[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Abramson discusses major themes and motifs in The Assistant, particularly asceticism and imprisonment, and the contrast between Judaic ethics and American materialism.]
The Nature of Jewishness
Although it is only Malamud's second novel, The Assistant moves far beyond The Natural in skillfulness and, unlike the earlier novel, contains a strong Jewish theme. Throughout the tale, he uses the image of the Jew and the ethics of Judaism as a standard of behavior. As we have seen, however, his approach to Jewishness is not a parochial one, in that he casts it as a type of secular humanism, a moral code that all good people try to follow. The main characters, Frank Alpine and Morris Bober, carry the weight of the novel. Frank is shown to be imbibing "Jewish" values from Morris and with Morris's death, Frank replaces him both in the store and in terms of having become an ethical man. At the end of the novel, Frank has himself circumcised and becomes a Jew, although in the metaphorical manner in which Malamud uses the term, Frank had already become one.
Morris's definition of Judaism is extremely broad. He tells Frank, "What I worry is to follow the Jewish Law. ... This means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good. This means to other people. Our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else?"1 Frank's rejoinder is telling: "I think other religions have those ideas too ..." (TA [The Assistant], 115).
The point is that although Morris may define Jewish law as the Torah, the basic principles that he chooses to live by are universal. Most of the laws of the Torah are universal, but there are many which Morris chooses to ignore that are directed particularly to the children of Israel. By thus removing any stress on the particular in order to highlight the universal, Morris eliminates the specialness of the Jewish people in world history and dilutes their specific contribution to human ethics.
Universality is stressed again at Morris's funeral, where the rabbi's eulogy proclaims Morris's altruism and downplays the importance of Jewish tradition and adherence to specific Jewish laws, such as synagogue attendance and keeping the dietary requirements. The rabbi must include something about Morris's dilatory adherence to the formal aspects of Judaism, but this lack of specific Jewish practices is really not worth considering. Those aspects of Morris's life that apply to all people are presented as being most important.
Allen Guttmann observes that this definition "turns out to be remarkably like Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: to want for others what you want for yourself. ... What Malamud has done is widen the definition of 'Jew' to the point of meaninglessness."2 Morris is saintly in a human rather than a strictly Jewish sense: "Morris's Jewish Law is synonymous with Malamud's secular moral code. ... Becoming a Jew always refers to a secular, personal, inner struggle. ..."3 It...