based on his belief that life is open and mysterious with many possibilities; so, instead of complaining about the many unpleasant situations life may bring one’s way, he or she should accept all adversity as coming from Hashem. Because of Rabbi Scott’s beliefs, his perspective of the meaning of Larry’s woes has everything to do with God and his unknowable plans.
Another character whose beliefs affect the perspective he has for Larry’s crumbling life is the Rabbi Nachtner, the second rabbi. This guy gives Larry a random story with no apparent point nor connection to any of Larry’s situations. Larry questions the relevancy of the story, but the rabbi insists, “We can’t know everything.” Larry desperately wants an answer but the rabbi provides him with nada:
Rabbi Nachtner: …These questions that are bothering you, Larry – maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away.
Larry Gopnik: I don’t want it to just go away! I want an answer!
Rabbi Nachtner: Sure! 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.
Larry Gopnik: Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna give us any answers?
Rabbi Nachtner: He hasn’t told me.
[Larry puts his face in his hands in despair]
Larry Gopnik: And… what happened to the goy?
Rabbi Nachtner: The goy? Who cares?
The rabbi’s belief? Do not seek the answer to the question “Why”. His belief directly impacts his perspective that Larry should not construct meaning out of his situation.
A final example of the relationship of perspective to meaning comes from Danny’s brother Arthur. Arthur has health problems, no family, no home of his own, and a bit of trouble with law enforcement. After moving into the Jolly Rogers motel with Larry after the two were “kicked out” of the Gopnik home and seeing firsthand the effects of Larry’s separation, Arthur still believes Larry’s situation is wonderful. He breaks down to Larry about how Larry has everything and he has nothing. It is easy to see that Arthur’s perspective of Larry’s situation is obviously different from Larry’s, other characters’ in the film, and the audiences’. Many looking at Larry’s life see how it seems to be falling apart, but because of Arthur’s opinion of what constitutes a “good life,” his perspective is that his brother has it all; this, in turn, affects the meaning he gives to his life as well as to Larry’s.
Although A Serious Man gives absolutely no answers to the age-old question “Why?”, it does highlight throughout various perspectives that affect one’s idea of meaning. This process is something we see played out every day all around us. Just check out, for example, the numerous meanings given across the spectrum for anything from murder sprees to youth deaths to natural disasters, which are all based on perspective, and you will definitely see this common strategy at play. A person’s beliefs, assumptions, and/or opinions are going to influence his or her perspective, which will directly impact the meaning he or she constructs for any and every situation.