Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jew who narrates his seminary experiences as he prepares for ordination, or smicha. Reuven faces opposition to his use of his father’s methods of textual criticism, especially from Rav Jacob Kalman, who is teaching Reuven the Talmud. Along with his seminary studies, Reuven struggles to help Michael Gordon. Reuven risks his chances of obtaining smicha to help Michael, whose father is under the ban of excommunication by the strict Orthodox Jewish community. Because of his bold stand of accepting his father’s methods of studying the Talmud, Reuven is given smicha with the provision that he can never teach the Torah in the rabbinical school of the yeshiva, where candidates study for their ordination or smicha. Reuven is allowed, however, to teach Torah in the newly formed graduate department of rabbinic studies at Hirsch University, the very department in which his father was refused an opportunity to teach.
Michael Gordon, the fourteen-year-old son of Abraham and Ruth Gordon. Michael develops serious mental problems that resist the standard methods of counseling therapy. After being subjected to Danny Saunders’ experimental silence therapy, Michael eventually begins to talk and reveals the root of his mental illness, his hatred of his parents for their controversial writings about Judaism.
Danny Saunders, a brilliant Hasidic Jew who is studying to become a psychologist while still observing Jewish law. His greatest challenge is to help Michael Gordon overcome his strong resistance to therapy. Danny employs a treatment of silence as a last effort to help Michael overcome his mental problems and thus avoid being confined to a mental institution. Essentially, Danny uses on Michael a variation on the practice of silence, which Danny’s father had used on him. Danny also dates and eventually marries Rachel Gordon, a cousin of Michael. Danny’s involvement with Rachel complicates his treatment of Michael and at times threatens to undermine the therapy process. In the end, with Reuven Malter’s assistance, Danny succeeds and Michael makes progress toward healing.
Abraham Gordon, a nonbelieving Jewish author who often questions the substance of the Jewish faith but continues to practice its laws and traditions. Abraham’s involvement in writing controversial critiques of Judaism, with the help of his atheistic wife Ruth, led to Michael’s mental breakdown; Michael felt personally the animosity directed against his father.
Reb Saunders, a prominent spiritual leader of a sect of Russian Hasidic Jews and the father of Danny Saunders. Reb Saunders shows remarkable tolerance as he allows his son, Danny, to study psychology, dress like non-Hasidic Jews, and even marry Rachel Gordon, a niece of the controversial writer Abraham Gordon. Out of loyalty to his friendship with David Malter, Reb Saunders refuses to write a critical review of Malter’s book on the Talmud.
David Malter, an Orthodox Jewish teacher who is known for his many articles on the Talmud and is the father of Reuven Malter. His book on the Talmud proves to be controversial within the Orthodox Jewish community because David advocates using modern, scientific methods of correcting textual problems, rather than simply resorting to the involved arguments of earlier rabbis. Throughout the novel, David struggles with a heart condition, but he is determined to promote his faith regardless of the personal price he must pay. After considerable controversy over his book, an offer of a position at Hirsch University is withdrawn, and he accepts a position at a non-Orthodox Jewish school, Zechariah Frankel Seminary, where the controversial Abraham Gordon teaches. David counsels his son to respect and love even those Jewish believers with whom...
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he disagrees strongly, including Rav Kalman.
Rav Jacob Kalman
Rav Jacob Kalman, a harsh and demanding teacher of the Talmud who often uses ridicule and intimidation to make his students accept his ideas and methods. Rav Kalman seems to harbor bitterness over the execution of his family and over his own suffering in Russia. He is especially hostile toward Reuven Malter for daring to use modern, scientific methods to study the Talmud, and he threatens to refuse smicha to Reuven unless he recants the use of such methods. At one point, Rav Kalman enlists Reuven’s help in interpreting David Malter’s recently released book on the Talmud. Afterward, Rav Kalman writes several scathing critiques of this book by Reuven’s father, leaving Reuven feeling betrayed and angry.
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