James Wood and I.B. Singer

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If you’re catching up on your New Yorkers this Labor Day weekend, don’t overlook lit prof. James Wood’s review essay, “God in the Quad,” from the August 31 issue. (Here’s the link to the abstract; the full digital version is behind the magazine’s firewall.) Wood, a non-believer whose father became a priest late in life, has no use for the so-called New Atheists–Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al.–whom he finds superficial and unpleasant. But  he reserves most of his criticism for religion’s cultured defenders–the New Anti-Atheists–and particularly for Marxist lit prof. Terry Eagleton and his recent book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Eagleton wants religion wihout all that pesky propositional stuff having to do with belief in God and what’s in the historic creeds. Like it or not, argues Wood, religion is propositional. For those like him who can’t accept the propositions, “What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor
the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically
engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.”

Maybe so, but it’s worth bearing in mind that not all religious traditions put an equally strong emphasis on individual assent to particular propositions. Different Christian traditions differ in the importance ascribed to them. Islam has the Shehada (“I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”) and Judaism, the Sh’ma (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”)–but won’t kick you out of the faith if you decline to embrace them. Jews in particular have a tradition of tolerating–indeed, of refusing to reject–members of the community who turn their backs on belief. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “The Blasphemer” (1969) tells of such a character, one Chazkele, who had from childhood made himself obnoxious to his co-religionists by scorning their beliefs and practices. The story ends with an account of what follows Chazkele’s demise:

Who listens to a madman? He was taken to the cleansing room and candles were placed at his head. He was dressed in shrouds and a prayer shawl, and the community gave him a plot in the suburban cemetery. Basha, his former mistress, and her company rode after the hearse in droshkies. He is son was five or six years old and he recited Kaddish at the grave. If there is a God and Chazkele must account to Him for his deeds, it will be quite gay in heaven.

As unpleasant as Chris Hitchens, as theologically engaged as James Woods could ask, Chazkele is sent off with the complete ritual package–to be sure with much to answer for, but with his Jewish identity never in doubt.

  • Tom McGohey

    But what are we to make the narrator’s apparent spiritual doubt in Singer’s story? In the last line, he says, “If there is a God … ” suggesting he shares, at least to some degree, Chazkele’s disbelief, despite the fact that just a couple of paragraphs earlier, while debating C., he appears to be arguing for the existence of God, and then later expresses bewilderment about C’s behavior: “To this day, I don’t know what was wrong with Chazkele.”
    I can’t help but wonder if Singer has some sympathy for C’s disbelief; does he see a useful role for skeptics like C.? Instead of offending them with his jokes (presumably blasphemous jokes?), C. appears to spread much merriment among other hospital patients.
    These thoughts are just my initial reaction to the story, which I’ve read only once.

  • Mark Silk

    I’m sure he was sympathetic. The point is: In Judaism, disbelief doesn’t get you kicked out of the tribe.