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The novel The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer is an introspective work in that it urges the readers to look amongst their own lives and determine what makes them who they are. Throughout the course of the novel the protagonist, Jacob experiences a variety of physical, and most tellingly, spiritual pitfalls that lead him on a journey to uncover what makes him and those of his lineage the ones that will be redeemed. Jacob may never exactly pinpoint the cause of human suffering as he so firmly declares, “we are all slaves… Gods slaves” one’s life is preordained perhaps? Are humans subject to God in that they are slaves to both their shortcomings, thereby preventing self-progress, and additionally, humanities past imperfections? The author explores the concept of metaphysical slavery through the use of mood and by insinuating this as being a central theme.
Throughout the novel, Jacob acts in accordance with his moral standards as one brought up by the Jewish community, a stringent and vehemently rule-driven society. The Jewish mindset evidently places their ways as superior to all those which they would consider pagans, “We do not have such murderers among the Jews, No? What do the Jewish aristocrats do? The Jews have no gentry, who owns the land? The Jews have no land” (23). By taking Jacob away from the land of his forefathers Singer effectively places him in a situation in which he is out of his element as well as without means of immediate escape, with this the reader is able to see with him a more robust understanding of the ‘murderous pagans’. Wanda is the means to this change in mindset, with his infatuation towards this ignorant and unclean infidel Jacobs provincial mindset is allowed to wander into the realm of uncertainty. This by no means ever leads him to outright go against his teachings or his faith, yet it does allow him to ponder the causes of suffering through a wider lens, ” Lamented the injustice visited on all living things: Jews, Gentiles, even the flies and gnats crawling on the hips of the cattle (63). Other than liberating the scope of his views, Jacob through his physical liberation is better able to identify the causes of his spiritual bondage. Jacob cannot help but see the injustices in the lands he visits including amongst his own kind, yet it is clear that regardless of the strong examples that Singer conveys, through his text, they do not serve to drive away Jacob from his journey to God’s domain into dark and forbidden paths, at least Jacob does not feel this way.
This is the essential point, since Jacob regardless of the cardinal and constant sins he has committed, is unashamed to stand in the presence of his maker at novels end, it proves that at least subconsciously he has liberated himself from the chains of implied inadequacy. No, he does not consider himself redeemed nor forgiven, he remains firm in his beliefs as one with his foundations would, yet what liberates him from despair is essentially his assertion that he is inadvertently bound, “Everything remained the same the ancient love, the ancient grief… or who knew, perhaps it was always the same Jacob and the same Rachel”(279). Singer here wants the reader to ponder whether this concept of preordination, of a never-ending cycle, to be the means to redemption, going back to Jacobs assertion that we are all His slaves, does this liberate us from fault? Does this belief take free will and agency out of the equation? For Jacob, this is the redemption that his unclean and doubtful self-had been searching for.
The Jews for their part also follow a cycle of bondage yet in a manner that doesn’t bode well for them. The community as a whole is characterized by the numerous amounts of laws which according to their holy texts they must live by in order to remain pure and be able to stand shamelessly in the day of judgment. Jacob however, with his numerous years of exile states that there is much that he did not realize about these his race. The exact words he uses are that he was not conscious before of much of what he now realizes, it would seem that his journey really was liberating. The Torah appears to be the supreme law with a variety of lesser scripture such as the Mishnah and the Gemara, it is here that Jacob takes issue with the openness of these’ many laws, “in the later commandments the laws were as numerous as the sands of the desert… a wry thought occurred to him: if this continued, nothing would be kosher, what would the Jews live on then? Hot coals?”(117). Through great pondering the Jewish scholars scholars and even the commoners have placed the Jewish community in a position in which their freedoms become less and less numerous, in this way the Jews seemingly become slaves to their numerous laws, laws which did not prevent the sacking of their towns by the Cossacks.
This idea is subjective, however; some may find solace and freedom in the intense guidance that these statutes bring, and the greater issue is also contingent on this concept of subjectivity. By choosing to only obey parts of the law, the superficial kind,they ignore the greatest commandment, loving God, yet how can they love God when all He desires is for man to love his neighbor? The numerous sufferings that the Jews face do not seem to deter them in their circular path of iniquity according to Jacobs views based on the numerous people he has encountered, “The Jews had learned nothing from their ordeal; rather suffering had pushed them lower”(119). If Jacob’s interpretation of the Jews’ action is in any way accurate it shows that while adversity may bring humility to some it is but a moments feeling and back they go to their hateful ways, in this way the Jews depicted by Singer are slaves to their own avarice and shortcomings. Clearly, Singer attempts to drive the point of metaphorical slavery as he uses numerous examples both narrow and broad to point the reader toward his criticism of certain Jewish practices and the numerous ways that the ideology makes one a slave to God and to oneself.
Singer, through Jacob’s words and reasonings as well as his treatment on his pilgrimage, conveys to the reader conflicting feelings; what is usually constant however is the hypocrisy and overall feeling of cynicism their actions give the reader. This is not to give a sense of stereotype however, there are many fellow Jews which lend Jacob a hand regardless of his sometimes shameful position, what it does serve for however is to urge the reader to give thought to how and why they act in their faith. Is it for self-fulfillment? self-gain? Perhaps these factors are more descriptive of the clergyman rather than the Followers. Regardless of the cause or the reasoning Singer places forward the argument that perhaps this perversion of the established laws and commandments while supposedly done to liberate in reality bound one to one’s own ineptitude.
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