An Exception to Tradition
“We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is yours.” Karen Armstrong, the author of Twelve Steps to a Compassion Life, reminds us that blind adherence to tradition can prevent the equality of all human beings and delay the process of achieving true independence. In Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen and Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’s play 1776, Reb Saunders and John Dickinson grapple with the idea of defying tradition by granting Danny and The Thirteen Colonies the right to be independent; although both men are initially stubborn in their extremely illiberal positions, they eventually grant permission to their cherished possessions to emerge into a liberated world.
Having to continue his father’s legacy as a Hasidic tzaddik, Danny begins to resent his roots and search for freedom in the secular realm of literature. Confiding in his dear companion Reuven, Danny states, “It’s really funny. I have to be a rabbi and don’t want to be one. You don’t have to be a rabbi and do want to be one. It’s a crazy world” (Potok 87). Clinging to his tradition beliefs and convictions, Reb Saunders exclaims, “Master of the Universe… you gave me a brilliant son and I have thanked you a million times. But you had to make him so brilliant?” (168). After learning from Reuven of Danny’s secular activities, Reb Saunders abhors Danny’s deviation from the traditional Hasidic lifestyle which he himself was “taught by [his] father” (279). Although the customs and rituals of pre-World War Two, Jewish Europe are still much ingrained in Reb Saunders, he is well-aware of the difficulty that would arise from “not causing [his] son, God forbid, to abandon the Master of the Universe and His Commandments” (279). Ensnared in between two paths of either granting independence to his son or forcing him into an arranged marriage, Reb Saunders ultimately chooses to give permission for Danny to explore his intellectual desires and enroll in a graduate program at Columbia University. As Reb Saunders states, “Today is—the Festival of Freedom… today my Daniel is free” (281-282), Danny promptly receives his Passover blessing and achieves sovereignty.
John Dickinson, a Continental Congress delegate from Pennsylvania, experiences the same tradition-shattering struggle as Reb Saunders. As the most obstinate delegate at the Convention, Dickinson advocates anti-independence, and stubbornly holds on to his political desires to the point where he refuses to release his hope “for [America’s] eventual reconciliation with England” (Stone 140). Dickinson’s uncompromising, resistance stance successfully allows the idea of succession to be blockaded for a great period of time. His constant negations seem especially discouraging when after Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposes a resolution for independence, he shouts to John Hancock, “Mr. President, Pennsylvania moves, as always, that the question of independence be postponed indefinitely” (33). However, as Lee’s proposal gains an incredible amount of support, the inevitability of the signing of the Declaration of Independence forces John Dickinson to concede his pigheadedness. Although voting “Nay” in a split-delegation vote, he ultimately relinquishes his vision for America as a perpetual British colony and remarks, “I will join the army and fight in [America’s] defense, even though I believe that fight to be hopeless” (140).
Although Reb Saunders and John Dickinson may externally appear to be invoking tradition simply for the sake of impeding progress, both men are indeed genuinely concerned with the pursuit of righteousness. Having only witnessed tradition as a precedent approach to resolving situations, Dickinson and Reb Saunders fear making a crucial, uncustomary decision that will impact the future of their respective communities. John Dickinson, exhibiting overprotectiveness yet authentic concern states, “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor” (96). However, not only does he foresee economic, social stability in a British-ruled America, Dickinson simply doesn’t possess the view of King George III of as a ‘tyrant,’ but rather, as the ruler of “the noblest, most civilized nation on the planet” (39). Reb Saunders, like Dickinson, shares the ultimate goal of freedom and liberty via tradition; neither man identifies an issue with the tradition simply because he shares a different, biased perspective. However, Reb Saunders finally comes to the epiphany that although Danny may choose to refrain from becoming a tzaddik, he may still have “the soul of tzaddik no matter what he did with his life” (Potok 279). Reb Saunders distinctly indicates that it wasn’t his lifelong goal to impose the burden of having to become a tzaddik on Danny, but instead to mold his son as a person who “must know how to suffer for his people…take their pain and carry it on [his] shoulder…always” (278).
Both John Dickinson and Reb Saunders, two men alike in regard for traditional values, experience a surrendering of something they once grasped so tightly. Tenaciously clasping his religious beliefs that were cultivated in the motherland, Reb Saunders hesitantly allows his son to break away from a centuries-old tradition by not forcing him to become a tzaddik. At the same time, John Dickinson, an anti-secessionist who fervently disregards the other colonies’ hope for ever becoming independent, dolefully abdicates his extreme views in favor of giving permission for the remaining delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence. The sole way of exhibiting love emerges not from grasping onto something so tightly, but letting it go. As Danny “turned into Lee Avenue and was gone” (253), the Liberty Bell, initiating the fight toward American independence, sounded with its glorious ring that echoed the inscription on it which reads, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).
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