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 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...
(The entire section is 1765 words.)