Sunday, March 22, 2015

On the Altar of Perfection: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray

Isaac Bashevis Singer, in New York City in 1975. (Photo credit: Bruce Davidson)

Messiahs are seductive characters, for at least one very obvious reason: the Messiah, by definition, perfects the world. Different religious traditions have different understandings of what (or who) the Messiah is, different estimations of the amount of blood and gore that will precede the Messiah, and different illustrations of what the world that the Messiah ushers in will look like. But they agree that the coming of the Messiah will in some way make the world the way it should be, and could be if it was not for the imperfections of human beings and human leadership. If we are being honest, this Messianism is not limited to religious traditions – the notion that there is one person, one idea, or one system that, instituted perfectly, can obliterate the injustices in the world is also found in apparently secular political theories like capitalism, Marxism, and fascism. In all its forms, Messianism encourages a single-minded devotion to a particular future, encouraging those entranced by that vision to devote all their energy to its fulfillment. In Satan in Goray (1955), Isaac Bashevis Singer illustrates the ways that Messianism can inspire and destroy a community. Few novels so well demonstrate the destructive power of inspiration itself, while giving just due to the brilliance and beauty that makes such inspiration powerfully seductive. 

Satan in Goray is actually Singer’s first novel, originally published in installments in a literary magazine in 1935, and as a novel in 1955 (translated by Jamie Sloan with input from Singer). Singer is more famous for his other, later novels (The Family Moskat, The Magician of Lublin, Shosha), memoirs (In My Father's Court), and short story collections (The Spinoza of Market Street, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, A Crown of Feathers): he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 for his oeuvre as a whole, and there have been numerous stage and film adaptations of his various works (including Paul Mazursky's Enemies, A Love Story, and, of course, Yentl, based on his short story). But Satan in Goray is unusual: it is the only major work whose composition dates from before the 33-year-old Singer immigrated from Poland to the United States in 1935, and the gap between Satan in Goray and Singer’s other works is the longest of his literary career (though he did write for newspapers and journals in that period.)

Singer’s story takes place in the village of Goray in Eastern Europe, “that town in the midst of the hills at the end of the world,” a town of Jews who survived the 1648 Chmelnicki massacres and slowly rebuilt itself – rebuilt itself, but carrying the scars of those attacks in memory and in body. We are introduced to Goray in the immediate aftermath of the pogroms, as “corpses lay neglected in every street, with no one to bury them. Savage dogs tugged on dismembered limbs, and vultures and crows fed on human flesh.” And while those who return rebuild the house of prayer and patch the roofs, replant fields and re-establish trading with nearby towns, Goray is never exactly quite what it once was – the shadows of Chmelnicki are to be found in the plethora of women pursuing divorces from men who have simply disappeared (presumed dead), and in the dead family members (raped and killed, impaled, raped, suicide) that are so common as to only deserve passing reference. Even those who escaped direct violence are infected by the fears of a community that knows they are one step from obliteration – and no one demonstrates that combination of resilience and vulnerability more than Rechele, the sensual but broken daughter of one of the town rabbis. 

Rechele’s father, Rabbi Babad, is also broken by the massacres; more than having lost his wife and son, he now lives an itinerant life, moving constantly from one place to another and largely abandoning his daughter on her own in Goray (and it is implied that this abandonment has quite a bit to do with what Rechele later becomes). The other rabbi of Goray, Rabbi Benish (which could be translated from Hebrew as ben ish, or ‘Son of Man’), seems less broken. He returns to the town, and begins to perform his duties, instructing young men in Jewish traditions and texts, adjudicating legal disputes, and reasserting his position as the more-or-less beloved social and ethical policeman of the community. It is after Rabbi Benish returns that he hears rumors of Sabbatai Zevi whose claim to the status of Messiah was beginning to electrify the decimated Jewish communities of Europe – it is against Messianic fervor that Benish directs much of his attention.

But Babad and Benish are not the only two men who could be called the Rabbi of Goray; there is also Reb Itche Mates, who brings the fever for the Messiah to Goray and encourages the villagers to study mystical – rather than traditional and legal – texts, and who is indirectly responsible for Rabbi Benish’s death. Reb Itche Mates introduces an infection into Goray, but most importantly he creates a gap in authority. With the death of Rabbi Benish, there is no longer tension between the believers in Sabbatai Zevi and those who remain faithful to more tradition forms of Judaism (including a prohibition going back hundreds of years against anticipating or encouraging the coming of the Messiah) – the believers have increasingly unrestricted influence on the town. Reb Itche Mates is also brought low, fascinatingly, when he is revealed to be literally impotent and unable to consummate his marriage to Rechele. 

Goray (Goraj), Poland, sometime before the Second World War. (Photo courtesy of Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre Centre)

And then there is the last claimant to the title of Rabbi of Goray: Reb Gedaliya (the Great Reb), who embodies and advocates a sensuousness and joy that the residents of Goray forgot (or perhaps never really knew) was possible. A believer that the perfection of the world is immanent, and that such perfection will render meaningless previous religious law, he releases women from their bonds to disappeared men so that they may procreate (and Rechele from Itche Mates so that he can marry her). In contrast to Reb Itche, he is very, very potent. He encourages dancing and prophecy, dancing and feasting, dancing and sexual freedom… there is a great deal of dancing under Reb Gedaliya.

It shouldn’t rise to the level of a ‘spoiler’ to say that this book is a warning against the enchantments cast by the promise of perfection. But what is remarkable about Singer’s book is that it makes it possible to understand, both theoretically and materially, why such perfection is enticing enough to overcome reason. For the residents of Goray, the coming of the Messiah will not only release them from the fear and violence and oppression which define their lives. The proximity of the coming of the Messiah, as heralded by Reb Gedaliya, allows the citizens of Goray to engage in all the sensual pleasures – sex, food, and always, always dancing – that they thought were shameful and restricted. In fact, the joy of these sensual pursuits is perhaps even more apparent to a contemporary audience than it was when English readers first encountered this work in 1955 when Singer wrote Satan in Goray. There are moments under Reb Gedaliya when the laughter and smiles of those anticipating the Messiah, the rush with which men and women hurry to each other's beds and revel in their bodies and the physical world around them, is truly beautiful. It is in the juxtaposition of unrestrained joy and its catastrophic aftermath that this book excels.

Messianism – religious and secular – is an invidious presence in the world today, and it is not limited to any particular faith or ideology. From the political messianism of ISIS to the apocalyptically-driven Christian militias in Africa to the religious Zionism of Jews obsessed with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the ability of faith to blind us to the world around us in the name of the world-to-come is everywhere in evidence. Whether it is capitalism’s faith in the ability of a free market to address economic injustice or Marxism’s faith that the uprising of the proletariat to that same end, political ideologies are engaged in the very same thing – after all, the free market may result in horrific poverty now, but if we just give it time all will be rectified (!). And we all understand it; we would love for the world in our lifetime to be perfected. But at least one of the questions that Satan in Goray forces us to ask is very simple:

What are we willing to do to the world and to the people around us in the pursuit of that perfection?

Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.


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