Isaac Bashevis Singer Comes Back From Dead as the Anti-Theist

There’s a fascinating new war going on in the culture between self-proclaimed “scientific atheists” and theists. Militant atheists who believe

There’s a fascinating new war going on in the culture between self-proclaimed “scientific atheists” and theists. Militant atheists who believe that God is a “delusion,” as Richard Dawkins would have it, and believers who adhere to the idea of a just and loving deity.

The atheists are on the offensive, one might say, with Daniel Dennett’s latest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon—an attempt to reduce religion and spirituality to a by-product of evolutionary biology. And Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which debunks the conventional monotheistic notion of God without supplying an alternate answer to the question of how the universe came into being, the ancient mystery: Why is there Something instead of Nothing?

On the other hand, defenders of religion, of the very idea of a God, are hard-pressed to explain the cruel, unholy chaos and suffering that pervades a world supposedly created by a loving God.

Neglected in this simplistic bipolar debate is the position staked out by the great Nobel Prize–winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, which emerges more clearly in the biography by Florence Noiville, Isaac B. Singer: A Life, just published in English.

It’s remarkable, however, the way commenters on the new Singer book have failed either to grasp or to articulate the seriousness of Singer’s position, its centrality to him and his work, and the significance it has for the atheism/theism debate.

None has seen fit to give a name to Singer’s Third Position in the debate. So I will: It’s not atheism, not theism, but rather anti-theism, a provocative, profoundly different stance from either of the others. Simply put, contrary to the atheists, Singer believes in a God, but, contrary to the theists, he doesn’t believe in a just, loving or merciful God; he believes in a God who doesn’t deserve worship, a God who deserves our condemnation.

Why has the significance of Singer’s position been lost in the shuffle? Sometimes we get so buried in second-order cultural trend-spotting, in cultural self-examination, re-evaluation—aren’t we on the re-evaluation of the re-evaluation of the re-evaluation of Hannah Arendt at this point?—that certain genuinely exciting first-order developments get lost in the culture wars’ fog of battle.

The new Noiville biography of Isaac Singer is an instance, a slim book that nonetheless advances the growing case that there were in fact Two Singers—and Two Songs, you might say. There was the Original Yiddish Singer and the Easy-Listening English Singer, you might say. (Singer called his transformed English translations “second originals.”)

There’s the familiar warm-and-fuzzy Fiddler on the Roof Singer that brought him an international audience, beginning with Saul Bellow’s translation of his shtetl fable, “Gimpel the Fool,” in a 1953 issue of Partisan Review.

But then there’s the other Singer, Singer the Yiddish writer, the Singer before Singer bowdlerized himself in the course of “supervising” the translations of his works from Yiddish into English. The Original, Yiddish Singer was engaged in a bitter, blasphemous battle with God. The kind of strife he frequently sought to smooth over, self-censor in the English translations of his works.

This was something I’d written about before in connection with the discovery in the Singer archives of a brutal and sexual Yiddish gangster novel he’d written called Yarme and Keyle. Back then (in The Observer, March 10, 2003), I wrote about the controversy that ensued over whether Singer would have wanted some of his Yiddish works translated into English after he died, without his “supervision,” presumably to make them more “palatable.” What appeared to be his desire to keep the two Singers separate.

And it’s probably no accident that the Singer novel that shook me up most viscerally was Shadows on the Hudson (extremely faithful readers may recall my three-part serialized review of Shadows back in 1998). Shadows was the first novel translated from the Yiddish without Singer’s “supervision,” and we got more of a sense of the raw anger at God, the bitter imprecations, the struggle that ravaged him and his characters.

In Ms. Noiville’s biography, there is further evidence for the separation of the two Singers, more harsh outcries against God from the Yiddish Singer.

Consider the remarkable statement that Ms. Noiville has found in an obscure interview with Singer back in 1978, one that reflects views which she contends Singer had been expressing as far back as the 1920’s, though mainly in Yiddish.

She uses it to illustrate what she calls “Singer’s ‘ethic of protest,’ a philosophy that would be his to the end … the point was to show God that he [Singer] disapproved of the way He ran the world, disapproved of His silence and absence of compassion …. Singer insists that because God is evil, man should behave in a moral way … ‘to spite God.’”

Then she quotes from the obscure interview (done in 1978, first aired on Swedish TV in 1985), in which Singer says, “I often say to myself that God wants us to protest. He has had enough of those who praise Him all the time and bless Him for all His cruelties to man and animals.

“I have written a little book which I call Rebellion and Prayer, or The True Protester. It is still in Yiddish, untranslated. It was written at the time of the Holocaust. It is a bitter little book, and I doubt that I will ever publish it. Yes, I am a troubled person …. If I could, I would picket the Almighty with a sign: ‘Unfair to Life.’”

One thing it does is answer the question that seemed to puzzle one reviewer of Ms. Noiville’s book: Why was Singer so “agitated”? Clearly (as any reading of Shadows on the Hudson makes evident as well), what agitated him was his anger at God—and the vexations of theodicy, the subdiscipline of theology that wrestles with the difficulty of reconciling an all-powerful God who is also supposed to be just and merciful.

How one can believe in a just and merciful God who apparently countenances the persistence of evil and unmerited suffering on a vast and catastrophic scale? It would be enough to “agitate” any serious person.

And by the way, now that we know about it, that “bitter little book” Rebellion and Prayer—what happened to it? Wouldn’t you like to read it? Shouldn’t someone translate and publish this key philosophic vision of one of the great writers of the past century? Or should we follow his (apparent) wishes and leave it to languish in Yiddish? Would we then be denying English-only readers of Singer a deep truth about the writer they profess to love?

It reminded me of the kind of controversies over the differing texts of Hamlet and King Lear, controversies which I explore in The Shakespeare Wars. Do the two different versions of Lear’s dying words represent two profoundly differing visions of the play—or of the playwright himself and his view of the moral order of the universe?

Indeed, Ms. Noiville offers two different versions—one Yiddish, one English—of the ending of a Singer story called “The Mirror” that differ in some respects like the two different endings of Lear.

In the Yiddish version, the narrator, a tormented imp, tells us “All the worlds are vile fungi …. Everything was and remains mere confusion, emptiness, and chaos.”

These harsh sentiments are softened beyond recognition in the English translation that Singer “supervised,” and all that’s left is mild questioning: “Is there a God? Is He all merciful?”

As Ms. Noiville exclaims after quoting the two versions: “What a difference!”

But to return to the renewed debate in the culture over atheism initiated by Messrs. Dawkins and Dennett: If Singer seems to offer a Third Way between theism and atheism, there is in fact a Fourth Way.

One that was articulated by my friend Errol Morris, the director of The Fog of War, with whom I’ve had a running series of conversations about what might be called “The Fog of God,” the dilemmas of theodicy as first adumbrated by Leibniz in his 1709 Theodicy, a much-misunderstood book that Errol and I are both fond of.

In any case, one recent winter weekend morning, I took a cab downtown to the Mercer Hotel to have breakfast with Errol and his wife Julie. I brought with me a copy of the Noiville book, and before I ordered my fried eggs I had to read Errol the passage from Singer’s Swedish interview about the “bitter little book” Singer wouldn’t allow to be published in English, his “agitation” (“Yes I am a troubled person,” troubled by God’s responsibility for “the mess in which we are stuck”) and the need to protest, to picket, the Almighty for His injustice to man.

Errol, who is an admirer of the Dawkins book and had, after all, contemplated the mysteries of creation in his Stephen Hawking film A Brief History of Time, offered a fourth alternative to theism, atheism and anti-theism. He suggested that instead of Singer’s outrage at God for His responsibility for the cruelty and suffering of life, we ought to feel a measure of sympathy for the deity for His ineptness—for what Errol called “The Infinite Mediocrity of God.”

It’s a position that offers some heuristic rewards, at the very least. If God exists (and by the way, I’m an agnostic), one doesn’t have to walk around muttering about God’s failures the way Singer evidently did. One can consider Him a kind of Divine Schlemiel who tried His best but just didn’t do a good job of Creation. Whose “best of all possible worlds” just wasn’t very good at all—not because He was deliberately bad, demonic in the way that some Gnostic sects have portrayed the Creator, but rather because He was just divinely mediocre, supremely inept.

I had long considered “Gimpel the Fool,” Singer’s touching but troubling shtetl fable, to be his allegory of the relationship between the Jewish people and God. The Jews, like Gimpel, are always putting their faith and trust in God’s goodness, and His special care for them, in the same way that Gimpel the Fool puts his faith and trust in his cruel neighbors and untrustworthy wives—all of whom conspired to make him miserable, although he steadfastly refused to blame any of them.

But maybe what Errol’s Fourth position suggests is that it is God Himself who is Gimpel the Fool. Just another theory.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Comes Back From Dead as the Anti-Theist