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Job goes to the movies

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By Rabbi Philip Graubart

LA JOLLA, California –Last month I saw the Coen Brothers new movie A Serious Man. I was curious because I’d heard both Coens’ claim that the movie was their take on the biblical story of Job – and I, I must admit, am a Job fanatic – a follower of all things Job.

And there is some resemblance between Job and A Serious Man.  Both stories concern a series of misfortunes that afflict an innocent person.  Job – “blameless,” righteous – loses his wealth, health and family all in one very bad day.  Larry, the main character in the film, loses his wife to an extra-marital affair; struggles with sudden health issues; suffers from job insecurity; and wrestles with a series of comically depressing family issues, from a wacky, self-destructive brother, to a sullen, un-loving teenage daughter, to a rebellious, obnoxious bar-mitzvah boy son.  Both stories feature ambiguous endings.  Job concludes with God’s mysterious appearance “out of the whirlwind,” which resolves none of the spiritual issues – suggesting that yes, God is responsible for evil, but that we can never really know why.  A Serious Man concludes with a tornado which may or may not destroy the town; a serious diagnosis that may or may not be deadly; and a sense that supernatural forces may be responsible for our suffering, but then again, maybe not – maybe it’s all blind fate.

On the other hand, there are significant differences between the stories.  The character Job really is blameless – even Satan admits it.  But Larry’s a neglectful husband and a clueless dad, so he brings on at least some of his misfortunes (one critic re-titled the movie “When Annoying Things Happen to Annoying People.”).

Also, the endings do diverge greatly.  While the Coen Brothers message of “who knows?” is, in fact, a serious approach to an unfathomable problem, and I admire their attempt to grapple with metaphysical issues (though, it must be said, much of the movies seems to be their cruel, frankly unfunny attempts to get back at some boring Hebrew School teachers), from a spiritual perspective, the movie leaves us cold.  Job also teaches “who knows?” but at the same time offers a glimpse of transcendent possibilities.  We finish Job not understanding why God does what God does, but still feeling the power of God’s infinitely complex word.  We finish watching A Serious Man without the slightest hint that there’s anything significant out there at all beyond our petty lives, and annoying concerns.  A Serious Man is really more Sartre than Job – but not even a particularly interesting exploration of Sartre.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I actually caught another movie which does a much better job at recreating Job, but in a fully comic vein: Bruce Almighty,starring Jim Carrey.  The set-up is similar: a simple guy – Bruce, a newscaster – suddenly afflicted with serious problems.  But, like Job – and unlike Larry – Bruce explicitly complains to God.  And, as in Job, God shows up to defend Himself (God’s a He in the film – Morgan Freeman).  And here the resemblance to Job is so remarkable, I have to imagine that the writers at least thought about the biblical story, though they didn’t brag about it to the press.  Because God’s defense in the film is that He’s very, very busy.  You trying being God, Morgan Freeman demands of Jim Carrey.  Which is very similar to God’s challenge to Job at the end of the biblical book: “Where were you when I created the world?”

But the best part of Bruce Almighty is the message that comes at the end.  After numerous madcap scenes of a comically overwhelmed Jim Carrey, dealing with billions of prayers, petty and grand, God reappears and gives away the true moral of the film, and still the best response to suffering.  “I’ve given you world,” Morgan Freeman intones, with a wry twinkle in his eye, “it’s your responsibility to make the best of it.”   And while this line has the creaky sound of a Hollywood cliché, it’s not so far from the actual message of the Book of Job.

The key to understanding this strange book, it seems to me, is realizing that God never answers Job’s questions, or responds to his challenges.  Instead God, like Morgan Freeman at the end of the movie, changes the subject.  You ask about suffering, God says, and you wonder why I allow it, but I prefer to discuss this grand world I created, with stars and planets; wondrous wildlife, like eagles and lions; and truly terrifying, supernatural creatures like Behemoth and The Sea Monster.  You, God says, direct my attention to your suffering, but I direct your attention to the broad and terrifying Universe, too gigantic for the human mind to comprehend.  Ultimately what we learn is that there’s more to the world then we can imagine, and therefore more power within us that we previously thought.  Job wants answers, but God gives him what he really needs: a glimpse of infinity, and therefore the possibility of transcendence. And with that possibility, we can respond to suffering – either our own, or to others – with concrete actions, courage and generosity.   As Morgan Freeman’s God might say, I gave you a world with infinite possibilities.  It’s your job to dig down deep and find something to relieve the suffering.

This is not only a more inspirational message than A Serious Man’s,it’s also truer to life.  The film ends (spoiler alert!) with a cancer diagnosis.  But as any cancer survivor knows, in the real world, the diagnosis is just the beginning of the story. The rest contains pain and suffering, but also caring, intelligent doctors, generous friends, loving families, brilliant scientists searching for cures, moments of bliss and ease, communities offering prayers, unexpected acts of lovingkindness.  More good, and more power, in other words, than we ever knew existed, no matter what the outcome.  The Coen Brothers void actually strikes me as more fictitious, less believable, than Morgan Freeman’s promise, or Job’s transcendent glimpse.  Something is out there for sure, Job reminds us, strong and great, even if it’s only our striving, imperfect generosity, and the love of those around us.

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Rabbi Graubart is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El.  His ongoing column will explore  God’s role in our lives and in our world.

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