Chaim Potok's The Chosen focuses on the contrasts between extreme ends of Orthodox Judaism. Despite criticisms that Potok is overly optimistic—Reuven regains his sight, Danny renounces the tzaddikate without being ostracized by his father, Danny and Reuven resolve many of the conflicts they feel between the secular world and Orthodox Judaism—Potok's novel provides us with valuable insights into American Orthodox Jewish life during and after World War II. The novel explores in detail the lives and traditions of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, and creates an apparently realistic portrait of both cultures. The Chosen attempts to explore the place of Judaism in a secular society, provides insights into tensions between faith and scholarship, and suggests Judaism's need to create a new philosophy for the modern world.
The setting is Brooklyn in the 1940s. Reuven's detailed descriptions of his and Danny's homes and Reb Saunders' synagogue appear as set-pieces in the novel. This focuses our attention on plot and theme. This self-contained Jewish world, completely separate from the secular world, suggests the conflict between Hasidic existence and secular life—a theme which is repeated throughout the novel.
Reuven Malter's first person narrative encourages our strong identification with him. Like him, we are bewildered by Reb Saunders' silence, and are furious when Reb Saunders excommunicates him. The dialogue is direct, uncomplicated, and convincing, though relatively flat. The strong focus on plot and theme results in little richness of tone: as Sheldon Grebstein comments, the novel's "overall color is gray."
An understanding of Judaism is crucial to interpreting The Chosen, which focuses on the opposite poles of Orthodoxy and Hasidism. Hasidism originated in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, and its followers immediately came into conflict with the Mitnagdim (opponents), or established religious authorities. The Mitnagdim focused on scholarship and formal prayer, while the Hasidim (pious ones) believed that studying Talmud (the book of Jewish law and ritual) was not as important as making every aspect of their lives holy. By the 20th century, Hasidism's focus had changed substantially to value studying Talmud and eliminating anything from the secular world. Hasidism's leaders were called tzaddikim (righteous ones), and were regarded as superhuman links between God and the community. The Hasidim believed that the only correct form of worship was to approach God through their tzaddik, rather than individually as Orthodox Jews did. Non-Hasidic Jews were considered apikorsim (Jews who denied the basic tenets of their faith), and were shunned. This conflict appears during the baseball game between Reuven's Orthodox team and Danny's Hasidic team, which takes on overtones of a holy war.
Two significant historical contexts are World War II and the Zionist movement. Reuven mentions the D-Day invasion in France, the Battle of the Bulge, the death of President Roosevelt, the Germans' surrender in May 1945, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war serves as a reminder of the secular world. No one is immune to its effects, as we see in the different reactions of the Hasidic and Orthodox communities to news of the German concentration camps. Reb Saunders believes these camps were God's will, and speaks of Europe's Jewish communities having disappeared "into heaps of bones and ashes." In contrast, Rav Malter believes that Jews can wait no longer for God or the Messiah, insisting: "'If we do not rebuild Jewry in America, we will die as a people.'" He becomes an outspoken supporter of the Zionists, who believe that the American Jews must make Palestine into a Jewish homeland. The Zionists' opponents, of which Reb Saunders is one, believe this would corrupt the Holy Land. Eventually, the United...
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Nations votes to create the Jewish state of Israel. After escalating violence between Arabs and Jews, the Zionist and Hasidic communities feel more unity. These historical contexts suggest the tension between the different sects of Judaism, and more specifically between the Malters' Orthodoxy and Reb Saunders' extreme Hasidism.
The central imagery of The Chosen appears in metaphors of vision. Reuven's eye trouble leads him into another world, one which forces him to leave the pieces of his old identity behind "alongside the shattered lens of my glasses." His new identity incorporates his friendship with Danny along with a much wider view of the world. Danny begins wearing glasses just before he enters Hirsch College. His eye problems suggest his limitations: although he is intellectually curious, he lacks compassion, and doesn't see the wider view of the world that Reuven sees. Once Danny learns empathy, "there was a light in his eyes that was almost blinding."
The novel's main relationships are between narrator Reuven Malter, Danny Saunders, Reuven's father Rabbi David Malter, and Danny's father Reb Saunders. Reuven—whose name in Hebrew means "behold a son"—loves mathematics, but wants to become a rabbi like his father. He is a good scholar, with an open mind, and a compassionate young man. Danny—Hebrew for "God is my judge"—is heir to the tzaddikate, but wants to become a psychologist. Despite his brilliant mind, he lacks compassion, which we see in his feelings of murderous rage during the baseball game, and in his cool appreciation of Hemingway's artistry in describing ants being roasted alive on a burning log. Danny is terribly torn between the demands of his intellect and the traditions of the tzaddikate dynasty. He dreads the thought of becoming tzaddik, for he fears losing his contact with the secular world. Despite this, he already thinks of himself as tzaddik, and feels pride in the respect he's given as heir.
Like Reuven and Danny, their fathers represent opposite philosophical and religious poles. Rabbi Malter, Reuven's father, is tremendously understanding: despite his broad knowledge of Talmud, he is open to ideas from the secular world. His passionate support of the Zionist movement arises from his desire for a meaningful life. Reb Saunders, Danny's father, is tzaddik to his community. He is both a great Talmudist (scholar of Talmud) and a great tzaddik with a reputation for both brilliance and compassion. However, he is also a tyrant, absolute ruler of his household and his community. He cannot accept any idea coming from the "contaminated" or secular world; in his eyes, the Zionist movement is sacrilege and a violation of the Torah. Danny pities his father because he's intellectually trapped in his Hasidic traditions and therefore has an extremely narrow view of the world.
Minor characters include Tony Savo and Billy Merrit, whom Reuven meets while in hospital. These two characters suggest the importance of faith in a world which is often incomprehensible. Professor Appleman, Chair of the Psychology department at Hirsch College, reconciles Danny to studying experimental psychology. Rav Gershenson, the Talmud instructor, cannot allow secular methods of analysis in his class despite his sympathy for them. Danny's brother Levi—whose name in Hebrew means "joined in harmony"—is a "delicate miniature" of his father, and eventually inherits the position of tzaddik. Female characters are virtually nonexistent. Only Manya, the Malters' Russian housemaid who "babbles" in Ukrainian, has a name. Reuven's mother is dead, Danny's mother is alive but practically invisible, and Danny's sister disappears into an arranged Hasidic marriage. This lack of women significantly weakens the novel's realism and leads to a lack of balance.
The theme of father-son relationships is central to the novel's underlying conflicts. Reuven's strong relationship with his father is open and affectionate: they can—and do—talk about anything. Rav Malter teaches Reuven compassion, forgiveness, and tolerance. He encourages Reuven to become friends with Danny, and tries to teach Reuven about Danny's Hasidic heritage so that Reuven will understand Danny. Even when Reb Saunders excommunicates Reuven, Rav Malter forbids Reuven to slander him, insisting that it was just this sort of fanaticism which kept the Jews alive through two thousand years of exile. In the end, it is largely because of Rav Malter's attitudes that Reuven chooses to preserve his culture and religion by becoming a rabbi. In contrast, Danny has extremely mixed feelings about his father. Although he fears his father's temper and dreads his continued silence, he believes that his father is "'a great man.'" However, he dreads being trapped the way his father is: "'I want to be able to breathe, to think what I want to think, to say the things I want to say.'" When Danny realizes he cannot become tzaddik, he becomes terrified about telling his father, because "if the son doesn't take the father's place, the dynasty falls apart." However, Reb Saunders realizes Danny's intentions and acknowledges him as a man. His acceptance of Danny's decision is influenced by three factors. First, he has come to respect his son's soul as well as his mind, and knows Danny intends to continue to observe Jewish law. Second, he feels Danny now has the soul of a tzaddik, and that "'All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik.'" Finally, he realizes the dynasty will not be destroyed: since "the tzaddikate was inherited, and the charisma went automatically from father to son—all sons," Levi will become tzaddik in Danny's place. Despite this happy resolution, Reb Saunders' insistence on the strict traditions of Hasidism at the expense of the secular world have the effect of driving Danny away from his tzaddikate heritage and into his study of psychoanalysis.
Another theme arises from the Talmud's direction that the two things one should do are to choose a friend and to acquire a teacher. After their initial antagonism towards each other, Reuven and Danny find many common aspects of their lives. Despite their different heritages and opinions, they become fast friends. Certainly they illustrate Reuven's father's comment that "'Honest differences of opinion should never be permitted to destroy a friendship.'" Their friendship survives various crises, including a year of enforced silence, as well as major differences of opinion about the value of experimental psychology, mathematics, Freudian thought, and even Reb Saunders.
Both boys have teachers in their fathers. Reb Saunders chooses the traditional method of teaching Danny through public quizzes on his Talmud sermons. Later, both Danny and Reuven review Talmud with Reb Saunders, and through vehement arguments, they learn the meanings of various passages. However, Reb Saunders isn't an ideal teacher because his exclusively Hasidic viewpoint completely excludes secular considerations. In contrast, Rav Malter teaches Reuven the heretical "scientific method" for studying Talmud, which includes the use of sources outside Orthodox Jewish tradition. When Reuven successfully uses this method to analyze a difficult passage, Rav Gershenson reveres the explanation but forbids him to use this method in class. Reuven then realizes his father is regarded as a heretic because of his methods and opinions. He also realizes that one can hold heretical notions, as perhaps Rav Gershenson does, and still be a rabbi.
Both boys are serious about their studies, and Danny is committed to extensive reading of secular works. In addition to knowing Ivanhoe, Danny reads Darwin, Huxley, and Hemingway before becoming intrigued with the writings of Freud. It is during his study of Freud that Danny begins to question many of the aspects of Hasidism. He realizes that he can approach Freud in the same way as he approaches Talmud, suggesting his temporary conversion to Freud as a religion. Just as he became upset by various interpretations of Hasidism, Danny becomes increasingly upset by Freud. However, he can't stop reading Freud because of his uncanny insights into nature of man. Here we come to one of the most significant aspects of the book: the tension between faith and scholarship. Danny cannot stop thinking about Freud and his analysis of the psyche of man, and the more he thinks about it, the less he believes he can conform completely to Hasidism.
Finally, the theme of silence dominates The Chosen. Danny and his father don't talk, except when they study Talmud. This silence is Reb Saunders' attempt to teach Danny compassion As a child, Danny recounted a story about terrible suffering to his father to demonstrate his excellent memory, displaying no compassion for the story's victims. Reb Saunders concluded that despite Danny's brilliance, he lacked a soul. By enforcing silence between them, he believed that Danny would learn to know pain and suffering. Since a tzaddik must suffer his people's pain, Reb Saunders justifies his actions: "'I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.'" In the end, this silence is the price he's willing to pay for Danny's soul.
Two central metaphors suggest The Chosen's meaning. The first is the fly that Reuven gently frees from the spider's web. The fly represents Danny, who is caught in the almost invisible web of history, the rigidity of Hasidic tradition, and his father's silence. Reuven is the outsider from the secular world who sees Danny's predicament, and whose gentle influence frees Danny from his oppressive trap without destroying either the tzaddikate dynasty or Danny's relationship with his father. The second metaphor is the novel's title: The Chosen. Its most obvious meaning suggests the Hasidim themselves, who believe they are God's chosen ones. However, The Chosen also refers to the vocations chosen by Danny and Reuven: psychoanalysis and the rabbinate, respectively. Finally, Danny himself is The Chosen, in the sense that his father chooses to raise him in silence so that he develops the soul of a tzaddik. This fate is the final choice—one which Danny was powerless to make, but for which he suffers the consequences—becoming tzaddik not for his Hasidic community, but instead for the world.
Source: Ann Hibert Alton, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Ann Hibert Alton is an honorary research associate at the University of Sydney.
When Chaim Potok published his first novel, The Chosen in 1967, it hardly seemed destined for widespread popularity. After all, the novel contains no sex or obscenity, only a trace of violence, and its two principal characters are Jewish school boys who excel academically and enjoy engaging in theological debates with their fathers. Even so, The Chosen continues to attract a large and diverse body of readers in the United States and abroad. Surely one reason for its popularity is that it presents a compelling story of friendship, a subject of universal appeal.
The novel's plot line at its most basic resembles the folktale type of "The Two Brothers," a recurring type of narrative recognized and named by the great nineteenth-century philologist Jacob Grimm. It is the pattern underlying the biblical narrative of David and Jonathan found in Samuel in the Bible, which is alluded to in the novel. The typical plot of a friendship narrative usually contains the following elements: two young men become friends and grow as close as brothers, and after some land of crisis in which one perhaps rescues the other, both become better and wiser. All of these elements are present in The Chosen, but Potok complicates the basic pattern by weaving into it the roles of two supporting characters, the boys' fathers. The fathers have been the principal teachers of their sons and continue to exert a strong influence throughout the novel. Hence, the fathers affect the course of the friendship and, at one point, nearly destroy it.
The Chosen, set in Brooklyn during World War II and the years immediately following, is narrated in the first person by Reuven Malter, one of the main characters. The other, Danny Saunders, is named in the opening sentence where it is also made clear that the ensuing story will be their story: "For the first fifteen years of our lives, Danny and I lived within five blocks of each other and neither of us knew of the other's existence." The reason becomes clear as the story begins to unfold. Although Reuven and Danny have much in common, even age, since they were born only two days apart in the same hospital, they live in very different worlds shaped by the religious beliefs of their fathers, who represent polar extremes of Orthodox Judaism.
David Malter, Reuven's father, is a teacher in a yeshiva (a Jewish high school); he is also a writer of controversial religious articles in which he takes a rational and scientific approach to sacred texts. He is widowed, and Reuven is his only child, so Malter enjoys an especially close and warm relationship with his son. Malter often expresses pride in Reuven's achievements and openly shows his affection. Ever the teacher, Malter encourages his son's intellectual curiosity and wants him to be fully cognizant of the world. For example, when Reuven is in the hospital and unable to read, Malter brings him a radio so that he can listen to news reports about the war. Danny, on the other hand, has been brought up to shun the world in the strict and conservative environment of Hasidism. Potok clearly does not expect readers to be familiar with this conservative type of Judaism, for within the dialogue of the novel he uses characters, especially Danny and David Malter, to explain it.
Danny's father is Reb Saunders, a "tzaddik" within his Hasidic sect. This means, as Danny explains, that Saunders is regarded as "a kind of messenger of God, a bridge between his followers and God." As the elder son, Danny is expected to follow in his father's footsteps and inherit his position. The elder Saunders has attempted to prepare Danny for this "chosen" role by training him in a very harsh way, imposing upon him the discipline of silence. Late in the novel, Saunders explains why he has done this. He realized when Danny was only four that he was a gifted child with a photographic memory, and Saunders became afraid that Danny would grow into a cold intellectual instead of a sympathetic and compassionate leader. Thus Saunders turned to the old European method of teaching by silence. Accordingly, he refuses to speak directly to Danny, except when they are engaged in religious debate. Saunders understands that his silence causes his son pain, but he believes the pain will save his son's soul and also will prepare Danny for his role of tzaddik.
The boys first meet when they participate in a baseball game between their respective yeshivas. When Reuven attempts to initiate conversation with Danny, he is asked if he is the son of the writer David Malter. Learning that he is, Danny insults him: "I told my team we're going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon." (Apikorsim is an insulting Hebrew word meaning "sinners"). Reuven retaliates, telling Danny to go rub his "tzitzit" for luck, referring to the fringes of Danny's religious garment. Then, at a climactic moment, Danny compresses his hostile feelings into a powerful swing of the bat and hits the ball directly at Reuven who stubbornly refuses to jump out of the way. The ball pounds into Reuven's glasses, causing the left lens to shatter and cut his eye.
Danny comes to the hospital to apologize to Reuven, who is not sure if his eye will heal. Reuven rudely refuses to accept the apology, but Danny tries again. This time the boys develop an admiration for each other and the seeds of friendship are planted. So it is at the hospital, a place associated with healing, that the two are healed of their hostile feelings toward each another. In addition, this hospital is where both were born. How appropriate that their friendship also comes to life here. The hospital is also the place where the boys begin to mature. Although his vision is impaired, Reuven begins to "see" while in the hospital. He becomes acquainted with fellow patients, people who are not Jewish, and he learns that he shares common interests with them. He also learns about the suffering of others. The man in the bed next to his, a professional fighter, loses an eye he injured in a fight. Billy, the boy in the bed on the other side of Reuven, is blind and is in the hospital awaiting surgery to cure his blindness. But, as Reuven will later learn, Billy's surgery is not successful. Reuven begins to "see" when he lies in the darkness of his hospital room, closes his unbandaged eye, and tries to imagine what the world is like for Billy. When he returns home five days after the accident, his familiar world looks different: "I felt I had crossed into another world, that little pieces of my old self had been left behind on the black asphalt floor of the school yard alongside the shattered lens of my glasses." To a lesser degree, Danny also begins to see more clearly when he visits Reuven in the hospital. There he discovers that David Malter is none other than the kind man who had become his mentor at the public library. Danny also comes to recognize his own dark side, for he confesses to Reuven that at the baseball game he had felt the urge to kill.
From its beginning, the friendship of the boys is affected by their fathers. David Malter, in fact, acts as catalyst, for he encourages his son to become Danny's friend. He reminds Reuven that the Talmud teaches "that a person should do two things for himself." One of these is "to acquire a teacher," and, of course, both Reuven and Danny have found teachers in their fathers. The other is to choose a friend. Malter also explains the nature of true friendship to his son: "A Greek philosopher said that two people who are true friends are like two bodies with one soul." Malter's words prove prophetic.
As the novel progresses, Reuven and Danny become good friends. Reuven wins the approval of Reb Saunders, who demands that he come with Danny to Friday services and then subjects the visiting boy to a grueling debate over a religious lesson. During the boys' last year of high school, Reuven's father suffers a heart attack. While Malter is in the hospital, Reuven is invited to live in the Saunders' home, and so the boys have the opportunity to live as brothers. They share a room and also begin to share their deepest secrets, including Danny's confession that he wants to become a psychoanalyst and reject his "chosen" role. Both boys graduate at the top of their respective classes and then attend the same rabbinical college. During their first year at college, they continue to live as brothers and are very happy.
But the joy of their friendship will be tested by conflict and crisis, and, not surprisingly, the crisis is brought about by their fathers. After the war, David Malter adopts a strong Zionist position and becomes a leader in the local movement. Reb Saunders continues to hold to his conservative beliefs that a new Israel can be founded only by the Messiah, and thus he rejects Zionism. Eventually, Saunders forbids Danny to associate with Reuven, who has adopted his father's cause. Danny, although now a grown man, follows the tradition he has been reared in and obeys his father. However, his physical appearance indicates that he mourns the loss of the friendship. Reuven, as narrator, describes his suffering, particularly his feelings of loneliness and alienation when his father is hospitalized with a second heart attack. For nearly two years the young men do not speak to each other, even though they continue to attend the same college. Their suffering proves that the friendship is not dead, and on one occasion Reuven is comforted momentarily by the touch of Danny's hand. Reb Saunders lifts his ban on the friendship after Israel becomes a nation. Both Danny and Reuven are happy to be friends again and discuss the pain they had experienced. Nevertheless, the separation has helped them mature. By the end of the novel it is evident that the friendship has been essential in helping them become the compassionate men that they now are. Because of their friendship, both Reuven and Danny have come to a better understanding of themselves and of others. They have become independent of their fathers and are able to make sound life choices for themselves.
Source: Deanna Evans, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Evans is a professor of English at Bemidji State University.
The conflict in Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen functions at several levels. These are: the generational conflict; the temperamental; the conflict between head and heart; the opposition between a petrified fanaticism and a humane tolerance; and, finally, the split between two visions of God and man's relationship to Him. Of all of these, however, it is the opposition between the head and the heart which predominates.
The locale of the story is the Crown Heights section of Williamsburg in Brooklyn from the Depression years to the founding of the State of Israel. Although much of the story's direction is determined by the conflict between Hasidic and Misnagdic traditions in Judaism (as respectively represented by the Saunders and Malter families), it is the conflict between two generations and the Hawthornesque split between the obsessions of the head and the impulses of the heart that carry the major thrust of The Chosen.
The Hasidic view originated as a revolt against the arid intellectual concerns of 18th century scholastic (i.e., Misnagdic) Judaism with its tortuous explications in Talmudic pilpul and its aristocratic disdain for the poor and illiterate Jew. This resulted in the Hasidic heresy (according to the Vilna Gaon) toward the stress on joy and the intuitions. Yet in its turn (especially as portrayed in The Chosen) Hasidism itself evolved into the very thing it had attacked. The distance between the Ba'al Shem Tov (or the Besht, as he was affectionately called by his followers) and his latterday followers is relatively short, as history goes: a mere two hundred years or so; but the distance between the gentle piety of the founder of Hasidism and the fanaticism of his later followers qualitatively spans a greater distance than time alone can account for. Indeed, Reb Saunders, the Hasidic leader in The Chosen, has really reverted to the earlier arid scholasticism which Hasidism in its own beginnings had set itself up in opposition to.
However, in The Chosen, the quarrel between the Hasidim and the Misnagdim (these days, roughly those practicing Jews who are not Hasidim) though decreasing in intensity and bitterness after the slaughter of six million in the Nazi Holocaust, still makes up a substantial aspect of this novel. It is to this group—the Misnagdim (or, to acknowledge Potok's Sephardic, dialectual usage, Mitnagdim)—to which Reuven Malter, the young protagonist, belongs. We must of course remember that many Hasidim consider most Jews beyond their own circle apikorsim (heretics). While it is true that the Misnagdim in The Chosen did not actively oppose the Hasidim, the baseball game between the Misnagdic and the Hasidic schools on which the novel opens, not only triggers the conflict but determines the direction the novel will take. In a sense, The Chosen is a kind of exercise in the "Hegelian" dialectic which the Hasidim and the Misnagdim have engaged in for the last two and a half centuries; however, in doing so, they have articulated their respective visions toward life and God, and, in a sense, have managed to exert some beneficial influence on each other.
One of the central problems in The Chosen is communication—or lack of it. Part of this is deliberate and "chosen." Reb Saunders, in his oddly "Talmudic" way, believes that he can best teach his son the language and wisdom of the heart by forbidding or discouraging, what he considers "frivolous" discourse—what most of us might think of as the minimal conversational civilities. Thus Reb Saunders denies Danny what Mr. Malter the yeshiva teacher freely gives to his son Reuven: warmth, communication, and understanding. On those rare occasions when Reb Saunders permits himself to address Danny, these exchanges take place during the periodic quizzes on Talmud which the rebbe subjects Danny to—or when he blows up in exasperation at his son's passivity in the face of his own religious (near violent) commitments.
On the other hand, the relationship between Reuven and his father is a tender one, made all the more trusting by the easy and affectionate exchange of confidences that go on between them. They, at least, can do what Danny and his father seem unable to do: communicate. In the instance of Reb Saunders, it is an admixture of pride and fanatic pietism that prevents any intimacy between himself and his son (rationalized by the elder Saunders' commitment to the Talmudic A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two). In Danny's case, it is simply fear of his father that prevents any viable relationship between the two. Conceivably, Mr. Malter, the yeshiva teacher, and Reb Saunders, the Hasidic Talmudist, are of a common generation, if not of a common age; yet it is Reb Saunders' rigidity, and his stiff-necked pride, that give the illusion that he is much older than Mr. Malter—even as Hasidism itself appears to be rooted in an older tradition than its Misnagdic counterpart.
The difference between Mr. Malter and Reb Saunders expresses itself most forcefully in then respective visions toward the Holocaust. Reb Saunders can do little more than shed (very real) tears for the martyred Jews of Europe. "'How the world drinks our blood...[But] It is the will of God. We must accept the will of God.'" Reuven's more Westernized father, on the other hand, attempts to counter the existential nullity of the "world" by becoming ever more active in a resuscitated Zionist movement. Reb Saunders, to the contrary, in conformance with orthodox Hasidism, is bound by the Messianic belief—that only with the coming of the Messiah will Jews achieve the millennial dream, the ingathering of the exiles, the return to Eretz Yisroel.
What we find in The Chosen is a kind of doppelganger effect—minus the doppelganger itself. For Reuven and Danny are symbolically two halves of a single (perhaps ideal? Jewish?) personality, each half searching for its complement, which we already know can never be found in an imperfect world (Siz afalsher velt!—It's a hypocritical world! says a Yiddish Koheleth). In short, no perfection is to be attained, except in unity. But that is precisely the problem of the characters in The Chosen: theirs is a search for that elusive (or illusory) goal. For neither of these two boys growing into manhood can really be said to exist at their fullest potential unless they retain some sort of relationship with each other, which on one occasion is suspended when Reb Saunders forbids Danny any association with Reuven for an interval of about a year, making the two boys doubly miserable.
Reuven, whose father allows his son forays into symbolic logic, the mathematics of Bertrand Russell, ends up a rabbi! Danny, who throughout the novel is coerced into following Hasidic tradition, and is expected to succeed Reb to the leadership of the sect on his father's death, ultimately breaks away. Danny, for want of a better word— the word has been overly used and abused, though it applies here—has been alienated—from his father, from Hasidism, and finally from the Hasidic community itself. In a sense, Danny is recapitulating (suffering through) the transitions and adjustments so traumatically demanded by the exodus from the Old World to the New, adjustments required of his father and his followers, "pilgrims" who came to America from the East European shtetle one step ahead of Hitler's kill-squads.
The American Diaspora has also given Danny Freud and Behaviorist psychology (though initially he has mixed feelings about the latter); but after reading Graetz's History of the Jews, he has found that "Freud had clearly upset him in a fundamental way—had thrown him off balance".
More significant than the conflict of belief in The Chosen is the conflict between the generations—each of which is so often collateral with the other. The novel itself could as easily, if not originally, have been called Fathers and Sons. For it is as much about the old split between the fathers and their offsprings as it is about the conflicts between religious views and personalities. The sons have been molded by the fathers, though in the case of Danny that influence is a negative one. For Reb Saunders is a fanatic, or at least has those propensities; he represents the archetypal, God-intoxicated Hasid. And it is he who has caused Danny to grow into a tense, coldly introverted personality. Reuven's father, on the other hand, is the tolerant (albeit religious) humanist, opposed both in mind and in heart to the cold scholasticism of the Saunderses.
In the growing estrangement between Danny and his father, the conflict of generations and of visions toward life surfaces. And it is America that is catalyst: the old East European ambiance is gone (unless one accepts Williamsburg as a pale substitute milieu for the vanished shtetle); and in the second instance the old ghetto traditions have become influenced, perhaps eroded—the old acculturation-assimilation story—by the pressures of urbanism and secular intellectualism.
The relationship between Reuven Malter and his father is rooted organically, not in principle—self or externally imposed—but in tolerance and mutual respect. Mr. Malter is a yeshiva teacher, yet he can comfortably discuss the secular philosophers with Reuven as Danny's father, the Hasidic Reb Saunders, never can with him. Mr. Malter tells Reuven, '"the point about mathematizing hypotheses was made by Kant. It is one of the programs of the Vienna Circle logical positivists.'" Yet with all his easy familiarity with philosophical schools and systems, his acumen in grasping them, Reuven's father allows his son to seek truth in his own way (possibly because of his own exposure to the rationalist winds of Western philosophy). Where Danny is coerced into the study of a specific mode of religious thought, Reuven is allowed by his father to roam free through the country of ideas. This seemingly minor approach to pedagogical technique—both fathers are teachers in their own ways—will determine the direction each of the boys will later take as young men.
Reuven's father hopes his son will become a rabbi—but would not coerce him into it. The elder Saunders not only expects Danny to take his place in the rabbinic dynasty when his own time comes (as Hasidic custom requires), but can hardly imagine an alternative. On the other hand fanaticism and intolerance go to form the iron bond that binds Danny to his father. What is important here, though, is that Danny becomes an object, manipulated by his father, rather than a person one relates to. This determines Danny's ultimate hostility toward Hasidism itself, so that when he rebels, he not only rebels against a religious movement but against his father who is its representative. The worship of God gives way, in the first flush of enthusiasm, to his admiration, if not worship, of a substitute god, Sigmund Freud.
As the novel progresses, Danny the intellectual wizard, Wunderkind, finds himself increasingly boxed in by the restrictive ghetto mentality of the Hasidim. He sees that his father "'Intellectually...was born trapped. I don't ever want to be trapped the way he's trapped.'"
Ultimately, though, The Chosen is a paradigm of two visions that have not only sundered Judaism but have affected other areas of life—the split between head and heart. The Saunderses seem to have an excess of head in their (paradoxical streak of zealousness and emotional) makeup; but the Malters have heart and head: they are in balance. For Reuven is not only an outstanding student of Talmud but be "has a head" for mathematics and symbolic logic. Like his father, he also has a spark of tolerance which illuminates his own knowledge of human essences as opposed to ritualistic forms.
Reuven's studies are "brain" disciplines— logic, mathematics, philosophy—yet it is he who finally turns out to have more "heart" than the brilliant son of a Hasid. Danny, on the other hand, having been raised in the tradition of the Ba'al Shem, should have been a "heart and joy specialist." Yet it is he who is all brain. And this produces a keen irony, since Hasidism, a movement that was originally a revolt against arid scholasticism became (as portrayed in The Chosen) transformed into its opposite. Piety, joy, even learning (a latecomer to Hasidism) becomes pietism, role learning, memorization.
In this split between head and heart, Danny Saunders shows a brilliant flare for Talmudic explication. Yet Reb Saunders, addressing Reuven Malter in Danny's presence, complains,"'the Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. And He cursed me with all the problems of raising him. Ah, what it is to have a brilliant son!...[But] There was no soul in my...Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind m a body without a soul.'" Too late: Danny has already "chosen" his own path, and Reb Saunders—plausibly or not—realizes at last that it is impossible to turn back now and give his son the love (or heart) he might once have given him, an act which may well have tempered Danny's mind.
Reuven is not exactly a graubbe yung, a moron, himself. For in one of the terminal scenes, he proves himself a master of many Talmudic brain twisters—and this, ironically, even when he cannot answer one difficult proposition which the teacher himself is unable to resolve! There is enough sanity in Reuven, though—presumably the heritage his father has passed on to him—to bring him to the realization that words themselves have little meaning unless they are rooted in life. If necessary, Reuven will show that he is capable of proving a formidable rival to Danny's father in his ability to untie knotty Talmudic propositions. Yet he also knows that this hardly makes a Jew, much less a compassionate human being. For brilliance, whether in Talmud or in other mental acrobatics, may as often blind the brilliant with their own brilliance as enlighten. The major irony, then, is that Hasidism—the brand portrayed in Potok's novel—though presumably a religious movement of the heart, has become transformed into its opposite.
I should like to say a few words about the symbolic symmetry of The Chosen. Potok seems to have extended himself beyond plausibility here. For the conclusion of this otherwise fine and sensitive work is marred by contrivance. Perhaps this can be ascribed to a symmetry which, while possible in life, somehow doesn't ring true when placed in fictional context. In this symmetry, Danny escapes the confines of the Hasidic sect while Reuven stays within the wider boundaries of a more tolerant form of Judaism. Further, in this kind of resolution, Potok unintentionally (and unfortunately) reveals his intentions long before the novel ends. It takes no great effort, to guess, even early in the novel, that Danny will rebel, while Reuven, the "nice Jewish boy," will become a rabbi.
Reb Saunders' "conversion"—his resignation to Danny's break with Hasidism—doesn't convince. The novel is too mechanical in this sense— with Danny, who was to have inherited his father's leadership going off to become a clinical or behavioral psychologist, while Reuven turns to the rabbinate.
The climax of the novel is illustrated by the following exchange the two young men engage in: Danny tells Reuven: "'I can't get over your becoming a rabbi.'" Whereupon Reuven answers: "'I can't get over your becoming a psychologist.'" Even the dialogue is weak here, betraying the Procrustean ending; it is virtually the antithesis to the brilliant verbal fencing—stychomythia—that the great dramatists from Shakespeare to Shaw were such virtuosos at. In this instance, the dialogue verges on the cliche.
Thus, as Reuven moves closer to Misnagdic— non-Hasidic—Judaism, so Danny moves away from its Hasidic counterpart, giving the novel this mechanical symmetry. The saving feature in spite of the contrived ending is that the choices of the two young men are as much determined by motive and character (or lack of it) as by superimposed plot strictures.
The almost explicit theme of The Chosen, then, is that the more repression one is forced to knuckle under to (no matter the noble intentions), the greater will be the rebellion against the source of that repression; it's the old postulate of an opposite and equal reaction for every action. In other words, the contrivance of the rebellious son against the father and the father's resignation to the son's rebellion—"'You will remain an observer of the Commandments?'" he pathetically asks Danny— are developments which make it all the more difficult to believe in Reb Saunders as a strong, if stubborn, man.
Still—and this I mean to stress—the "contrivance of symmetry" with which the novel ends is a minor flaw in a larger pattern: that of tolerance against intolerance, empty ritual against the vital deed, rote learning against eager wonder. In any effective fiction it is the process rather than the outcome that is more important. This is especially true in The Chosen. For in this novel, Chaim Potok gives us as keen an insight into the split between head and heart, tolerance and fanaticism, the strictures of tradition against the impulses of rachmoms (pity) as has appeared in the Jewish-American novel in a long time.
Source: Sam Bluefarb, "The Head, the Heart, and the Conflict of Generations in Charm Potok's The Chosen" in CLA Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 4, June 1971, pp. 402-9.
David M Shrubman, review in the Wall Street Journal, December 12, 1996, p. A10.
Philip Toynbee, review in the New Republic, June 17, 1967, pp. 21-22.