Isaac Singer at Jabbok’s Ford

by Paul Elmen

Dr. Elmen is professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (Episcopal), Evanston, Illinois,

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 16, 1979, p. 546. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


To a marked degree, Singer possesses the Hasidic sense of the excitement hidden in the commonplace, the theology which recognizes a cosmic act in the proffer of a glass of water. It is a tribute to Singer’s broad appeal that he makes all his readers feel as though they were living on Krochmalna Street in the Warsaw ghetto.

When Isaac Bashevis Singer wow the 1978 Nobel Prize for literature, his status seemed to change from that of coterie hero, loved by a dwindling but enthusiastic Yiddish-speaking public, to that of world hero. But the subject matter of his work did not change. It has always been about the adventure of being a Jew exiled in a strange land. Now, at age 74, he is seen to be not really parochial at all, but a spokesman for a universal adventure: the effort of a single human being refusing to yield his identity in the face of an Absolute Power. It is a tribute to Singer’s broad appeal that he makes all his readers feel as though they were living on Krochmalna Street in the Warsaw ghetto.

A Basic Riddle

A shelf full of books -- eight novels, seven collections of short stories, three memoirs, and 11 works for children, to be exact -- explore the same theme as his recent novel Shosha: the theme of cosmic exile, wherein God has forgotten his graciousness. Singer’s problem is how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. The existence of the homeland is never doubted by exiles; nor is the existence of the Lord, though he may be ignored or forgotten. “In my belief in God,” writes Singer, “there is only one thing which is steady: I never say the universe is an accident.” Paley’s watch may lie rusting in the sand, but no one can fail to see that it was made by a watchmaker. Generations of Hebrew monotheism lie behind this sturdy faith, and in addition there is a Singer family tradition: Isaac is the son as well as the grandson of rabbis, and as a youth he studied in rabbinical schools. He did not have a progressive type of education, as is suggested in the opening Sentences of Shosha:

I was brought up on three dead languages -- Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish. . . .The cheder where I studied was a room in which the teacher ate and slept, and his wife cooked. There I studied not arithmetic, geography, physics, chemistry, or history, but the laws governing an egg laid on a holiday and sacrifices in a temple destroyed two thousand years ago.

But the central lesson of this well-learned cheder was not anachronistic: God’s in his heaven, though all is not right with the world.

The basic riddle which prevented Singer’s easy acceptance of an optimism such as Browning’s was the impotence of the good against the evil forces in history, as well as the endless postponement of the Messianic solution. However secure might be the existence of God, his attributes are obscure, his actions strange. The gentle and credulous Shosha quizzes her lover on the point:

 “Arele, Leizer the watchmaker said that you are an unbeliever -- is this true?”

“No, Shoshele, I believe in God, but I don’t believe that he revealed himself and told the rabbis all the little laws that they have added through generations.”

It is hazardous to read autobiography into fiction, but in this case we can be sure we have Singer’s own view. In an interview with Richard Burgin for the New York Times, he said the same thing: “I believe in God, but I have my doubts about revelation.”

In the absence of any authentic revelation, all human understanding becomes riddled with ambiguity. It is difficult, above all, to figure out the meaning of innocent suffering, the spectacle of unmerited retribution to which Dostoevsky kept returning under the rubric “the tears of a child.” Can the world be said to be under the sovereignty of God if there is so much cruelty and pain? Singer thought the question hard to answer, as did Voltaire, and Singer could not say that this is the best of all possible worlds.

“The problem of problems to me,” he wrote in A Little Boy in Search of God, “is still . . . the suffering of people and animals.” Haiml, one of the street philosophers of Shosha, concludes that “there can’t be any answer for suffering -- not for the sufferer.” What importance has a verbal account, no matter how plausible, compared with blood clotting on a bandage, or bodies dumped into a common grave? The quintessential suffering is, of course, the Holocaust. This demonic happening was so terrible as to be opaque to the imagination; thus Singer is forced to deal with it indirectly. He writes of Poland in the early 1930s, with the Nazis expected momentarily; and years later he writes an epilogue, remembering that the Nazis were there. But their actual presence is unspeakable, an indescribable evil complementing the unspeakable Tetragrammaton.

Nevertheless Dachau and Buchenwald are always there -- obscene shapes lurking on the pages of history, deep rivers of suffering flowing beneath the surface like the stream of Beatitude. The bills for it all are still coming in. In Singer’s books we see that the Holocaust destroyed not only 6 million lives, but also the possibility of a rational universe for its survivors.

An Ancient Complaint

Those who have a deep faith in the Creator, and who also detect a ghastly flaw in his creation, must conclude that God is unjust. And this is what Singer decides. “If I could,” he writes in his still untranslated Rebellion and Prayer, “I would picket the Almighty with a sign, ‘Unfair to Life.’” After centuries without a homeland, climaxed by the Holocaust, the notion of a chosen people seemed only ironic. If there was a royal priesthood, it was an honor to be paid for by grotesque suffering, and God deserved to be told so.

The idea of a poor mortal confronting and shaking his finger at the Ancient of Days as though he were an errant schoolboy is almost impossible to hold steadily in mind. Surely such a thought carries insolence to its limits. But however absurd, there is biblical precedent for this sense of injured megalomania. There is the archetypal story in Genesis 32 of Jacob wrestling with an angel at Jabbok’s ford. The book of Job is an anguished consideration of how one might reconcile religious faith with moral outrage, and Job’s wife had reason for telling her husband to curse God and die. If one has a vague sense of the afterlife., during which the inequities of this life may be removed and if there seem to be no obvious rewards for virtue here and now, how can one blame the pious Jew of the Old Testament for being troubled? “Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?” asks Jeremiah.

The question has worried all the great religions. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost in order “to justify the ways of God to man.” He thought that because man was guilty of original sin, God’s punishment was justified. The Victorian poet Edward Fitzgerald was not convinced: if God created man, how could he find fault with his own handiwork? He interpolated the following verse into his translation of The Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyám:

O Thou, who Man of baser Earth did make,

And e’en with Paradise devised the snake:

For all the sin wherewith the Face of Man

Is blackened -- Man’s forgiveness give -- and take!


Nor was A. E. Housman convinced:

Malt does more than Milton can

To justify God’s way to man.


The Victorian crisis of belief is apparent also in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. This poet wonders what sense can be made of the death by drowning of five nuns on their way to a mission field, but his first major poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland (1876), shows his determination to overcome his doubts:

Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:

Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.


However, in 1918, near the end of his life, discouraged and ill in Dublin, he could only echo Jeremiah:

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,

How wouldst thou worse. I wonder, than thou dost

Defeat, thwart me?


This time he has no answer except to plead, “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.”

Thus the cry of protest to God has ample prece~ dent. Another position, more philosophical perhaps, and indicating a more resigned mood, is the familiar one taken by the negative theologians: God is audessus de mêlée, a mystery beyond our simple categories, above human censure as he is above human praise. 1-le is Aristotle’s Prime Mover, setting the planets spinning like bowling balls down their great alleys, but not caring how many pins are struck. Shosha quizzes Arele on the point:


“God is not good?”

“Not as we see it.”

“He has no pity?”

“Not as we understand it.”

“Arele, I’m afraid.”

“I’m afraid too.”


Shosha is afraid of Arele’s smart-aleck theology; Arele is afraid of living in a puzzling universe, vulnerable in the presence of a tyrant who demands obedience from those who do not even know his will. The Psalms sometimes treat this situation more gently, calling out to God to awaken and be about his day’s business; but sometimes, too, the Psalms are bitter, as in 50:12, which presents a strange God speaking sardonically to his children: “If I were hungry I would not tell thee.” Singer’s rebellion is sometimes against a sleeping God, and sometimes against a God whose ways are immoral. The writer could, of course, have learned this attitude from his study of Spinoza, the philosopher for whom he expresses greatest sympathy. Showing in marked degree the traditional Jewish fear of anthropomorphism, Spinoza said that God is causa sui, beyond our little modifications such as mind or will. All one can really say of God is that he is.

Some sense of a silent God is no doubt part of every great theophany and is also, if Rudolf Otto is to be believed, the inevitable ground of holiness. Karl Rahner, in Encounter with Silence, reports a sense of vacuity experienced at times by every believer:

“You are so distant and mysterious,” he says to God, echoing this famous passage in Kierkegaard: “When I pray, it is as if my words have disappeared down some deep well, from which no echo ever comes back to reassure me. . . Why are you so silent?” And one must recall Paul Tillich’s interest in the primal abyss, Meister Eckhart’s Ungrund, the vast emptiness from which all being emerges. In A Search for God in Time and Memory, John Dunne also speaks of “the dark god Abba,” to whom Jesus prayed and who rules-over all that exists.

What about the systems of theology which speak of God’s positive attributes and find all his ways just? Singer thinks these systems are human fabrications, dogmatic ingenuities which tell us more about people than they do about God. “One day,” says Arele’s Warsaw friend, Dr. Morris Feitelzohn, “all people will realize that there is not a single idea that can really be called true -- that everything is a game -- naturalism, religion, atheism, spiritualism, materialism, even suicide.” Sharing the metaphysical skepticism of the Vienna Circle, and especially echoing Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of “language-games,” Singer thinks of the world as a playground, a huge Coney Island, where every possible value -- whether sponsored by a Hitler, an Einstein or a Stalin -- must be taken no more seriously than a bit of playfulness.

From Anger to Rapture

What judgment can one make about this world view, or, to put the question in T. S. Eliot’s terms, “After such knowledge what forgiveness?” The notion of the playful lie clearly lacks the “high seriousness” Which Matthew Arnold demanded of any plan which could save us from chaos. The game theory seems an embarrassing frivolity in a world where not long ago corpses were piled like cord-wood. But the notion has a respectable history. Singer speaks approvingly of Hans Vaihinger, who argued that ideas recognized as being theoretically untrue might nevertheless have practical value. The good person may act out goodness as if that quality had ontological status. The case put by the fictionalists is that ideas cannot give us a portrayal of reality, since they have nothing to do with the thing an sich. But they can be useful in helping us find our way in a bewildering world. We are reminded of the boy who rode about in the wagon of his grandfather, a rag-picker, in the movie Lies My Father Told Me. “Do you believe in miracles?” the boy asks. “No,” the old man replies, “But I rely on them.”

There is in everything Singer writes a heartwarming generosity toward others, a refusal to judge -- which must come from his doctrine of the plenitude of creation and the existence of so many claims to validity. Even Hitler has his place. When Shosha asks Arele why God does not punish Hitler, Arele replies, “Oh, He doesn’t punish anybody. He created the cat and the mouse,” It is as though Singer has adopted one of the most curious of the principles from the natural-law tradition: “Only that ought not be which cannot be.” If one were to place at one pole Walter Lippmann, who spoke of Hitler as Antichrist, one would have to place Singer at an opposite pole, next to Hannah Arendt, who also believed in the banality of evil. It is moving to see victims try hard to understand their oppressors, but there ought to be room for moral indignation which is directed at humanity as well as against God! A more convincing advantage of Singer’s eclecticism is his insistence that each of us be allowed to create a personal fable, untroubled by moral bullies with their easy absolutisms. “The basis of ethics,” says Singer, “is man’s right to play the game of his own choice.”

It should be remembered that Singer is not a theologian, and certainly not a preacher. He is a storyteller. A raconteur is tempted to use whatever theology is likely to advance a tale and to hold the listeners’ attention. Singer has stressed that his feelings about God vary from anger to rapture. He is always aware that there is an evil force in the world antecedent to human willing, and he knows something about dybbuks. His own shtetl imps which sometimes bound about his New York apartment are very like the shadowy rascals at whom Luther threw an inkwell. They have power but we are not helpless before them, having the gift of free will and some room in which to use it. What seems a Yiddish common sense saves Singer from the darker possibilities of his theology. He knows that if everything is a game, some games are better than others. Shosha’s shy innocence, the girlish purity which forbids her even to speak about “you know what,” is chosen over the broad hospitalities of Dora, the communist trollop who offers herself to each man according to his ability. Haiml draws out the sensible possibilities of the game theory: “If all life is nothing but make-believe, let us believe that every night is the, second night of a holiday.” There are spaces of pleasantness in the gathering sorrow. “If there is no merciful truth,” says Haiml, “I take the lie that gives me warmth and moments of joy.”

The catch is that these moments are as rare and fleeting as are Walter Pater’s aesthetic moments. Lasting bliss must wait for the coming of the Messiah, but this coming seems scandalously delayed. Singer’s pessimism reminds one of the Hasidic story of the sentinel who was hired to sit outside the city gate and to come running with the news of the Messiah’s arrival. He sat patiently at his boring post, and came at last to the elders to complain that his pay was very poor. “It is true,” the elders agreed. “Your pay is poor, but you must remember that you have steady work.”

‘Nameless Grace’

Meanwhile for Singer, until the day of the coming there is the vivid passing scene, full of interest even when also full of tragedy, worth taking part in, worth telling stories about. It is of course possible to love what one cannot understand. To a marked degree Singer possesses the Hasidic sense of the excitement hidden in the commonplace, the theology which recognizes a cosmic act in the proffer of a glass of water, the secret splendor in common lives which distinguishes great fiction from gossip. Not the least of these common vitalities is love -- the kind of fleshly love. Singer likes to describe: a breathless search, over the hills and valleys of the body, a wild tossing in bed which looks like anger but is really exuberance at being alive. But he speaks also of another kind of love, the tender, lyrical kind which leads Arele to marry the ill-favored Shosha. One finds in so much of Singer’s works this vast sympathy for the insulted and the injured, as though the Messiah had already come.

Whatever limitations one might find in the work of the Nobel prizewinner, he has wrestled long and well against hopeless odds, and his accounts of the match emerge from a depth not discovered by equally good writers who have not known the blessing. Such wrestling is costly (“And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh”). One should expect to be wounded after such an encounter, and have perhaps ever after the piety of the anawim, the voice of those broken in spirit. Singer’s fortunate readers can only hope that his strength will not soon fail. As the long night ends, surely such an awakened spirit will see that the man he wrestled with was an angel, and that there is movement in the divine life. He might even make Martin Buber’s discovery his own: “to sense in the nameable torment the nameless grace.”