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The Failure of Secular Publics and the Rise of the Jewish Religious Public in Nathan Englander’s ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’

By Fuzail Asar Siddiqi

A majority of the discourse around the concept of the public sphere revolves around the need for a secular, rational subject – a participant whose religious identity does not impinge upon her ability to make a reasoned argument. Many philosophers including Richard Rorty, for example, had argued for the need to separate the religious from being introduced into the public square because he believed religion to be a ‘conversation stopper’ (Rorty 1999 [1994]). Nathan Englander’s debut short-story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, traces the experience of Jewishness in America and other parts of the world spanning a period ranging from the World Wars to the modern day. In this paper I shall be discussing some of Englander’s stories based on the Holocaust, and another which documents a movement into religionist thought perhaps as an outcome of the failure of secular publics to prevent events like the Holocaust. Englander through his stories questions the secularization thesis which relegates religion to the periphery in the public sphere, but at the same time also questions the replacement of secular ideals with a religionist one.

Habermas in his lecture “Religion in the Public Sphere” suggests that to participate in the public sphere the religious subject must purge his language of its religiosity into a ‘generally accessible language’ (2006: 14) which is comprehensible to the secular citizen. But the question that is raised is whether such a purgation cleanses the very essence of the argument of the religious subject? The second story of Englander’s Holocaust section is the story entitled ‘The Tumblers’, and can be read as an allegory of sorts to the Habermasian precondition relating to the participation in public discourse. The story revolves around the folklore of the Fools of Chelm and their antics during the World War. The stories about the Fools of Chelm are humorous tales in which the Jewish protagonists come up with absurd ways of solving problems, as the most well-known story of a man who tries to kill a fish by drowning. The story follows a group of Chelm residents who have managed to escape the concentration camps by boarding a different train full of performers that are heading towards a theatre to stage a show for the Fuhrer. In a desperate attempt to survive, the Fools have decided that they will pretend to be acrobats and perform an impromptu show. However, the absurdity of the situation is such that apart from the protagonist Mendel, a majority of the fellow Fools are aged people unable to do such stunts. In a sudden turn of events the show becomes successful because the Fuhrer misunderstands the performance to be a farce mocking the Jewish race itself: ‘“Look”, said the voice. “They are clumsy as Jews”. … “More”, called the voice. “The farce can’t have already come to its end. More!” it said’ (Englander 1999: 54).

The Jewish characters on display on the public stage disguised as acrobats are in a sense stripped of their Jewishness, masking their cultural and religious identities to be able to exist on a public forum. The allegorical significance of the episode is profound because the shedding of one’s cultural and religious baggage to participate in any public forum whether in the form of a theatrical performance or a discourse and debate in the public sphere, according to Englander, will have the same effect – that of evoking laughter and mockery. The Fuhrer’s comments in a way also gain another level of significance in that although the characters are masquerading as acrobats they are nonetheless unable to completely shed their identities; they are identified as Jews on the first glance by the audience.

Englander questions the thesis whether it is possible to participate as equals in a public setting, as subjects that are nothing more than the rational arguments that they posit. This form of abstraction can be problematic because it assumes one’s participation in the public sphere as devoid of any recourse to arguments based on religious resources unless purged of its religious significance. In a way, Englander’s imagination tries to anticipate a post-secularity that recognizes the need to take into account one’s religious identity as part of the rational subject in the public sphere.

The first story, “The Twenty-seventh Man”, highlights the tense relationship of the individual and the state, and the materials circulating in the public domain. The story is set in Stalinist Russia and traces the life and death of an unknown writer, Pinchas Pelovits. In the story, twenty-seven Jewish writers (initially twenty-six but later Pelovits’ name was added on supposedly by a bureaucratic error) are sentenced to death at the behest of one of Stalin’s orders on the charge of circulating Zionist propaganda. The authors are writers of fiction in the Yiddish language and are seen as conspiring against the state and destabilizing its authority. Eventually in the course of the story the captured writers are killed, even though the writers are not concerned about the actions of the state but spend their time in imprisonment discussing their writings and in the end praising Pelovits’ work which was composed mentally during the time they were in jail.


In the story, Englander’s criticism is directed sharply at the state which suspends all ideas of secularism in persecuting Jewish authors. The paranoia of the modern nation-state is brought to the fore because of the power of discourse that the writers being persecuted have at their disposal. Habermas in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere suggests that the political public sphere was preceded by a literary public sphere which debated and critically analysed works of art (1991: 51–7). Eventually, Habermas observes, the literary public sphere started debating political questions, which perhaps would include ideas of sovereignty and the origins of the sovereignty of the state. Englander shows in the case of Stalinist Russia the paranoia that such a public sphere can have on leaders obsessed with absolute state power. Englander shows a public of writers that do not care about the state machinery, not holding it to the high esteem expected of them, not even if it wields the power of life or death.

 In the story, Pelovits asks: ‘Are you sure I’m here for being a writer?’ He is answered by another writer who says, ‘Not just for being a writer, my friend … you are here as a subversive writer. An enemy of the state!’ (Englander 1999: 18). Englander highlights the potential power the participant of a public wields when it comes to questions regarding the state or politics. Moreover, there is another pertinent point raised by Englander. Pelovits’ supposed subversiveness comes from the fact that the state thinks that he is trying to take the monopoly of debating political questions away from the state. The state’s paranoia and incessant need for surveillance clamps down heavily on any discussion of politics in the public sphere.

By targeting writers that are Jewish and charging them for allegedly circulating Zionist propaganda under the pretext of secularizing the content of the public sphere, Englander highlights the true agenda of the modern state, that of controlling and censoring all discourses in the public sphere. Howard Caygill in his essay, “Arcanum: The Secret Life of State and Civil Society”, argues that the means of functioning of the state aren’t political and it hides its true anti-political agendas behind the veneer of the political (2015: 21–41). Caygill suggests that the relationship of the state and the public sphere is that of a predator and a prey, where by constant surveillance the state can reinforce its thinking on the secular public sphere and persecute people as is the case in the story as and when it wishes to do so. He shows that the state maintains its power through the method of the secret, that its mode of functioning depends on its ability to keep its secrets secret, and also maintains its monopoly on the concept of the secret by preventing it in the public sphere by constant surveillance and monitoring.

Englander through his stories asks for a radical rethinking of the Enlightenment foundation of secular ideals which he sees the modern state as adopting but having disastrous ends nonetheless. With the persecution of Jews, Englander anticipates an alternative modernity that does not relegate religion to the private sphere but a religious modernity of sorts to overturn the biased so-called secularism that the modern state has as its foundation. Habermas in his essay, “Religion in the Public Sphere” sensed the need for a secular state which does not interfere with the lives of citizens – religious or secular (Habermas 2006: 13). What Englander criticizes is the tendency of the state to suspend its secularism in situations of its liking to purge religious discourse when it deems fit and prosecute its practitioners. Englander’s point of contention is that when the state itself has taken a stance against a religious community it has lost its secular character; the true intentions of the state therefore are hidden, according to Englander, behind the veneer of secularism.

The shortcomings of the idea of secular publics in Englander implies a recourse to an alternative modernity which has at its core the principle of post-secularity, which believes that ethical and moral questions plaguing both the religious and secular citizen can be assuaged to a great extent by the presence of religion in the public sphere. Englander’s emphasis gains its impetus from the apparent failure of the secular tendencies of states and social publics to provide answers and responses to the occurrence of events like the Holocaust in modern societies.

Englander in his two stories on the Holocaust tries to make a case for the failure of the ideals of secularism in the public sphere. This failure, Englander suggests, forces a community to turn towards itself, abandoning secularism for a stauncher religionist thought, in the hope for solace and salvation as in the title story. The title story, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”, centres around the life of a Jewish couple Dov Binyamin and his wife, Chava Bayla. Bayla, who believes she is impure for months because of a prolonged menstrual cycle, refuses to touch her husband who is desperate for physical intimacy. In a bizarre twist, Binyamin goes to a Rebbe who gives him a ‘special dispensation’ (Englander 1999: 181) to go see a prostitute “for the relief of unbearable urges” (182). Binyamin following the Rebbe’s advice meets an American prostitute who, later as he finds out, has given him a venereal disease. Surprisingly, at the time of his suffering his wife’s demeanour has changed and she desires intimacy which he is unable to give because he has not told her about the encounter with the prostitute and his disease.

Englander’s title story makes some very clear suggestions regarding his view of the ideals of the West. Modernity is shown to be linked with the idea of a disease. The American prostitute from which the Jewish man contracts the venereal disease, according to Englander, is the embodiment of the moral and spiritual decay of the socio-ethical systems of the West. This story is an attempt of the Jewish individual to participate in an ethical system which is not his own; the special dispensation given to Binyamin is a chance to partake in a moral scheme outside the limits of his religion, beyond the private limitations of his Jewish faith. Such a participation in a public Western ethics has disastrous consequences for Binyamin causing not only social tension with regards his personal life and the harm to his physical body, but also to his spiritual faith. However, what occurs is a conundrum of sorts because the public exercise of religious reason is the real cause of his problems. Englander does not only criticize the ethical values of Western modernity but also implicitly ends up questioning the very system that is usually proposed as an alternative, a system whose logic of functioning has equally bad consequences for the individual. Religious reason does help in assuaging the physical desires of the body but is the cause of more moral crises and social unrest. While the reason of religion is private following its own closed ethicality, the consequences nonetheless are of a public nature, causing disharmony among social beings of the community. In a way, Englander shows that the hypocrisy of secular society’s ethics is mimicked by the religious public. The advice of the Rebbe in “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” ends up creating situations that do more harm than good. What is called into question therefore is the possibility of the existence of any form of public religious ethics that can do better than the secular ethics against which Englander raises a finger of doubt.

Englander however does not propose an alternative but shows the two extremes and the different kinds of violence inherent in both. While Englander criticises the powerlessness of secular and religious publics in conjuring a remedy for violence, mass violence or otherwise, his philosophy is one that has resigned to its fate and does not produce an answer that can suggest a way out of violence. However, a possible remedy can be taken from Habermas, who in the closing lines of his lecture, “Religion in the Public Sphere”, proposes the idea of postmetaphysical thought (2006: 18), a method that does not have secularism’s stubborn attitude towards religious truth, while at the same time is prepared to learn from religion while remaining strictly agnostic. A way forward as proposed by Habermas is through a middle path, through dialogue and discussion and perhaps more importantly with an open mind that is receptive to learn from the other’s argument.

Works Cited

Caygill, Howard. ‘The Secret Life of State and Civil Society’. In The Public Sphere From Outside The West, Ed. Divya Dwivedi and Sanil V. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. 21–41. PDF.

Englander, Nathan. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. London: Faber and Faber, 1999. Print.

Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. PDF.

———. ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’. European Journal of Philosophy, 14 (2006): 1–25. PDF.

Rorty, Richard. ‘Religion as Conversation Stopper’ (1994). In Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin Books, 1999. 168–75. PDF.

Fuzail Asar Siddiqi is an MPhil Research Scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He works as a freelance copyeditor with Oxford University Press and Pearson Global Editions. He contributes book reviews to The Telegraph, Calcutta, and is also editor of The Informer – Jawaharlal Nehru University’s first student-led newspaper.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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