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What is mysticism in Chaim Potok's The Chosen?

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sliq | eNotes Newbie

Posted September 1, 2010 at 7:17 AM via web

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What is mysticism in Chaim Potok's The Chosen?

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lynnebh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted September 3, 2010 at 10:47 PM (Answer #1)

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In this novel, there is one part in which Reuven’s father explains Danny’s father’s (Reb Saunders) beliefs to him. Reuven does not understand why Danny and his father do not talk, why Reb is always silent. David Malter (Reuven’s father) tries to explain a lot of Jewish history to his son and in one of his “lectures” he describes Kabbalah, which is Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah is concerned with the mystical aspect of Rabbinic Judaism. It is a set of mysterious teachings meant to explain the relationships between God, man and the universe. Kabbalah consists of a set of scriptures that are considered to be outside the traditional Jewish scriptures. It seeks to define man’s nature and the nature of the universe, the purpose of existence, and various other philosophical questions. It presents methods to help people understand these concepts and arrive at spiritual realization. It uses classical Jewish thought and sources to explain its teachings. Kabbalists attempt to define the inner meaning of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and rabbinic teachings as well as to explain the meaning of Jewish religious observances.

This is illustrated when Danny and his father engage in their Talmudic discussions that Reuven finds so distasteful and cruel. Reb Saunders conducts lengthy discussions with his son about the meaning of the Talmud, but then brings in all sorts of other references. He is testing his son’s knowledge. He sneaks in “fake” mistakes, hoping his son is astute enough to catch them and correct them. This is a game they play, which Danny enjoys, but Reuven finds maddening at first. Eventually, Reuven himself participates, even though his knowledge is not as extensive as Danny’s.

Also, the way Reb Saunders has chosen to raise Danny is mystic. He does not talk directly to him. When he wants to tell Danny something important, he invites Reuven over to his house and addresses Reuven, but he is really talking to Danny. Reuven finds this bizarre, but Reuven’s father later explains to him that this method is rare in Judaism and part of the mystical experience. He has chose to teach Danny with silence because he believes that Danny must let the silence speak to him in order to better understand the suffering of the people, so he can take on the suffering of the people when he becomes a rabbi and takes his father's place. Danny eventually learns how to accept the silence and he even embraces it. He tries to explain it to Reuven, but Reuven is not into the mystical side of Judaism. In fact, Reuven's father repeatedly says he does not approve of it.

It is not until the end of the novel, when Reb Saunders accepts the fact that his son will not follow him and become a “tzaddik” (spiritual leader) that Reb starts talking directly to Danny. There is a lot of interesting but complicated Jewish history in this novel. The author does a good job of explaining most of it, but it is helpful to do some research about Hasidic, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Judaism to fully grasp what is going on in this novel.

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