Arts & Culture

Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski: One of the Lamed Vovnik?

In the Book of Genesis, the author tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities destroyed by God’s wrath for their unrepentant lasciviousness. Before hellfire and brimstone rain down on the twin towns, Abraham, God’s chosen dude, argues with … Read More

By / October 6, 2009

In the Book of Genesis, the author tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities destroyed by God’s wrath for their unrepentant lasciviousness.

Before hellfire and brimstone rain down on the twin towns, Abraham, God’s chosen dude, argues with the Almighty not to destroy them. God, in turn, agrees not to lay them to waste so long as Abraham can prove there are fifty righteous souls living there. When Abe has a hard time coming up with fifty, he bargains with God to accept forty-five innocents, then thirty, then twenty, and finally a measly ten. When God’s avenging angels can find only one righteous man—Abraham’s nephew Lot—between two cities, God cues the sulfur rain and the cities go up in flames, though Lot is spared.

The account of Sodom and Gomorrah gave rise to the lore of the Lamed Vovnik. According to various Kabbalistic teachings, at any given time in history there are 36 righteous people upon whom the fate of the world rests. If even one of them were to perish, God would destroy the world. The Lamed Vovnik (also known as menschen in Yiddish) don’t know the identity of one another and in fact don’t even know that they themselves are counted among the righteous three dozen. Sometimes the Lamed Vovnik appear to be humble fools—slackers or burnouts, in the parlance of our time—but the rest of us should take heed: we never know when we might meet one of the thirty-six so we should treat everyone as if the fate of the world rests on their unassuming shoulders. If ever there was a Lamed Vovnik in the annals of celluloid history, it’s Jeffrey "the Dude" Lebowski of Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult classic The Big Lebowski. As the film opens, a tumbleweed floats through the streets of Los Angeles. Down from the Hollywood Hills, it rolls past Benito’s burrito stand, to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, dreamlike, and we hear the voice of The Stranger (Sam Elliot), deep and drawling like the Marlboro Man—or, perhaps, the Metatron (according to Rabbinic tradition, the angel who is God’s celestial scribe)—beginning to tell a tale for the ages:

… sometimes a man —I won’t say a hee-ro, ’cause what’s a hee-ro?—but sometimes there’s a man. (and I’m talkin’ about the Dude here) sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time ‘n place, he fits right in there—and that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he’s a lazy man, and the Dude was certainly that—quite the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide—but sometimes there’s a man. . . sometimes there’s a man.

The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a simple, unsuspecting fellow; that much is certain. An aging hippie antihero. A mellow, pot-smoking, bowling burn-out who lives alone in a modest apartment in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles—the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah where individualism, instant-gratification, materialism, objectification, and unchecked aggression rule the day. The Dude—or Duder, His Dudeness or El Duderino, if you’re not into that whole brevity thing—is a walking anachronism and a kindly soul. He is an ideologue, a passionate pacifist who loves his friends, judges not, and mostly minds his own business. "Live and let live" is his philosophy. But he has a firm moral center. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong and isn’t afraid to stand up for the cause of love and peace.

After two thugs break into his house, knock him around, give him a swirlie in the toilet, and pee on his Oriental rug, the Dude turns to his two closest confidents and bowling teammates, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi), for consolation, if not guidance. Walter, a hulking man who proudly wears his dog tags from his days in the Vietnam War, is bombastic, quick-tempered and dogmatic. Donny, on the other hand, is a complete innocent; a childlike, wan wisp of a man for whom Walter has great affection, if no patience. “Shut the fuck up, Donny! …You’re out of your element!” is a frequent refrain any time Donny dares to speak his mind or ask a question.

Through every twist and turn of The Big Lebowski‘s wacky plot, which includes several bowling-themed dream sequences, the Dude always tries to do the right—or righteous—thing. He’s unfailingly kind. When Donny dies of a heart attack during an attack by a band of would-be nihilists, the Dude accompanies Walter to a promontory to scatter his ashes, which they’ve carried from the mortuary in a coffee can. And as Walter delivers his eulogy, laced with nonsensical references to the Vietnam War that Donny didn’t fight in, and manages to scatter the ashes all over the Dude, the Dude gets momentarily angry—"Everything’s a fucking travesty with you, Walter!"

But even then, the menschy Dude ends up giving the big lug a hug.

On the path to the plot’s conclusion, the Dude is pummeled time and again, like a martyr for the cause of righteousness. He’s beaten by pornographer Jackie Treehorn’s thugs on at least two occasions, verbally assaulted by his corrupt-if-not-evil namesake "The Big Lebowski," attacked by marmot-wielding nihilists in the comfort of his own bathtub, chased by a deranged Corvette owner with a crowbar, is involved in three car accidents, clobbered by his lady friend’s boy-toy muscle men, doped into a stupor with a drug-laced White Russian, hit in the head with the Malibu police chief’s coffee cup—"You fucking fascist!" he screams—and thrown out of a taxi cab for protesting the driver’s musical selection, the dreaded Eagles’ "Peaceful Easy Feeling."  Watching the Dude endure these physical hardships calls to mind a Hebrew proverb that says, “A mensch falls seven times and gets up eight.”

Walter Sobchak serves as the theological opposite of the Dude. An ardent legalist who is tethered to his past—as opposed to the here-and-now of the Dude-iverse—Walter encourages acrimony and confrontation and sees conspiracy theories at every turn. He is also a proud Jew, a converted Polish Catholic who made the leap to Judaism when he married Cynthia, his ex-wife of five years. He goes ballistic when his team is scheduled to bowl on the Jewish day of rest. "I don’t roll on Shabbos!" he bellows, and accuses the scheduler, who has a German surname, of being an anti-Semite.

On another occasion, the Dude accuses him of not really being Jewish, Walter responds angrily, "What do you think happens when you get divorced? You turn in your library card? Get a new driver’s license? Stop being Jewish? I’m as Jewish as fucking Tevye!" The Dude says he’s living in the past, to which Walter replies, indignant and screaming, as usual: "Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax—you’re goddam right I’m living in the past!"

The Big Lebowski is surely the Coen Brothers’ most blatantly spiritual (if not literally religious) film. However you choose to describe the Dude’s philosophy or theology, it is most surely not dogmatic, legalistic, fascistic, or narrow. In the final scene of the film, after all of the double-crosses have been uncovered, the nihilists vanquished and errant wives returned to their marital beds (at least theoretically), and the Dude encounters The Stranger one last time.  The Dude, who is rolling with Walter in the semi-finals of their bowling league tournament, wanders up to the bar to order a couple of oat sodas and runs into The Stranger one last time.

"Hey man, I was hoping I’d see you again," the Dude says. The Stranger, smiling, asks him how he’s been. "Oh you know, ups and downs, strikes and gutters," is his Zen-like answer. As the Dude leaves The Stranger to his sarsaparilla, The Stranger says, "Take it easy, Dude. I know you will," to which the Dude responds, in his final words of the film, "Well, the Dude abides." The Stranger recognizes the profundity of this statement and says, in a spiritually-soaked soliloquy that ends the film:

I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, the Dude, takin’ her easy for all us sinners.

Takin’ her easy for all us sinners: that’s what a Lamed Vovnik does. That is what grace is — kind of grace that the Dude, in his inimitable way, exudes in every one of his relationships. An unexpected kindness, granting unmerited good will, giving someone a break when they don’t deserve it, showing up for the semis even when you have a bad attitude just because it means so much to the rest of the team, hugging it out instead of slugging it out. Abide: it means to wait patiently for something.

Or “to endure without yielding, to accept without objection,” according to the official word-defining dudes at Merriam-Webster.

Abiding is no easy feat, especially in a culture that is success-driven, instant-gratification-oriented, and pathologically impatient like ours. True abiding is a spiritual gift, mastered only, it would seem, by the more fully evolved among us. The Dude abides. Amen and hallelujah.