Sunday, June 13, 2010

Androgynous by Isaac Bashevis Singer



This Reb Mottele picked an ongoing quarrel with the Master of the Universe. He used to complain to Him: "Just because you are great and I'm a speck of dust, do I have to keep creeping under your nails? You didn't make Yourself great, and I didn't make myself a speck of dust. Given the fact that you are unique, what's the great achievement ? To an Almighty Being, nothing's a surprise."

He said such radical things that conventional Jews fled to the other ends of the earth. In Partsev, there was no shortage of anti-Hasidic rationalists, and this crowd raised an outcry that Reb Mottele was blaspheming. They also smashed his windows. He had only one attendant, Reb Alter, who was an old drunkard. When Reb Alter took a drink, he'd curse God and all His works in the foulest language. In Partsev, worship and rebellion went hand in hand. Reb Mottele used to say 'An apostate out of spite is a righteous man with an appetite.' As long as he knows who his Master is , it does no harm for him to be a rebel. What was Job? What was Korah? Why did Moses break the tablets? Commonplace Jews don't pray- they only flatter; and it is quite likely that God despises flattery. In Patsev, they placed the emphasis on forsaking God while keeping his commandments. The Torah is for this world, and Paradise doesn't come to this world.

Reb Mottele didn't believe in sleeping. Even in his youth he hadn't undressed at night. His wife passed away a year after their marriage. Reb Mottele didn't need a replacement. Piety and property don't go together. His intimates said that at night he did little more than doze fitfully. Since Jewishness is of this world, why sleep it way?In Partsev every day was Simchas Torah. They danced in the morning, they danced at night. They danced on Yom Kippur, and it's more than likely that even on Tishah-b'Ab they didn't hesitate to dance a little dance. 'Torah is rejoicing and rejoicing is Torah' Reb Mottele said...

In Partsev, no one sent written requests for the rebbe's guidance, and payment for advice given was strongly discouraged. Reb Mottele literally didn't know what a coin looked like. His house was falling to pieces; the roof leaked. When it rained, water poured into the synagogue. The stove in the ritual bath-house broke down, and the bath was unheated even in winter. In any case, there was nothing to heat it with. Well, who paid attention to such trivialities anyway? Reb Alter, the shammes, was descended from a brewer, and he could distill brandy- from barley, from potatoes, from apples. The rebbe had an orchard that yielded apples as hard as wood from which Rebbe Alter concocted a liquor, the secret of which no one could discover. Even though Reb Alter had never been seen opening a holy book, he was an outstanding scholar. An ignoramus had no place in Partsev...

When the rebbe's wife died, he was still a young man- barely twenty-as I recall. His intimates busied themselves with matchmaking, but Reb Mottele wouldn't hear of it. Mating, he used to say, is contempt of the Torah. The Litvaks have recluses, but their hermits are steeped in melancholy. They live in terror of Gehenna. In Partsev, they scoffed at Gehenna. "If they want to be whipped in the World to Come", Reb Mottele used to say, "let them be whipped. It's their backsides, not mine." Once a Hasid came to him for advice on how to become God-fearing, and Reb Mottele answered, "one doesn't need to fear God. What's there to be scared of? Jewishness is coziness, not terror. Let the angels quiver and quake. They have no option"...

...Reb Mottele paid little attention to the goings on in town. First of all, there was nobody to tell him about them. Second, he didn't care about anything. He was concerned only about settling his accounts with the Master of the Universe. The few Hasidim who still followed him came to Court only on High Holy Days. Of those who lived with him, some were deaf, some were blind, and the rest were senile. Reb Alter was always drunk. There could have been a conflagration in Partsev but unless the flames reached the court the rebbe wouldn't have known anything about it. Twice a year, during Pesach and after Sukkoth, the river overflowed, but since the water never washed up as far as the rebbe's study house , he went on with his own affairs. To this day, I don't know who told him about Shevach ( the androgyne ) but someone did and for the first time in years the rebbe listened attentively and didn't say "What difference does it make?" Instead he replied, "If she comes here, I want to come to an understanding with her"...

Reb Mottele's books shared the same fate as Reb Mottele: they are hidden. You rarely come across one of his monographs. I've got them all on my own bookshelf. There are certain lights which must remain hidden, or else human free will would come to an end. There are certain unions that have no need to couple. There are certain truths that are perceived less the more evident they become. The real truth is this: The whole world is joy. Heaven is a festival all year long. Of all lies, the greatest falsehood is melancholy."


The New Yorker, 9/29/03
translated from Yiddish by Joseph Sherman

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