With so many of the world's religious leaders gathering in New York to address the question of religion and world peace, I am reminded of a much humbler gathering that took place in the same city 20 years ago and more.

A group of editors and publishers was holding its regularly scheduled luncheon. The great Yiddish novelist and short-story writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, later to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, had accepted an invitation to be our speaker. Singer was a writer in whose imagination mischief and spirituality kept close company. The mischief was sometimes impish, but it was occasionally fiendish. As for the spirituality, it too added a dimension often of wonder but occasionally of horror. Perhaps no one writing, as he did, about the lost world, the murdered world, of Eastern European Jewry could see the world as other than a deeply ambiguous place. <

After lunch, fragile and pale with his faintly comic Yiddish accent, Singer spoke as a grandfatherly watchmaker explaining the workings of a watch to a rapt grandson, and rapt we were. He was opening the literary contraption up and showing us which parts of it did the real work, which could break at your touch, which were just for show, and so forth. He talked about the power but also the risk when explicit sex appears on the page and about another kind of power and another kind of risk when, so to put it, explicit spirit appears on the page--the occult or mystical realm that is so palpable in many of his stories.

And then, suddenly, with what seemed a suppressed chuckle, he broke off in mid-sentence and asked if there were any questions. Questions? More than questions, there was a hunger for more of the same; but as so often in such gatherings, all the more senior people, everyone with a reputation to preserve and defend among equally senior colleagues, hung back. The silence was finally broken by a very young, very idealistic secretary, still thrilled to be working for a New York publishing house, who asked Singer how writers could make the world a better place.

Make the world a better place! It was as if a wide-eyed toddler, had wandered into the room. Was this not New York? Eyes rolled, eyebrows lifted, can-you-believe-this glances were exchanged. But Singer seemed to know that, in all its naivete, this was a question that writers of a certain sort do ask themselves, and he was a writer of that sort. He had indeed asked himself that question and had taken himself seriously as he struggled to answer it. What he said, though, somberly, as if delivering the verdict of some august and anonymous panel of jurors, was, "Writers can't make the world better." But then he gave a little shrug and smiled as if he had just found a silver dollar in his pocket. "Then again," he said, "they can't make it worse either."

There followed a split second of stunned silence, then a wave of laughter, and then, well, something else--a buzz, a stir. When Singer said that writers couldn't make the world worse, every editor in the room began searching his or her imagination for the counter-instance: a writer who had indeed made the world worse. As we headed back to our offices after lunch, we were trading the examples that had come to mind. But as these bad examples came to mind, so did, at a second stage, good examples, examples of writers--some of them on our lists!--who, after all, had surely made the world a little better. The discussion, begun so simply, so childishly, and ended so quickly, had proved remarkably fruitful.

In all seriousness, the question that I hope the eminences gathered this week in New York will ask themselves is, "Can we make the world a worse place?" The great danger at such gatherings, and I have attended a few, is the danger of dueling revelations. With all the best intentions, each delegate feels duty bound to summon up the noblest vista that his or her own tradition contains and to suggest, oh so subtly, that what the assembly must do to make the world a better place is to embrace it. How different it might be if each, instead, asked aloud how his religion, his tradition, beginning in the places around the world where its numbers are largest and its hold on the populace strongest, could make things worse. How illuminating it would be if several such paradoxical visions of the worst could be offered in succession. Each delegate then could see humility in the others and be moved to pity and to solidarity instead of to rivalry. And at any given moment, some hearer might notice, silently, that the shoe being so humbly fit to another's foot also fit his own.

Religious difference, let it be said, is not necessary for the most horrendous warfare to break out. One need think only of Rwanda, where the Tutsis and the Hutus are joined, not divided, by their majority adherence to Roman Catholicism. But religion can undeniably make things worse. If the assembled delegates will begin by thinking about that dark possibility, then they may find their path to brighter possibilities paradoxically shortened. The world needs them. May their deliberations be blessed with success.

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