I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, flump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in. They said, "Gimpel, you know the rabbi's wife has been brought to childbed?" So I skipped school. Well, it turned out to be a lie. How was I supposed to know? She hadn't had a big belly. But I never looked at her belly. Was that really so foolish? The gang laughed and hee-hawed, stomped and danced and chanted a good-night prayer. And instead of the raisins they give when a woman's lying in, they stuffed my hand full of goat turds. I was no weakling. If I slapped someone he'd see all the way to Cracow. But I'm really not a slugger by nature. I think to myself: Let it pass. So they take advantage of me.
—from “Gimpel the Fool,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (trans. Saul Bellow), 1957
In his tale of Gimpel, the gullible baker of a small village near Cracow, Poland, who goes through life being the butt of jokes, Isaac Bashevis Singer shows the transformation of a simple man confronted with truth. After the woman he marries reveals on her deathbed that she was the town prostitute and all the children Gimpel thought he had fathered were not his, he is devastated, both by her death and the web of deceit in which he had been caught, publicly, humiliatingly, for twenty years of his married life. One night the Spirit of Evil tempts him with revenge.
"How can I deceive all the world?" I asked him. He answered, "You might accumulate a bucket of urine every day and at night pour it into the dough. Let the sages of Frampol eat filth." "What about the judgement in the world to come?" I said. "There is no world to come," he said. "They've sold you a bill of goods and talked you into believing you carried a cat in your belly. What nonsense!" "Well then," I said, "and is there a God?" He answered, "There is no God, either." "What," I said, "is there then?" "A thick mire."
At first Gimpel once again plays the fool and believes the lies, that there is no God and, therefore, no final judgment. But this time, ironically, the truth confronts him in the apparition of his deceased wife who cries “You fool! Because I was false is everything false too? I never deceived anyone but myself. I’m paying for it all, Gimpel. They spare you nothing here.” Horrified, Gimpel does not carry out his vengeful plans. Instead, he leaves Frampol and wanders from place to place entertaining children with improbable tales; at the end of his life, having prepared the shrouds for his burial, he lays on his beggar’s bed of straw, and says, “When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”
We may not identify with Gimpel as to the extent of his gullibility, but there is in all of us a desire not to be made a fool of, a desire to protect ourselves from the deceit of those around us, and yet at the same time, the need to trust someone wholeheartedly and without reserve. Confronted with betrayal, we become cynical and go to the opposite extreme of trusting no one. Not even God. Not even His existence. Not wanting to be deceived, we fall prey to the greatest deception of all. Like Gimpel. “But God gave me His help,” he says, and he rejects this ultimate deception. But his wife and the entire village of Frampol who had behaved as if there were no God, no final judgment–they had swallowed the greatest lie of all.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. (Psalm 14:1)
How are we as Christians to live in a world that has “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25)? After all, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools ….” (Rom 1:19-22)
Do we then, as Christians, live ensconced in our cynicism, separating ourselves from them as Gimpel did by believing to his dying breath that there is nothing of value in this world? God forbid!
We are called to go out into the world, not as Gimpels, but as ambassadors of Christ who charges us saying,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” (Matt. 10:16-18)
Moreover, we are commanded by our Savior not only to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,’” but to also “‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12: 30-31)
Indeed we are not to go out from the world either in retreat or disillusionment, but we are to respond in the love shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit of Christ Himself. No one is so beyond the pale, so worldly or contemptible but, as John Calvin puts it, “the Lord shows him to be one to whom he deigned to give the beauty of his image.” Calvin continues:
We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: Whatever the character of man, we must yet love him because we love God.”