by Chaim Potok
David Malter is the voice of reason in the novel. At first, it seems Reuven has inherited many of his prejudices from his father, but it turns out that he just hasn’t been listening closely enough. David’s whole thing is that there are many sides to every story. If it weren’t for his reminding Reuven of this, Reuven and Danny might never have become friends. David also raises several important ethical dilemmas.
First, he seems to be risking his life teaching, writing, and participating in politics. He’s literally killing himself with work. He’s always coughing and hacking, and he has two heart attacks in the five years. His heart is literally breaking under the news of the Holocaust. He pointedly tells Reuven he could die at any moment and that he’s trying to do as much good in the world as he can, even if it kills him and leaves Reuven without family. This is reminiscent of a famous Talmudic paradox: should a person give up his/her own life to save another’s? It’s an intricate, unsolvable puzzle. Thanks to David, now you have a chance to weigh in on it.
The second ethical dilemma presented by David involves him giving Danny books to read behind his father’s back. Danny is eternally grateful to him for doing it, but neither David nor Reuven is sure how he feels about it. Throughout the novel, this dilemma is weighed. Why is it important? One reason is because it speaks to the novel’s theme of home. Home is not always the house we live in, but sometimes the larger community in which the house is located.
When Danny can’t read what he wants to, the library becomes a surrogate home for him, or a bridge between his childhood home and the home he will make for himself in the world. David Malter acts as a surrogate father during this transition period, getting Danny started so he can eventually figure out on his own what books to read. Yet, David thinks it’s wrong to go against Reb Saunders's wishes with respect to his son. As such, David embodies the novel’s insistence that, while there is always a choice, choices are rarely easy to make, and sometimes one element of our belief system will conflict with another in a single decision.