The God of Isaac Bashevis Singer

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In 1979, the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, delivered a lecture on “A Personal Concept of Religion,” sponsored by the Gallatin Division of New York University.  Within a few days of his talk, excerpts appeared on the op-ed page of the May 18, 1979, issue of The New York Times.  On that date, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, James Reston and Tom Wicker were established columnists for the newspaper, and Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia.

Knowing that I would want to get back to the text of Singer’s speech to study it more closely, I put the op-ed page in a manila file folder for safekeeping. It remained in hiding all these years, until a few weeks ago, when, yellowed and ragged around the edges, it finally resurfaced.

Near the beginning of his 1979 address, Singer tells his audience, “If religion must be closely bound with revelation, then I cannot properly call myself a religious person.  It is true that I believe in God and even in His ability to reveal Himself. But I cannot base my belief upon actual revelation.     Personally, I have never experienced one. Those that are described in the holy books have not convinced me of their authenticity.”

At first glance, Singer appears to be contradicting himself when he says, “I believe in God and even in His ability to reveal Himself” while simultaneously declaring that “I cannot properly call myself a religious person.”

However, the apparent contradiction dissolves when we understand that Singer associates being religious with subscribing to the tenets of an organized religion. He makes it clear that for him “[T]he basic element of religion is divine revelation. It isn’t important whether God reveals Himself through a burning bush, or through the intervention of an angel.” Since the accounts of divine revelation recorded in our sacred texts “have not convinced [him] of their authenticity,” he sees himself as a Jew but not as a believer in the religion of Judaism.

While Singer rejects the accounts of revelation in our Hebrew Bible, he also rejects the God of the philosophers: “To the best of my knowledge, there is no temple where people pray to Spinoza’s Substance, Leibnitz’ Monad of the Monads or Hegel’s Zeitgeist.” 

Not surprisingly, the God of I. B. Singer reflects the idiosyncrasies of this highly idiosyncratic writer: “I have built for myself a private God. … I’ve fashioned Him precisely to suit my taste. I formed Him out of my intellect, my emotions, my limited experience and imagination.”

Despite his highly personalized approach, one should not dismiss Singer’s notion of God as simply a projection of his overbearing ego, for Singer offers us God-wrestlers a powerfully universal metaphor: God is an artist.  Just like every artist, God is eternally experimenting: “His every star, every planet is an artistic experiment, a part of the divine laboratory.”  According to Singer, in His ongoing work of creation, God is continually surprising Himself!

Essential to Singer’s metaphor of God as an artist – God as The Artist – is the notion that God is in constant flux, that God is forever on the move, ever growing, that God can never be frozen in time or in space.  At the burning bush (Exodus, Chapter 3), God identifies Himself to Moses as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, which can be translated as “I will be Who I will be.”  The God of I. B. Singer, then, God The Artist, is a version of the God of the burning bush, a version of the God of our Torah.

Toward the end of his address, Singer relates the metaphor of God The Artist to the question of “Why suffering?” 

“The answer is: Without suffering there is no art. Suffering and joy represent the elements upon which is based the divine drama. God, the Creator, is Himself the universal sufferer.  Our suffering is His suffering. We are He.”

I find it more than a little incongruous to “hear” Singer talking about his belief in God since, like many of his readers, I have considered him an essentially secular writer. Yes, he is profoundly rooted in his upbringing in Warsaw in his father’s Hasidic court – bezdn in Yiddish, bet din in Hebrew – nevertheless, as an author, he seems far more interested in exploring the human psyche as a home for ghosts and demons, real and imagined, than in portraying the relationship between his characters and God.

Given the power and the subtlety of Singer’s vision of God, why does he keep this part of himself out of his fiction? This is a question I am unable to answer.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.