Study Guide

The Magic Barrel Religion

By Bernard Malamud

Religion

"Call me Mr. Finkle. I'm not yet a rabbi."
Salzman said he would, but instead called him doctor, which he changed to rabbi when Leo was not listening too attentively. (11-12)

Everyone thinks of Leo as a rabbi even though he's still studying. It bugs him. A lot. But it's not just humility. Later on, we learn that Leo's relationship with God is… problematic. So this exchange is a good piece of foreshadowing as well as a chance to set up Leo's religious turbulence.

Perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union, though there was of course still none. (96)

This is an interesting symbol because Pan is an ancient Greek deity—nothing Jewish about him. And yet Salzman is compared to Pan because of his god-like efforts to guide the couple towards romance. Sure, Salzman's kind of powerful but he is most definitely not a demi-god.

Leo, after a time, slowly replied, "I was always interested in the Law." "You saw revealed in it the presence of the Highest?" (105-106)

Wait, so God is just a rule-maker to Leo? He just tells us where to go and what to do? The story seems to ultimately suggest otherwise: that God guides us in the right direction but leaves the choices us to us.

She was talking not about Leo Finkle, but of a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that Salzman had dreamed up for her—no relation to the living or dead. (110)

Leo resents people's assumptions about him. His dates seem to think he has a connection to God that he doesn't, which is probably because Salzman is an over-eager salesman and told them that Leo loved God. This makes Leo angry with Salzman… and also probably angry with himself. After all, he's studying to be a rabbi. He should love God.

"I think," he said in a strained manner, "that I came to God not because I love Him, but because I did not." (111)

Somebody call the army, because Leo is dropping truth bomb. This might be the definitive moment in the whole story: the moment he realizes that he doesn't love God at all. That kind of makes his rabbinical studies problematic, doesn't it? Luckily, he gets a possible way out eventually with Stella, but between now and then, there's a lot more hand-wringing going on.

Her probing questions had somehow irritated him into revealing—to himself more than her—the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come upon him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. (114)

Half of Leo's big theological epiphany takes place here: he doesn't love anyone besides his parents. And that apparently includes God. It's a good spot to reinforce this story's statement that God is in everyone, and therefore the way we treat each other is the way we treat God. That's the first half of the equation.

He did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man. (114)

Here comes the second half of the epiphany. If God is in man, then loving other people means loving God too. You'd better get to it, Leo.

He seriously considered leaving the Yeshiva, although he was deeply troubled at the thought of the loss of all his years of study—saw them like pages torn from a book, strewn over the city—and at the devastating effect of this decision upon his parents. (115)

Even though Leo has had this big revelation, he still thinks of his studies in non-theological terms: the time lost and the effect on his parents rather than his relationship to God. In order to grow further, he's going to have to do some more changing, which means probably going through more pain, more navel gazing… and maybe a photo of a hot lady to set him on the right path.

He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God. (189)

Here, those earlier notions about loving people in order to love God come full circle. His relationship with Stella will be a reflection of his newfound devotion to God. Notice that he hasn't actually changed his way of thinking. He's just resolved to do better, which means he probably still has a lot of work to do.

Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky. (201)

The divine may not be overtly present, but there are definitely some pretty images in the night sky to remind Leo that God is watching… and probably approves. Even if he isn't, Leo is clearly hopeful. With hope and resolve he just might get what he wants, and Stella just might be the gal help him do it.

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