The Vain Quest for Certainty in Singer¡¯s Satan in Goray


By Andrew Lawrence Crown


May, 2013


Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2013. All rights reserved.




When asked during numerous interviews about the purpose of literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the twentieth century¡¯s best known Yiddish writer, in most cases claimed that he believed the purpose of literature was to entertain the reader. The writer¡¯s chief aim, Singer said in a 1969 interview, was to create something to be enjoyed by the reader.


¡°I never sit down to write a novel to make a better world or to create good feelings toward the Jews or for any other purpose¡± (Singer in Pinsker 16).


In speaking of the works of Kafka and other writers whose fiction is imbued with an intellectually stimulating message better suited for essays than for works of literature, Singer critiqued the length of the novels of these writers, as well as the idolatry of the ideological writers of his generation.


¡°They go on, they drag on. I feel in Kafka, as I said, a great power, but the truth is that the literary idols of this generation are not my idols – neither Kafka nor Joyce. I call them the gods of this generation. In my case I have to make an effort to read them and I don¡¯t think that fiction is good when you have to make an effort¡± (Singer in Burgin 57).


¡°I will tell you I don¡¯t believe in forced readings, where people are forced by professors or they force themselves to read. Since I believe that literature is basically entertaining I don¡¯t believe in forced entertainment. There is no field where freedom is of greater importance than in art¡± (Singer in Burgin 57).


             It would appear from his own words repeated numerous times in interviews that Singer rejected the idea that the purpose of literature is to teach or instruct, or to promulgate a particular ideology, world view, or moral and ethical message. Neither is the purpose of fiction to cater to the base desires of the masses.


¡°I am actually conservative. In other words, I don¡¯t believe that by flattering the masses all of the time we really achieve much¡± (Singer in Burgin 57).


¡°A great writer is one who can entertain great people. A small writer is a writer who can only entertain the mob¡± (Singer in Pinsker 432).


             Given these words spoken directly by Singer, what are we to make of his legacy as a Jewish and Yiddish writer who has left us with a voluminous treasure of writings large enough to sustain an army of graduate students intent upon discovering the meaning of Singer¡¯s work in their dissertations? Singer¡¯s Nobel Prize lecture delivered in December of 1978 provides us with a clue to Singer¡¯s view of the meaning and purpose of his art, and may even enable us to see in his previous statements a kind of playful facetiousness intended to preserve the aura of mysterious other worldliness central to the nature of his tales of devils, imps, dybbuks, saints, and sinners. In his Nobel lecture Singer begins by restating the view he had time and again claimed was the guiding purpose of his work.


¡°The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social and political ideas¡± (Singer Nobel Lecture).


             In spite of this affirmation of his often stated distance from the political and ideological, soon afterwards in his lecture Singer opens up to the possibility that at the core of his work there are teachable lessons and a moral message, if not an outright ideology.


¡°Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation¡± (Singer Nobel Lecture).


             The problems of Singer¡¯s generation included the diminishing faith in God and the consequent moral relativism which blurred the distinction between good and evil, sacred and profane, clean and unclean. The sense of moral uncertainty and ethical ambiguity brought on by the experience of devastating war in the twentieth century, the holocaust and the resulting existential philosophy originating from the works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, all of whom Singer read, had carried his generation far away from the faith in a certainty regarding the purpose of life. Singer¡¯s generation had lost its spiritual foundation and humankind, it seemed, had lost faith not only in God and providence, but also in man himself, his institutions, and often in those who were nearest to him.


             Yet Singer was no moral relativist. While from his Hasidic father, the rabbi Pinchos Menahem Singer, Singer inherited his lifelong interest in the Kabalistic mysteries and the grace of divine miracles, from his mother Batsheva (after whom Singer derived his middle name Bashevis) Singer inherited the faith in a rational defense of the existence of God and the sufficiency of reasoned argument to defend an essential rationalism and philosophical skepticism (Wisse xv). The writer was after all duty bound to instruct and teach about the moral and ethical imperatives, and in fact the serious writer could stand in relation to the sophisticated intellectual reader in the same position as the God inspired prophets of the Torah stood in relation to the ancient Hebrews.


¡°In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against hope that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all¡± (Singer Nobel Lecture).


             Singer claimed he was not ashamed to admit that he, like many other artists, fantasized that literature is capable of bringing new horizons and new perspectives – philosophical, religious, aesthetical, and even social.


¡°In the history of the Jewish literature there was never any difference between the poet and the prophet. Our ancient poetry often became law and a way of life¡± (Singer Nobel Lecture).


Singer affirmed that he was not to be counted as among the numerous writers of the twentieth century whose existentialism and loss of faith in the God of the ancient past left them floundering after a purpose and meaning to life in a post-modern godless universe.


¡°I was brought up to believe in free will. Although I came to doubt all revelation, I can never accept the idea that the Universe is a physical or chemical accident, a result of blind evolution¡± (Singer Nobel Lecture).


One could analyze any number of Singer¡¯s works, his novels, short stories, and even his children¡¯s books, and seek the lessons therein in spite of Singer¡¯s repeated claim that his true purpose was to entertain rather than instruct. I will turn now to Singer¡¯s first novel, written and conceived in between the world wars in Poland and published in 1935, the year Singer immigrated to the United States. Satan in Goray emerged from Singer¡¯s experience in the Hasidic world of Poland¡¯s Jews into which he was born the son of a rabbi in 1904. While some critics claim that Satan in Goray is Singer¡¯s weakest book due to its confusing organization, I shall focus on this work here because of its exploration of the nature of good and evil, sacred and profane, holy righteousness and sinful depravity, and the space in between these polar oppositions which the human race must inhabit.


             Satan in Goray explores the transformation of the Jewish community in a small Polish town beyond the hills and at the end of the earth which occurs when fantastical rumors of the presence of the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, reach the Jews of Goray. Only just beginning to recover from the devastation and massacres brought about in 1648 by Cossack armies led by the evil henchman Chmelnicki whose warriors rose up in anti-Semitic fury to slaughter the Jews of Poland with horrific cruelty, the helpless Jews of Goray had only recently faced the greatest devastation since the destruction of the Second Temple (Wisse xviii).


             The daughter of the formerly prosperous Reb Eleazar Babad, named Rechele, was notably born the year of the massacres, and was taken by her mother, who later died, to be raised by a cruel granny, the bitterly harsh mother of Rechele¡¯s widowed uncle, a ritual slaughterer. The mistreatment of Rechele by her caretakers, who frightened her with tales of punishing demons and witches, is an expression of Singer¡¯s experience of blind adherence to ritual as punishing and suffocating. Rechele¡¯s punishing granny tries to frighten her into obedience with punishing terrors and terrorizing punishments. Consequently Rechele never learns to distinguish right from wrong. After reaching the age of marriage she lacks the ability to protect herself from the ¡°dead eyes¡± of one suitor, or the ravishing lechery of another (Wisse xx-xxi). Though a cripple, the loveless victim arouses sinful thoughts in men and transmogrifies the terrors of her childhood into forecasts of approaching redemption. She cannot be blamed for having become the voice or vehicle of prophetic messages. Singer means us to realize that in his account of Rechele¡¯s possession by a dybbuk he the author is also not to be blamed for having emerged as the ¡°voice¡± or interpreter of the demonic forces of his own time (Wisse xxi).


             John Guzlowski in his article, Isaac Bashevis Singer¡¯s Satan in Goray and Bakhtin¡¯s Vision of the Carnivalesque, examines the extent to which the carnivalesque vision of a grotesquely humorous estranged world can be used as a lens through which we can properly view the novel. According to Guzlowski, who brings in addition to Bakhtin¡¯s work the work of Kayser in his The Grotesque in Art and Literature, the grotesque is a structure of the unexpected bodily and vulgar worldliness inherent in the condition of man. The grotesque transforms our ordinary encounter with the world into a strange and ominous experience and transports us to a place where all reliable sources of meaning and order, identity, natural law, social law, and historical order, have become distorted, suspended, or destroyed. This experience fills the perceiver with a fear of life rather than a fear of death (Kayser in Guzlowski 184-185). However, we are not condemned to be perpetual victims of the estranged world. The grotesque, as a means of perception, enables the reader to subdue the estranged world as the artist¡¯s use of the grotesque permits the reader to perceive the ominous powers that lurk in and behind our world, and by perceiving them, to challenge and subdue their demonic aspects (Guzlowski 167).


             Guzlowski goes on to argue that Singer¡¯s portrayal of the central characters of the novel, are better understood through the gay relativity of the carnivalesque which enables us to determine where on the spectrum from good to evil humankind is destined to exist. There is Rabbi Benish Ashkenazi, who represents the traditional rational authority of Ashkenazi or European Judaism and its adherence to the Law or Torah, but who nonetheless is unable to extend his authority over the Jewish community of Goray once the Sabbatain sect gains adherents. His failure is the failure of tradition and reason together. His jealous and envious rival, Reb Mordecai Joseph, is a religious zealot and cripple who hates Benish for his superior knowledge and learning, and so seizes the new messianic movement as an outlet for his envy and frustrated dreams of leadership. Itche Mates is alive but already half way to the grave with self-denying asceticism so severe that he cannot consummate his marriage to Rechele. He roles naked in the snow, immerses himself in icy water, fasts from Sabbath to Sabbath, and is regarded by the sect as already half way to the kingdom of heaven. Reb Gedaliya, the ritual slaughterer who turns ritual upside down, replaces Mates as Rechele¡¯s husband without the sanction of a lawfully certifiable divorce, and opposes the strict regimen of Benish. ¡°Thou shalt¡± replaces ¡°Thou shalt not¡± (Wisse xxix) as sin is turned into sanctity and foul into fair. Guzlowski argues that the carnivalesque humor which encompasses Singer¡¯s portrayal of these characters affirms a sense of moral relativism as the message of the novel, since neither the extreme of religious purity nor the cascade toward moral depravity is sufficient to guide the wayward Jews of Goray.


             I contend, in contrast to Guzlowski, that Singer did not embrace relativism and means for us to see a clear distinction between good and evil and the other moral and ethical absolutes. How then can we better comprehend the significance of the caving in to the profane by the Sabbatain sect and traditional rationalistic Judaism¡¯s incapacity to bring the community back to adherence to the Law of the Torah? For indeed the profanity of the Sabbatain sect and the town¡¯s indulgence and embrace of this profanity is one of the central themes of the novel. They proclaimed salvation through a sort of ecstasy of sinning, as if the path to purification and spiritual cleanliness lay through the sheer intensity with which they gave in to the forbidden. The forbidden was contained within a supercharged other world of disruptive powers and supernatural invitations to pleasure which the Law of the Torah in its wandering history had collided with. A terrific population of essences and beings had collided with the Law and was held under the sacred through the Kabala and the fringes of everything, several entire religions and erstwhile creators screwed down under dots, letters, and ritual gestures (Hughes).


             According to Ted Hughes¡¯ review of the novel, one could argue that the whole of modern Western life is reflected by the inescapable enticements represented by the Sabbatain sect. The history of the West in the last century is the history of one vast scientifically programmed surrender to what was formerly forbidden and unknown, as if salvation lay that way. Freudian psychology¡¯s demystification of the sex drive and Godless existentialism, leading to the consequent rupture of the moral restrictions imposed by the traditional order of things, enables one to view the Sabbatain psychic epidemic as an accurate metaphor for a cultural landslide that has destroyed all spiritual principles and dumped an entire age into a cynical materialism emptied of meaning (Hughes).


             Like Hughes, Ruth Wisse in her introduction to the novel claims that the political and social transformations and forces at work on both the inward looking Jews of Poland and on the wider West itself are expressed by the dissension between the rival sects in Goray and the victory of the profane over the sacred. The turbulence in the novel mirrored the political realities Singer encountered when he took stock of the society from which he emerged and escaped in time to avoid Hitler¡¯s slaughter and destruction of this very society. The Jews of Poland in the period between the two world wars could not agree amongst themselves on the political or the theological significance of their suffering at the hands of warring armies and ever present anti-Semitism. The possibilities for redemption included political Zionism and nationalism, but political dependency in Europe could also find an alternative through divine interpretation or world revolution. The result was a splintering into factions, each with an exclusive vision of the desired and hoped for Jewish future. The aggression that could not be directed against the Poles due to the subordinate position of the Jews within Poland exploded without inhibition in an internecine debate (Wisse xiv). Singer was deeply troubled by the disunity brought about by this factionalism among the Jews of Poland. His philosophical skepticism prevented him from embracing the communist and socialist panaceas promised by their zealous adherents to be the new messiahs for the oppressed and downtrodden. This to some extent explains Singer¡¯s depiction of the dangers presented by Goray¡¯s over-zealous faith in national redemption promised by the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi.


             Satan in Goray, while critiqued by some as disorganized and contradictory includes a stunning climax and finish, the possession of Rechele by a dybbuk. It is possible to view this climax in psychological terms, to argue that Singer portrayed a kind of psychosis resulting from the conflict of extremes: the rigid monological orthodoxy of Benish on the one hand, the free license to sin introduced to Goray by Gedaliya on the other. According to Ruth Wisse, we readers can view Rechele¡¯s possession through the lens of modern Freudian psychology even though the novel is written in a language and world view which predates modern psychology by centuries.


             Irving Buchen in his article Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Revival of Satan argues in contrast to Wisse that the attempt to explain the demonic possession of Rechele through the terminology of modern psychology or social science erroneously comprehends Singer¡¯s project to revive the belief in the supernatural powers which surround and inhabit our world, and in the arch fiend who presides over this dark cosmos, the Devil. Singer genuinely believed in the darkness and light of the supernatural world, and viewed both sides with a kind of reality which modernity has dismissed by explaining it away through Freudian analysis or modern social science which worships progress and has transformed Satan¡¯s evil into the ills of society (Buchen 129).


¡°If the theologians are correct in warning that Satan¡¯s most diabolical weapon is a disbelief in his existence, then perhaps the Devil has never reigned with more secret and comprehensive triumph than in the twentieth century¡± (Buchen 129).


Through the clinical perspective of scientific psychoanalysis, the modern thinkers and writers have explained away the Devil as a metaphor for forbidden inner drives and social ills. Singer¡¯s revival of Satan removes the reader from the modern scientific age and transports him or her back to the period when the Devil was not a metaphor for a metaphor, but instead was a real force to be contended with and not ¡°understood¡± or ¡°explained¡± as a vision, dream, or hallucination. Untamed, he is there in fact and force and not subject to plausible psychological or psychical explanations (Buchen 131).


             According to Jewish tradition the Devil is a fallen angel who before his fall stood beside in partnership and service to the Master of the Universe. Hence in resurrecting the Devil and his evil, Singer implicitly revives the possibility of God and belief, imparting dread to the personal choice which extends from free will and renewing the issue of the purpose of existence (Buchen 131-132).


             Singer in fact wants us to believe that Rechele¡¯s possession was real and not a mere manifestation of psychological maladies. Just as the profanity of Rechele¡¯s rape by the dybbuk and impregnation by him is a disturbing tale for Singer which he wants the reader to confront as ¡°real¡±, as real also is the magnitude of the sins of the Sabbatain sect when they attempt to force the messiah before God is ready to grant him to the world. There is a sense in which their sin extends from an essential impatience with providence and an unrealistic and vain search for clarity in a world fraught with immovable and unconquerable mysteries.


¡°The basic insight is that the Messianic urge is a request for clarity that is not only beyond man¡¯s means, but also the process tarnishes what is in his power. It is an attempt to unburden the world of its permanent mystery and escape the dread of living in unresolved and perhaps irresolvable duality¡± (Buchen 141).


The quest for complete knowledge by those who would try to force the Messiah into being before God and his world are ready for redemption and salvation brings to mind the episode in the book of Exodus of Moses¡¯ encounter with God. After scaling the heights of the sacred Mount Sinai to receive the commandments and the Ark of the Covenant, Moses asks God to reveal his true name. God responds only with the words ¡°I am that I am.¡± The lesson here is that the majesty and power of the Lord is so great, the immensity of his compassion and the firmness of his demand for justice are so far beyond the capacity of mere mortals to fully comprehend, that the very essence of God¡¯s being, his true name and the purpose of his cosmos, is beyond us. We are incapable of knowing even his name. This acknowledgement of the insufficiency of man¡¯s knowledge set in contrast to the immensity of God¡¯s universe and his goodness, his holiness, conforms with the claim in Moses Maimonides¡¯ Guide to the Perplexed that God has no material essence, no physical being. Perhaps we must be content with our fundamental ignorance of the totality of the whole and agree with Spinoza, who Singer read and studied, that God as the unmoved mover, is the origin of all being and time and substance to whom we must submit by living an ethical life precisely because we humbly comprehend our smallness in relation to God¡¯s incomprehensible immensity. Obedience to the moral and ethical imperatives is required as we recognize that life itself extends to us through the gift of creation.


             The climax of Satan in Goray, the account of the Dybbuk of Goray, conforms to the view that it is a sin to rebel against the majesty of the Lord through the vain quest for total knowledge and certainty. Indeed the dybbuk who possesses Rechele has received his punishment because he, a defiant and unrepentant sinner, is guilty of the sin of hubris by denying the existence of God at the very gates of hell.


¡°Woe is me, fore I said in my heart, There is neither Justice nor Judge, and I denied that the Torah is from Heaven, and I despised all wise scholars and I brazenly swore at them and set dogs on them as in the practice of pranksters¡± (Singer 224).


Even after death the lost soul continues to deny the existence of God and his consequent duty to obey what is above and superior to him, though this superiority of the divine exists somewhere outside of his ability to fully comprehend it.


¡°But (such is the way of the wicked) I grew not submissive and I remained haughty at the very gate of Gehenna and before my death my comrades came to me and they asked me Abraham (such was my name) dost thou repent: And I answered them in my pride, Now even now I do not believe that there is a Creator in the world and before I expired I blasphemed and thus my soul left me denying Him¡± (Singer 224-225).


In the Jewish tradition, all who repent with sincerity, devotion, and humility, are forgiven. Hence the importance of the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the ten days in between known as the Days of Awe. The dybbuk of Goray has not yet repented in sincerity and continues to haughtily deny the very existence of the Lord, and is therefore condemned to wander the earth in a painful and fearsome transmigration from body to body, never to be granted a peaceful final rest or safe passage to heavenly paradise. Singer¡¯s message is clear. Man must embrace his insufficiency to conquer the unconquerable though the quest for certain comprehension of the incomprehensible. Submission to God¡¯s will is required due to the unfathomable capacity of the Lord to grant pardon to all but the most stubborn and unrepentant of sinners. This much of his traditional upbringing Singer, the son of a Rabbi, has not forgotten, in spite of his confession that as a writer and artist and thinker his life and craft has been one long struggle, disputation, and quarrel with the Almighty. Is this not the meaning of the new name, Israel, confirmed upon the patriarch Jacob, who like Singer wrestled with God and his angels? Is this not the true meaning and significance of name of the people Israel, one who, in his all too human insufficiency, wrestles and struggles in the unforgiving desert of his sin with the omnipotent God?



Works Cited


Andersen, David M. ¡°Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations in California.¡± Modern Fiction Studies 16:4 (1970/1971:Winter): 423.


Buchen, Irving H. ¡°Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal Past.¡± Critique 8:3 (1966:Spring/Summer): 5.


Buchen, Irving H. ¡°Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Revival of Satan.¡± Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 9 (1967:Spring): 129.


Burgin, Richard A. ¡°A Conversation with Isaac Bashevis Singer.¡± Chicago Review 31:4 (1980:Spring): 53.


Guzlowski, John. ¡°Isaac Bashevis Singer¡¯s Satan in Goray and Bakhtin¡¯s Vision of the Carnivalesque.¡± Critique 39:2 (1998:Winter): 167.


Hughes, Ted. ¡°The Genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer.¡± New York Review of Books. April, 22, 1965.


Pinsker, Sanford. ¡°Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Interview.¡± Critique 11:2 (1969): 16.


Sigel, Ben. ¡°Sacred and Profane: Isaac Bashevis Singer¡¯s Embattled Spirits.¡± Critique. 6:1 (1963:Spring): 24.


Singer, Isaac Bashevis. ¡°Isaac Bashevis Singer – Nobel Lecture.¡± December 8, 1978. <>


Singer, Isaac Bashevis. Satan in Goray. United States: The Noonday Press, 1955, 1983, & 1996.


Wisse, Ruth R. ¡°Introduction.¡± Published in Satan in Goray. United States: The Noonday Press, 1996: vii-xlviii.