Monday, January 11, 2010

Dem Milners Trern (A Second Viewing, with Dangerous Consequences)


I went to see the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man again last night. My brother Matt was in town for the holidays, and I had been telling him to see this film for the past couple months, so we finally went last night. He will fly back to Seattle tomorrow thinking about a lot of things: God, suffering, meaningfulness, death, morality, etc. The film raises questions and refuses to provide answers. A question beckons a question, which beckons more questions, and even more after that.

But we don't need the Coens' subjective answer, they are only the tellers of the parable. If we do not understand their story, they are not required to explain it to us. But, hopefully, whoever sees this movie will leave the theater asking themselves a few deep questions. Currently, I'm asking myself about morality, and what God has to do with it. Do we (humans) determine morality, or does God?

When Danny walks towards rabbi Marshak's desk and passes by a painting of Abraham and Isaac, he reacts with a sort of uneasiness, maybe even fearfulness. But when Abraham held up the knife to bring it down upon his only son, this was the defining moment of morality and ethics in all of Biblical and ethical history. This was the moment when an amoral God proved himself to be thus, and a human being violated moral norms for the sake of faith in the amoral God.

This was the moment in which a man experienced a teleological suspension of the ethical. Kierkegaard writes in Fear and Trembling:

The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he was willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac; but in this contradiction lies the very anguish that can indeed make one sleepless; and yet without that anguish Abraham is not the one he is [the Knight of Faith].

Abraham's readiness to commit murder seems absurd, and indeed, it was certainly that. But his determination to follow God's commands regardless of their ethical standing is what made him a hero of faith. This can easily be taken out of context and applied to radicals who fly airplanes into skyscrapers and wear explosive undergarments for religious delusions, but those radicals forget about reality. Abraham we know through story and not reality. And there is a very important difference between story and reality.

In A Serious Man, Larry explains a principle of quantum mechanics to a class of college students through the story of Schrodinger's Cat. The story helps students understand the underlying reality, but the story itself is not something that applies to macrobiotic phenomena. One of his students even tells him "I understand the story of the cat, just not the math." Larry responds: "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." So when it comes to God and ethics, how does that really work?

Kierkegaard put us in Abraham's shoes, which really gives a sense of dread as to what anguish the man must have felt as he walked up the mountain with the command from God to kill Isaac. The story is often interpreted from pulpits on Sunday mornings as an example of how God will "test" his followers. They may apply the same sorts of lessons to the Book of Job, explaining the omniscient God to be one who allows "trial" to befall even the righteous and faithful. The sermons usually end with an admonishment of perseverance, not giving up on God and staying the course.

These may be fine lessons for those seeking a positive perspective during troubling times (sometimes experiencing a new parking lot is enough to ease the mind of a weary traveler), but there is a deeper truth underneath these stories that mustn't be missed for the glaze.

God gave laws to men because he knew they would break them. He has no laws himself, and follows no guiding principle. He cannot determine what is ethical, only humans can. He merely drops down laws upon us like flooding rains, concepts that may or may not be representations of his character that simultaneously trouble and alleviate us. Some of what God drops is quite horrifying, and humans have long wrestled with problems of evil as a result. But this wrestling usually comes from a belief that God is ethical. But God cannot be ethical, for ethics is a practice in balancing extremes. God has no need to balance, he is perfect.

If we remember Job, there was no sense of fairness in God's decision-making process. Fairness, which is often grouped along with "balance" (especially in America), cannot be attributed to God here. If a human understanding of ethics is applied to God in the stories of Abraham and Job, he becomes nothing more than a divine madman. In Jung's Answer to Job, Carl Jung reminds us of what God knowingly allowed to happen to Job:

One must bear in mind here the dark deeds that follow one another in quick succession: robbery, murder, bodily injury with premeditation, and denial of a fair trial. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Yahweh displays no compunction, remorse, or compassion, but only ruthlessness and brutality. The plea of unconsciousness is invalid, seeing at he flagrantly violates at least three of the command­ments he himself gave out on Mount Sinai.

When God gave the 10 commandments, he gave them to humans who had the capacity to either break or follow them. God cannot break or follow these commandments though. So when Jung claims that God violates three of his own commandments, he brings up a huge ethical point.

Remembering that these are stories, not factual accounts but parables that help us determine underlying truths, the fact that God violates his own commandments in the stories of Abraham and Job reveals his amorality. That is, God is not bound by ethics in the sense that humans are. There are times when humans must decide for themselves what decision they must make. Ethics is defined:

that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

"Human conduct" is the key. There is a lie about the Bible often thrown about by politicians that the book is a final moral authority. The Bible is nothing of the sort. There are stories in the Bible which may lead one to spiritual enlightenment and moral sensitivity, but there is also ambiguity, violence and poetry.

There is a strange moment in A Serious Man when the Arthur character throws a fit over what God has given him in his life. He moans and weeps, "HaShem hasn't given me shit!" Larry tries to comfort Arthur, but in the midst of the "it's alrights" and "everything will fines", Larry says "sometimes you have to help yourself."

Perhaps it has something to do with the adage, 'don't work, don't eat,' but the Coens were probably saying something much more profound about "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away." Because Arthur is right, God gives humans everything, but sometimes won't even give them shit. But on the other hand, Larry is right too. There are times when a human must make good for themselves, regardless of what God has given. The two most vital things we have that cannot be given to us by God are faith and ethics. Faith, that leap into the absurd that offers no answers but regularly beckons more doubts and questions. And ethics, the process by which humans conduct themselves in a society. God does not give us these things, he lets us decide for ourselves whether or not we want them.

But, of course, God still watches us. He even interacts with us in mysterious ways. We dare not deny his existence, but we are fearful of the extent to which he may wrestle with our mortal being. Who has the courage to ask Him, "why?"? What man would think to question His reckless authority over the universe? Perhaps we should not ask Him ethical questions at all, but where then does that leave our faith? In an absurdity? Or something worse?

A recurring song in A Serious Man, Dem Milners Trern, tells the story of a Jewish man who has grown old and has not yet received life's answers. Most viewers cannot understand the Yiddish, but translated lyrics reveal the somber tone that matches the film:

oh how many years
have passed
since i've been a miller here
the wheels turn
the years pass
i'm growing old and grey.

there are days
i want to remember
if i had a little happiness?
the wheels turn
the years pass
i don't get any answers

i heard it said
they want to drive me out
away from my village and away from the mill
the wheels turn
the years pass
without an end, without a goal

where will i live?
who will care for me?
i'm already old, i'm already tired
the wheels turn
the years pass
and with them, also go the jews

No goal? No answers? Perhaps this is true on our last day on earth, but what then do we say of mathematics? And moments of peace and joy? God mustn't be a man's source of all things. There may be times of blessing and times of sorrow, but God is not responsible for all of it.

There is a human responsibility, but God has no responsibility. But that doesn't mean He doesn't need us just as much as we need Him. After all, how can a savior exist if he has nothing to save? We are an important part of God's existence. We show Him what it looks like to have faith. Through us, God can see ethical systems of the sort He will never be able to create.

It is true, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. But it is also true, he who does not work, does not eat. The things God gives and takes are unknown to us, but our self-awareness can allow us to maintain morality and faith. God will not take away our option to do right or wrong. Will he punish us? That's up for debate as well. As if Larry didn't say it enough, whether it was in regards to his marriage, his job, or the Columbia Record club, "I didn't do anything!" So when Larry changed the grade, when he actually did something, did he bring God's actual wrath upon him?

What is justice? It is not the hammer that God brings down from Heaven, but a system according to man. It has been forever changing and adapting to its present time, restructuring itself so as to withhold the concept of ethics. It is the preservation of human freedom, not the preservation of God's sovereignty. (He doesn't need our help with that.)

I will not claim anything as right or wrong according to God's law. God is perfect, not right or wrong. I am right or wrong, and I will strive for balance. I pray that God will have mercy on me as I go, and that I might have faith regardless of the meaningless years that continue to pass. If you join me, perhaps we will have ethics. If not, "Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil."

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