By Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (2007), 176 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 9, 2010
Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Penitent is a story of a dissatisfied and disillusioned and purposeless man, a holocaust survivor who is overwhelmed with the suffering in the world who wonders whether religion will answer his concerns. It can be read as an interesting and frequently humorous story of a single individual or as a parable of people seeking relief and salvation in religion. Singer is the noted writer who wrote his books in Yiddish and who won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Joseph Shapiro was appalled when he discovered on the same day that both his wife and mistress had lovers and decides that he needs to abandon his current hedonistic unreligious life. His first change is to become a vegetarian, for how can people justify butchering animals to satisfy their hunger. He thinks that he should observe all the detailed rabbinical laws of Judaism, but is stopped short when he realizes that he has no faith that God exists and that the laws were revealed by God.
By coincidence, as he wonders about, he chances upon a small synagogue of extremely observant Jews, feels at home with them, and decides to seek more Jews of the same ilk by traveling to Israel. During the trip, he meets a beautiful girl who is open to sex and Shapiro momentarily forgets his resolve.
However, he arrives in Jerusalem, Israel, and chances upon a rabbi from an extremely Orthodox Chassidic group who is totally divorced from what Shapiro thought were the joys of life. The rabbi invites him to his home for a meal. While there, Shapiro is enchanted by the rabbi's very chaste daughter. When Shapiro tells the rabbi of his various chance meetings, the rabbi criticizes him and insists that Jews do not believe in coincidences.
The novel raises many questions. Can people be religious if they lack faith? Is vegetarianism a form of religion? Is it in a sense a deeper religious consciousness than other observances? Why do so many people who convert or who are "penitent" or "born again" turn to an extreme version of their religion? Is it really necessary to abandon all the joys of life to be religious? Is it possible for people to maintain their extreme religious views while questioning why there is so much suffering in the world, why God allows so much pain and why there are so many tragic unnecessary and seemingly unjust deaths? Is the rabbi correct that coincidences do not exist, that God controls the world? Is it necessary to be religious to live a good life?
In his Author's Note, that follows the novel, Singer admits that he could not accept the religion that Shapiro encounters and he explains why. Readers of The Penitent will be stirred to address the questions we raised, think about their own lives and decide if they accept Singer's view of religion.