The Penitent

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Isaac Bashevis Singer is a teller of tales rooted in an obscure and unfamiliar world which somehow speaks to that with which all people are familiar. He writes in a dying language, Yiddish, about a dying culture, in a way that calls into question the rest of the world. Most of what he writes eventually finds its way into English, especially since his winning of the Nobel Prize in 1978. The Penitent, originally serialized as Der Baal Tshuve in 1973, lacks much of the comic liveliness of other Singer works but still is an effective dramatization of moral issues of great contemporary concern.

The novel is, in a sense, quite unimaginative in form. The reader is to suppose that Singer himself, visiting Jerusalem in 1969, has been approached at the Wailing Wall by a man who is a longtime fan, and that the man tells Singer, and the reader, the story of his life on the following two days. After the first few pages, the reader is conscious only of the voice of Joseph Sharo as he tells his bitter yet hopeful tale.

Joseph Shapiro is the penitent of the title; a penitent, he tells Singer, is “one who returns.” The central concern of the novel is to explore that which he turns from and that to which he returns. In the process, the reader is offered a biting denunciation of the tawdriness and spiritual bankruptcy of modern culture and a strange alternative in a largely forgotten way of life.

Shapiro is a Polish Jew who fled to Russia in 1939 to escape the Holocaust and eventually found his way to New York with his wife, Celia. He responds to all the imperatives of modern life, including financial success and sexual indulgence with the requisite mistress. He is an emancipated Jew, and he is miserable. His growing revulsion at the artificiality and sordidness of contemporary values is capped when he discovers his wife is also having an affair. Abandoning everything, he flees to Israel to find something to fill the void.

Through the life of Joseph Shapiro, Singer explores one of the central questions of the last hundred years in Western culture: Can there be a satisfying private or public morality without some kind of appeal to God? Stated another way, what is the source of values? What is there to check human greed, lust, and self-indulgence if one believes in nothing larger than oneself?

These questions are all the more pointed because of the failure, as perceived by Shapiro and probably by Singer as well, of modern thought to provide satisfactory answers. It is no coincidence that Priscilla—a beautiful, intelligent but spiritually empty “modern” Jew—is interested in psychology, literature, and sociology. Psychology and sociology are themselves defective products of the present age, and modern literature is, for Shapiro, the nihilistic testimony to a collective failure.

The alternative to the modern world in The Penitent is the old, essentially middle-European, world of Orthodox Judaism. The contrast could not be greater, and the offense of it to the so-called liberated mind is part of the attraction for Shapiro. He rejects the prevailing notion that Jews can be modern and emancipated and still retain their difference from the Gentile world. “Once you are adjusted to the world,” he says at the end of the novel, “you can no longer be adjusted to God.” Israel was chosen to be different, Shapiro claims, yet he sees Jews always trying to be like Gentiles.

Being like Gentiles includes being lost in a sexual wilderness. The disintegration of sex is the primary symptom in the...

(This entire section contains 1765 words.)

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novel of the collapse of sane values. Sex has become mere lustful self-indulgence and exploitation; it has no grounding whatsoever in the spiritual dimension of humanity. Shapiro is nauseated by the casual yet predatory promiscuity of the women he meets, and even more by his own animalistic response. His revulsion is not on legalistic grounds of “thou shalt not,” but primarily on account of the affront that incessant, indiscriminate copulation is to human dignity. The final irony, for Shapiro, is that pansexuality signals the death of sexuality, as surfeit yields not satisfaction but impotence.

Whereas debased sex passes for love in the larger culture, genuine love is something Shapiro finds only in the chaste world of the Hasids. Conditioned to being seen by others only in terms of what they can get from him, he is welcomed and affirmed by these people simply for being a fellow Jew in search of God. Additionally, he finds in Sarah, his new wife, a sexual satisfaction in fidelity that surpasses anything he found in his desperate promiscuity.

Many other contrasting values mark these two worlds as well. The modern culture is obsessed with the cult of youth; the Orthodox world respects the accomplishments of age and the wisdom made possible by long experience. One side sees plurality and randomness in the world and counsels getting all one can while one can. The other asserts that there is no coincidence in life, that all things work according to a divine plan, and that wisdom dictates knowing and following that plan as far as possible.

Essentially, Shapiro decides to take seriously the notion of good and evil. He rejects the secular orthodoxy that good and evil are practically interchangeable terms designating merely subjective projections of private prejudices. The evil of the larger world is self-evident and calls for some response from anyone with integrity. He also sees both good and evil within himself and calls evil that inner voice which seeks constantly to deny the validity of his spiritual quest.

That voice tells Shapiro that he is foolish to look for a meaning to life in the hopelessly outdated world of side curls, prayer shawls, and esoteric religious law; it counsels him to be more reasonable, more realistic, less extreme. It asks him to consider how ridiculous he will look to others and to himself, how out of touch he will be from the modern world. Finally, it asks him what proof he has that any of this is true, that there is a God at all, and, if there is, that He has any special, benevolent interest in the Jews.

Shapiro rejects this voice even while granting it a measure of truth. He cannot look any more ridiculous to the world than it looks to him. As for his lack of proof that the observant way is the true one, he grants it freely. He does not even claim, initially, to have any faith in God or in Orthodox practice. Perhaps Judaism is man-made, perhaps only a game, but it is, in his eyes, a far preferable game to the one on which most people waste their lives:The Talmud Jew doesn’t kill. He doesn’t take part in wild orgies. You don’t have to fear him in the woods or on a lonely road. . . . He doesn’t scheme to come to your house when you are away and sleep with your wife. . . . This Talmud Jew doesn’t deal violently with any race, class, or group. All he wants is to earn a living and raise his children and children’s children to follow in the ways of Torah. . . . He doesn’t need modern literature, theater, nude art. He doesn’t change his outlook every Monday and Thursday.

In short, the Talmud Jew is a good man or woman, and Shapiro is willing to be old-fashioned enough to claim such a thing without a cynical smirk.

To cleanse oneself from the stain of modern living, Shapiro affirms, it is not enough merely to disassociate from its corruption; one must become its opposite. By his own admission, Shapiro is not so much attracted to religious practice as he is repelled by secular pollution, for which observant Judaism is the antidote. He adopts his new life initially as an act of protest not of faith but discovers that genuine faith follows. Eventually, action and faith are mutually reinforcing.

An important question remains to be asked about this moralistic denunciation of modern culture and affirmation of the religious life: Is this, in fact, Singer’s view? What is the relationship between Shapiro’s outlook and Singer’s? There are a few roadblocks to a clear-cut answer. One is the nature of Shapiro as a character. Throughout the book, he is filled with self-loathing as well as contempt for secular culture. He is seemingly a humorless man, a Jeremiah sort who almost takes a perverse pleasure in his displeasure. As a reader, one is not particularly attracted to him; perhaps Singer wants the reader to judge him as a type of modern malcontent as much as a spokesman for Singer’s own views.

Singer also tells Shapiro at the beginning of the novel that he himself does not have the faith in the validity of scripture necessary to be an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Shapiro’s own experience, however, shows that faith is not a necessary prerequisite for the views Shapiro puts forward, leaving open the possibility that he does, in fact, act as Singer’s spokesman.

Singer goes the unusual added step, however, of appending an author’s note in which he denies that his views are identical with Shapiro’s. He claims to be less sanguine in the face of suffering and less confident about the mercy of God than Shapiro finally is, and yet nothing Singer says actually contradicts his character’s basic outlook. Singer says protest is an important element in all religion, and The Penitent is, in fact, a protest against a world that has lost its soul, and, perhaps implicitly, a God Who has allowed it to do so.

This novel lacks some of the qualities that have made Singer’s writing so attractive. There is none of the joy of life of Der Kuntsnmakher fun Lublin (1959; serialized; published in the United States as The Magician of Lublin, 1960) or the cracked innocence of “Gimpel the Fool.” In some ways, The Penitent is too overtly didactic, lacking the rich details and strong characterization that make convincing fiction. Singer’s usual sense of painful wonder has given way to a two-part sermon. Nevertheless, for all of its faults, The Penitent touches a particularly sensitive cord in the modern psyche. Singer correctly assesses the novel’s potential function in his afterword: “The agonies and the disenchantment of Joseph Shapiro may to a degree stir a self-evaluation in both believers and skeptics. The remedies that he recommends may not heal everybody’s wounds, but the nature of the sickness will, I hope, be recognized.”


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America. CL, January 21, 1984, p. 38.

Library Journal. CVIII, October 1, 1983, p. 1890.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, September 25, 1983, p. 3.

Newsweek. CII, September 26, 1983, p. 89.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, August 5, 1983, p. 83.

Time. CXXII, October 17, 1983, p. 95.

The Wall Street Journal. October 24, 1983, p. 28.