Loose Ends – The Chosen Analysis
Some people say that the difference between real life and stories, is that real life always contains loose ends, unfinished plots, and indescribable feelings. It is when authors such as Chaim Potok embody these inexpressible feelings in their works, that realism in literature is created. Through his plot, character relationships, setting and imagery, Potok creates a realistic view of Reuven and Danny’s lives and friendship. Though the thorniness of Danny’s relationship with his father is extreme, it speaks of realistic tensions.
The novel illustrates Danny’s relationship with his father as unique and interesting, yet difficult and hard to explain, as real life relationships often are. Danny tells Reuven about his father, “For years his silence bewildered and frightened me, though I always trusted him, I never hated him,” (278). Danny’s paternal relationship is one of independent learning, as his father never teaches him life skills, but only the talmud. Parents often leave children to figure things out on their own, as a way to teach them about being self-sufficient and not having to rely on others. Danny also explains about how he feels his father is pressuring him into being a tzaddik by saying, “It’s like a dynasty: If the son doesn’t take the father’s place, the dynasty falls apart,” (129). Children grapple with the possibility of disappointing their parents, just like Danny doesn’t want to disappoint his father by confessing his conflicting feelings about his future. Parents pin hopes on their children and sometimes fail to mask their disapproval when that child takes another path. When asked whether he would raise his child in silence, as he was raised, Danny responds with “Yes,if I can’t find another way,” (284). All Danny has to go on is the way that he was raised by his father. Facing a difficult decision, he chooses to use the method that he has seen work in the past, and instead of passing on the role of tzaddik, he passes on his father’s silence. Danny and his father’s relationship, as expressed by Potok is based on difficulties that echo the tensions found in most parent-child relationships.
Potok also displays realism through his diction and imagery in his character portrayal. Reb Saunders, for example, is described as having “a reputation for brilliance and compassion,” (112). Although Reb is seen for most of the novel as the antagonist, being the driving force in the separation of Reuven and Danny, towards the end, he is portrayed as more of a father figure. In real life relationships, someone’s story has many sides, and Potok displays the many aspects of Reb Saunder in his writing, shining a light on both the tzaddik, and the father in him. Reuven’s character also deepens, as Chaim has him express, “Suddenly I had the feeling that everything around me was out of focus,” (72). Even from the beginning of the novel, Potok’s characters begin to develop and come alive. Reuven’s metaphorical “blindness” helps him to see Danny, not only as a Hasid, but also as a boy of his own age. Danny expresses about his career, “The people expect me to be their rabbi. My family has been their rabbi for six generations now,” (129). His tough decision to not be a tzaddik parallels the difficult decisions that many young adults make in their lifetime. Danny is forced to choose between his bloodline, and what he himself wants. Chaim Potok eloquently fabricates believable characters in his novel, and supports them with authentic dialogue.
The novel also expresses the well-known conflict between tradition and modernity, that is found in everyday life. Reb Saunders says in one of his speeches, “We are commanded to study His Torah, it is for this that we were created…not the world, but the people of Israel,” (132). To be a Jew, he argues, is to accept the destiny and the set of responsibilities that Jews receive by virtue of their birth. By dismissing the secular world around him, Saunders implies that a truly faithful Jew should retreat to an exclusively Jewish community, immerse himself in Jewish study, and pay little attention to anything in the outside world. David Malter also urges, “I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing, but the eye that blinks, that is something,” (201). In this passage, Malter explains that awareness of the world’s suffering makes a person empathize with others and therefore appreciate all life and every detail of God’s creation. He acknowledges the need for both religion and connection to the external world. Saunder’s opinion about tradition seems to shift towards the end of the novel, as he asks Danny, “You will remain an observer of the commandments?” (281) He asks this, not only to Danny, but also to himself, as he tries to accept that his son will not be the next rabbi. His acceptance of Danny’s decision to become a professional psychologist suggests that he recognizes one can maintain ties with the outside world and be observant of one’s faith. Just as much as Jewish-American literature centers around traditional values versus American culture, Potok’s story does as well.
Chaim Potok does an excellent job at recreating and capturing a real-life issue into a novel. By doing so, he reveals to us the harsh reality of relationships and the immense effort required to surpass the conflict between tradition and modernity. However, Potok manages to Potok perfectly describes an imperfect world, with all the authentic tensions and disputes contained in real life.
“The World Drinks our Blood:” Reuven’s Moral Development in The Chosen
No matter how unjust and undeserved suffering may seem, its nature is an inevitable manifestation in life. Chaim Potok explores this concept through Reuven Malter, one of the two protagonists in The Chosen. On account of a severe wound to Reuven’s eye, he becomes acquainted with Danny Saunders, heir to the Rabbinic position held by his father, Reb Saunders, in his Hasidic Jewish community. After the incident, Danny attempts to reconcile with the hospitalized Reuven for causing the injury, whose initial reluctance progresses into acceptance once he allows himself to acknowledge Danny’s apology. From that moment, the two establish a powerful bond in which they each serve as emotional vessels for the other as they struggle through their own personal suffering. Reuven’s acceptance of Danny’s apology reshapes and improves his perception of the greater world, enabling him to more empathetically examine the rationale of suffering in not only Danny’s life, but of all humankind.
Reuven’s initial inability to view Danny as an individual with ambitions and beliefs beyond Hasidism develops from his generalized and bitter predisposition towards the Hasidic Jewish community. The rift between Reuven and Danny is first illustrated minutes prior to the baseball game between their community’s teams; during play, Reuven describes Danny as possessing an arrogant sense of righteousness, despite the two having not met before (Potok 12). This reveals Reuven’s tendency to prejudge the behaviors and motives of those with a Hasidic background based on his own preconceptions, instead of recognizing the thoughts and opinions specific to the individual. Amid the first conversation with his father after sustaining his injury, Reuven expresses intense disgust towards Danny, claiming he intentionally struck Reuven’s face with the ball (Potok 49). Reuven seizes this opportunity as confirmation for his ignorant perspective of Hasidic Jews; additionally, this emphasizes how Reuven refuses to view Danny as an independent human being rather than a representation of Hasidism. By the time Danny arrives at his bedside with an apologetic purpose, spiteful thoughts still roam through Reuven’s mind, and he responds to Danny’s attempt at making amends with a tirade of guilt-provoking insults aimed at Danny’s Hasidic culture (Potok 61-62). This exemplifies how even in spite of Danny’s efforts to hold a civil conversation, Reuven’s inability to look past his own image of how a Hasidic Jew acts prevents him from recognizing Danny’s intellectual nature.
Upon Danny’s next visit, Reuven possesses a powerful willingness to forgive him because of the advice of his father; in doing so, Reuven allows his perceptions of the world to undergo challenge and improvement. After obliging Danny to explain the baseball incident through his eyes, Reuven identifies a stark contrast between Danny’s command of English, and the Yiddish-dominant speech of his preconceived expectation of a Hasidic Jew (Potok 66-67). Unlike their previous confrontation, Reuven chooses to glance beneath the surface of the Hasidic exterior, and discovers tolerance of Danny in his improved perception. As the two continue their exchange, Danny discloses his ambition of pursuing psychology, to which Reuven reacts in silent astonishment (Potok 70). This new shard of information invites Reuven to further challenge his past-generalizations and perceptions, in that Danny’s intellectual desires transcend his religious affiliation. Before the two end their conversation, Danny claims that Reuven’s injury was avoidable, and he agrees (Potok 71); in spite of Reuven’s previous assumption that Danny’s intentions were evil, his challenged perspective emphasizes how he has enabled Danny to open his mind.
Reuven’s broadened perception of the world, because of his forgiveness of Danny, empowers him to examine and question the reasoning behind the suffering of others, and Danny’s struggle with his father. When Reuven learns that Billy Merrit, a young patient Reuven befriended during his stay at the hospital, will spend his life blind, he finds that he cannot remain calm and recounts Tony Savo, an additional patient at the hospital, repeating “Crazy word. Cockeyed” (Potok 173). This devastating situation exhibits Reuven’s inability to fathom how somebody as innocent and fragile as Billy could be condemned to suffer for life; Reuven’s decision to open his mind further forces him to empathize with Billy’s struggle. He possesses similar feelings of frustration when he is informed of both Franklin Roosevelt’s death, and the revelation of the concentration camps following German surrender, referring to the news in both cases as senseless (Potok 188-190). While Reuven is able to empathetically perceive the suffering in the world, he fails to understand suffering’s randomness; suffering’s omnipotent control; suffering’s lack of discrimination. Danny’s suffering exists differently, in that it manifests in the form of his intellectual ambition versus his father’s expectations, and the silence that marks their relationship; Reuven is initially resentful of the lack of interaction between Danny and his father outside of their Talmudic studies, and views it as an “unimaginable” punishment (Potok 235). Reuven cannot grasp why Reb Saunders elects to put his own son through this kind of treatment, refusing to acknowledge it as more than inexplicable and cruel; this exemplifies how in forgiving Danny, Reuven has allowed himself to look beyond his previous generalization and more aptly identify with Danny’s suffering. Reb Saunders describes his reasoning for Danny’s treatment as a method of teaching him compassion and empathy for others, in fear that Danny would forsake them in exchange for following a purely intellectual life; Danny later explains that he may utilize this method when raising his own children (Potok 285). Through Reb Saunders’ explanation and his ability to retain an open perspective on the world, Reuven accepts that not all suffering is senseless; while it is devastating, it is necessary for shaping the morality of an individual.
Reuven’s forgiveness of Danny enhances his perceptions of the world, which enables him to further question the justification for the suffering in both Danny’s life, and that of greater humankind. From his broadened perspective, Reuven’s empathy for the suffering of others grows significantly. While he struggles to grasp and appropriately handle the morality behind suffering initially, through Danny, he comes to realize that suffering in life is inevitable. Though suffering may seem as only senseless misery, it is essential for shaping the integrity of all.
Hook, Line, and Sinker: The One that Got Away in The Chosen
In Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, a quote by psychologist Karl Menninger appears in the dedication. It goes, “When a trout rising to a fly gets hooked and finds himself unable to swim about freely, he begins a fight which results in struggles and splashes and sometimes an escape… It is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one.” In terms of Potok’s novel, Menninger’s words hold substantial significance. Not only can Danny — with his future decided for him — and Reuven, who is able to choose his own path, be taken as the novel’s hooked and free fish respectively, but the quote itself also parallels one of the story’s morals.
Being dragged ceaselessly towards a predetermined future, Danny symbolizes the hooked fish, as he must become a rabbi and take over when his father steps down. In the hospital, for instance, Danny and Reuven converse briefly about what they plan to be when they are adults. Reuven asks, “Are you going to take your father’s place?” leading Danny to respond, “I have no choice. It’s an inherited position” (Potok 69). With this particular exchange, it becomes quite clear that Danny has been “hooked” by his father’s expectations of him. His inability to escape these expectations is one of the facets of his character that defines him as a hooked fish. Furthermore, during Reb Saunders’s sermon, Danny must realize and point out any errors his father makes. Danny says, “It is written in the name of Rabbi Yaakov, not Rabbi Meir,” and everybody in the synagogue murmurs and marvels at his intelligence (135). Clearly, the other synagogue attendees look upon Danny’s correction with a sort of reverence, as if their murmurs are saying, “Yes, he’s the one who should be our next rabbi.” However, what they don’t understand is that he does not wish to go down that path; he wants to trek — or in this case, swim — a route of his own making. Their blindness to his struggles against the hook that is his future is another aspect of why Danny represents the hooked fish; they others do not understand what he is going through.
With the freedom to swim whichever way he chooses, Reuven represents Menninger’s free fish. It is during the same scene in which Danny expresses his lack of choices that Reuven says that he wants to become a rabbi. “I may become a rabbi,” Reuven proclaims, and when Danny asks him why, he responds, “Why not?” (69). Reuven’s willingness and desire to be a rabbi, in tandem with his ability to do so, directly contradict Danny’s trapped state. Thus, the presence of freedom characterizes Reuven as a free fish. Additionally, when Reuven talks to his father about being invited over to Reb Saunders’s house, he finally realizes that it is all in an attempt to talk to Danny through him (as he cannot do it himself due to the silence between them.) “He wants to talk to me about Danny,” Reuven eventually understands (277). Up until this point, Reuven misinterprets the reasoning behind being invited to the Saunders’s residence, just as a free fish misinterprets the struggles of the hooked. Reuven cannot see that Reb and Danny need him there in order to reconcile and break free from the hook. As per Menninger’s quotation, the free fish — Reuven — misunderstands the hooked fish’s — Danny’s — ordeals.
Although it would be easy to simply say Danny is the hooked fish and Reuven, the free, the significance of the quote extends past merely categorizing the characters, also representing and elaborating upon the story’s moral. For example, Danny and Reuven are having a conversation when Danny asks if Reuven has ever felt trapped. Danny describes being trapped as “the most hellish, choking, constricting feeling in the world,” and he vows to someday escape it (202). His words relate to the quote in that both he and the fish will never quit fighting; they will wriggle and writhe, strain and struggle, until finally, they are either free or unable to continue the fight. Eventually, Reb Saunders, Reuven, and Danny sit down, and Reb reveals that he knows of Danny’s true desires. He tells Danny through Reuven, “Let my Daniel become a psychologist. I have no more fear” (287). Just as in the quote by Menninger, Danny struggles and pulls against the destiny that hooks him, and in the end he breaks free. Therefore, the quote is relevant in terms of the moral, as both it and the story are saying the same thing: Keep fighting and someday, the line might snap and a hooked fish can become free.
Menninger’s hooked fish is, ultimately, represented by Danny, and his free fish by Reuven; his quote is significant because of that, as well as because of its relation to the moral of Potok’s The Chosen. As he has no say in what he will become, Danny is hooked. Since Reuven does have a choice, he is free. Furthermore, the quote itself relates to the story’s moral since both protagonists indicate that if a hooked fish fights, then there is a chance that it will escape. The thing about being a hooked fish, though, is that only those that struggle against the line will ever have a chance of becoming free. Thus, what does it matter whether or not the other fish understand? What does it matter if there is still the possibility that the fisherman will win? In the end, the only thing that matters is that a fish that fights garners the chance to become free, and freedom is worth fighting for.
Conflict and Other Themes in The Chosen
In The Chosen, the setting of each scene contributes to our understanding of the book’s central themes. The baseball field reveals the theme of conflict between two opposing forces, the hospital brings about different perceptions of the world, the library represents the characters’ expanding minds, and so on. The combination of settings and the sub-themes that develop within them help develop the book’s central theme – conflict between the secular and theological.The central theme of The Chosen is apparent from the beginning and takes place on a baseball field, inherently a place of competition that, if taken too far, can turn into outright conflict. A simple baseball game becomes a virtual holy war. Reuven’s team, secular Americanized Jews, and Danny’s team, extremely religious Hasidic Jews, compete in a brutal game of ball. The major underlying theme of The Chosen, conflict between two opposing forces and their different approach towards Judaism, secular and theological, reveals itself in this scene. At first Reuven notices nothing in particular about Danny’s team other than that they wear the proper yeshiva regalia: “There were fifteen of them, and they were dressed alike…in the fashion of the very Orthodox, their hair was closely cropped, ….Some of them had the beginnings of beards, straggly tufts of hair that stood in isolated clumps on their chins, jawbones, and upper lips. They all wore the traditional undergarments beneath their shirts, and the tzitzit, the long fringes appended to the four corners of the garment, came out above their belts and swung against their pants as they walked. These were the very Orthodox, and they obeyed literally the Biblical commandments.” Davey Cantor continually expresses that they have a “murderous” way of playing baseball, but Reuven ignores him. Finally, when Danny walks past Reuven with scorn and blatant arrogance, Reuven realizes and despises the “Hasidic-bred sense of superiority” that Danny carried.As the game goes on, both teams try their hardest but Danny’s team takes it to an extreme level. Danny tells Reuven “We are going to kill you apikorsim,” and means it almost literally. Danny’s Hasidic team places great value on their religious beliefs and its members always keeps to themselves. Very disapproving of anyone who has different beliefs than them, they have a “fanatic sense of righteousness” and believe that “every other Jew was wrong, totally wrong, a sinner, a hypocrite, an apikoros, and doomed, therefore, to burn in hell.” This, along with Reb Saunders’ order to never lose because losing shamed their yeshiva, explains their win-at-all-costs mentality. At the end of the game, Mr. Galanter puts Reuven in to pitch. When Danny comes up to bat, he hits the ball straight at Reuven, hitting him in the eye, smashing his glasses, and causing him immense pain.Another one of the central themes relating to conflict in The Chosen involves different ways of seeing and perceiving aspects of the world. Reuven’s injured eye, broken glasses, and hospital visit begin to suggest that he will perceive the world differently from then on. In the hospital, he meets two people also suffering optical injuries, Tony Savo and Billy. After the doctors examine Reuven, they discover a piece of glass in his eye that could become covered in scar tissue and cause Reuven to go blind in that eye. When Reuven receives this news, he ponders what the world would be like with only one good eye and feels empathetic for Billy for being blind in both eyes. This empathetic feeling sparks compassion in Reuven as he thinks about Billy before himself and deals very patiently and kindly towards Billy. He even shortens his name to Bobby just for that young, innocent boy.When Danny comes to visit Reuven in the hospital, Reuven seems surprised. Furious despite Danny’s apology, Reuven tells Danny to “go to hell, and take your whole snooty bunch of Hasidim along with you!” After Danny leaves, Reuven feels regretful about his own behavior. When Danny comes back the next day, Reuven greets him with pleasure. Reuven apologizes for his harsh behavior towards him. This scene reveals the real Danny. Since the start of the book, it seems that Danny and Reuven will be great enemies because of their totally different views of the world and approaches towards Judaism. In this key scene, Danny and Reuven actually become friends. This scene also shows Danny as human after all, with interests beyond his religion, and reveals Danny’s difficult situation. Secular literature and psychology interest Danny but his father, very disapproving of such things, wants Danny to succeed him as a rabbi and the leader of the Hasidic sect. Ironically, Reuven is interested in becoming a rabbi while his father wants him to pursue mathematics.The different father-son relationships become evident in the hospital, a very important location in this book. Reuven and his father have a close relationship, talk freely, and communicate very well. In addition, Reuven’s father advises, but does not dictate, the profession his son should pursue. Danny and his father, on the other hand, live in silence except when discussing the Talmud. Danny’s father, Reb, is an authoritarian figure who demands strict obedience at all times. Reuven asks, “What would have happened if you’d lost?” and Danny replies “I don’t like to think about that. You don’t know my father.”Because of Danny’s father’s authoritarian behavior and strong disapproval of any secular literature, Danny goes to the library in secret. He reads books by Hemingway, Darwin, Huxley, Freud, and many others concerning psychology and other ideas about humanism: “I read in the library so my father won’t know. He’s very strict about what I read.” Danny says that he met a man at the library who gives recommendations on books to read. When Danny finishes the books, the man discusses the books with him and gives further recommendations. Very soon, Reuven’s father, actually the man in the library, begins giving even further recommendations. In the library, a very significant location in The Chosen, Danny gets educated, or e-duked; every book that Danny reads teaches him more and brings him further into the mainstream. This causes Reuven to have mixed feelings about Danny: “I’m really mixed up about you…You don’t sound like what my father says Hasidim are supposed to sound like.” Danny, confused, says “What do I sound like?” Reuven replies “Like a—an apikoros.”Danny continues to read secular literature in secret. Later, Reuven and Danny start to spend Shabbat afternoons together with Danny’s father and study Talmud together. One afternoon, Reuven and Danny go to Reb Saunders’ office to study and discuss Talmud. They have a Talmudic text open and as Reb reads it out loud, Danny and Reuven take turns explaining each passage. Slowly, the Talmudic study session develops into a heated debate, “a pitched battle between father and son about each passage. Reb Saunders’ office and what takes place there exemplify the book’s theme of conflict. Danny and his father agree on most ideas in the text, yet they argue over it without remorse. This conversation, though ostensibly about the Talmud, is really a way for them to discuss what they cannot elsewhere. Danny observes: “There was no tension here at all but a battle between equals… [and] Reb Saunders was far happier when he lost to Danny than when he won. His face glowed with fierce pride and his head nodded wildly.” Shortly thereafter, Reuven ends up telling Reb Saunders about Danny and his secular reading. Reb expresses his fear that his son will not follow a path towards Hasidic leadership in one succinct message: “You will not make a goy out of my son?”Later in the book, Reuven and Danny both go to the Hirsch College. One of the only institutions that gives both secular and religious education, Hirsch College is another place of conflict. Zionism becomes a heated issue on campus, with most of the college supporting it and the minority in opposition. Reuven’s father, an active Zionist, wants to make a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Reb Saunders disagrees; he wants to wait for the Messiah before establishing a Jewish homeland. Reb bans Danny from seeing Reuven because of their fathers’ conflicting views and forces them to not speak to one another. This act, caused by a difference of opinion, almost breaks Reuven and Danny’s great friendship. Reuven discovers his capacity for hatred: “I never knew myself capable of the kind of hatred I felt toward Reb Saunders… It was black, it leered, it was cancerous, it was death. I hated it.”The Chosen’s central subject – conflict between the secular and the theological – depends upon strong sub-themes such as compassion, different perceptions of the world, and father-son relations. The evocative nature of the places in which the plot of The Chosen unfolds – baseball field, hospital, library, Reb Saunders’ office, and Hirsch College – support development of its themes and contribute to the whole, a meaningful commentary on how religious belief can transcend – and destroy – friendships.
Tortured Victory: Chaim Potok’s characterization of Reb Saunders
In Literature and Language we are told that literary characterization is accomplished in three ways: “The reader learns about a character through the character’s words and actions,…and through what other characters say about him…(p.44)” In most cases, there is a correlation between the quantity of data available, and the vividness manifested in each character; in other words, the more information we get about a character, the better we know them. One need only look at any of canon literature’s well-known characters to see the sense of this: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example – arguably the most vivid of all characters. How do we know Hamlet so well? Because his creator endowed him with ample action (the play totals 3,880 lines in all), ample verbiage (the vast majority of the 3,880 lines are spoken by Hamlet himself) and ample description (the majority of the lines not spoken by Hamlet are spoken about him). Hence, drawing conclusions about Hamlet, the character, becomes as easy as catching fish in an aquarium: just grab a net and scoop.How, then, is a reader to reconcile a literary work when characterization is severely lacking in scope and quantity? When a character does little, says even less, and is held in such awe by his fellows that they scarcely speak of him at all, it is difficult to draw conclusions, and the reader that does so hastily may well be drawing a conclusion that is erroneous. To come away from such a work without drawing some conclusion, however, is to say either that the author has failed in the task of characterization, or that we have failed in our attempts to understand it. Either way, a reading of the work is rendered useless.This is the precarious dilemma we face when reading Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen. Though not the main character of the Potok’s work, Reb Saunders is the driving force of the novel – the novel’s main conflicts hinge on the fear the main characters have for him, and he forces the climax; but as a character, Reb Saunders remains somewhat shrouded. Mere enjoyment of Potok’s story does not require an examination of Danny’s mysterious father, but if there is any intellectual growth to be had from the experience, surely it will come through a thorough understanding of the imposing tzaddik. Reb Saunders is so many things, but for the bulk of the novel, his one defining characteristic is that he is silent. And because of this – because Potok virtually deprives us of one of only three tools by which we could come to “know” Reb Saunders- we know him only through the perception of the novel’s other characters. However, if we interpret their observations of him (“…his crazy silences and explosions [p.244]”) at face value, our opinions of Reb Saunders are not likely to be favorable. But it seems unlikely that the author’s intention would be for the reader to hate the spiritual center of his novel. Like Reb Saunders with Danny, like David Malter with his son Rueven, Chaim Potok has faith in his reader – he is hoping that his reader, like Danny, can “listen to silence and learn from it. (p.249)” But in case we, like Reuven, are reluctant to do so, Potok allows Reb Saunders to break his mysterious silence in the novel’s final pages. The result is two-fold: first, the novel is given a sweetly satisfying conclusion; but more importantly, the reader is now empowered to draw a valid conclusion about Reb Saunders, the character. And ironically, that conclusion must be a favorable one.In our attempt to know Reb Saunders, we’re lucky in at least one respect – Potok provides us with a vivid physical description of the tzaddik:He was a tall man…his face…looked cut from stone, the nose sharp and pointed, the cheekbones ridged, the lips full, the brow like marble etched with lines, the sockets deep, the eyebrows thick with black hair…they eyes dark, with pinpoints of white light playing in them as they do in black stones in the sun…(p.120)We also hear Reb Saunders’ thunderous voice when he speaks to his congregation and we observe him when he tests his son (and Reuven) during argumentation of Talmud. But beyond that, we have very little to go on. For much of the novel, the information we gather regarding Reb Saunders is, essentially, gossip; we become dependant on the impressions of Reuven and his father. Unhappily for Reb Saunders, however, these impressions are not favorable; and whatever negative inklings we have already developed of the rabbi as a strong leader and a smart man, but nonetheless a distant or even cruel father, are confirmed and reinforced by the Malters.While Reuven’s father vaguely acknowledges that he cannot judge what he doesn’t fully understand, and that he doesn’t know what it is like to raise a tzaddik, his condemnation of Reb Saunders’ methods are considerably less vague, and we hear his criticisms clearly. “There are other ways than the way of Reb Saunders,” (p.140) David Malter tells his son, and though he consistently feigns tolerance, he spares no opportunity to make his opinion on Hasidism known either. “I do not care for his Hasidism very much,” David says to Reuven, “…It is a pity (Reb Saunders) occupies his mind only with Talmud. If he were not a tzaddik he could make a great contribution to the world”(p.141). Indeed, David Malter even undermines certain aspects of Reb Saunders that we might find admirable, were it not for Malter’s intrusive opinion. One might admire Reb Saunders capacity for suffering – his willingness to symbolically shoulder the sorrowful burdens of his family, his flock, and the six million Jews recently slaughtered in Nazi Europe. But through his son, Reuven’s father discourages such sympathy on the part of the reader: “Hasidim!” Malter mutters. “Why must they feel the burden of the world is only on their shoulders?”(p. 252), a statement he ironically makes even as he also suffers for his people in a secular way, fighting for the establishment of Israel.Making our evaluation of Reb Saunders grimmer still, Reuven, the most solid link between the reader and the text, shares his father’s opinions about Reb Saunders, and feels even more passionate hatred for Danny’s father as the debate over Zionism tears the Jewish community painfully in two. “He’s…a fanatic!”(p. 219) Reuven shouts. And of Reb Saunders’ code of silence, Reuven says, “I hated the silence…and thought it unimaginable that Danny and his father never really talked. Silence was ugly, it was black, it leered, it was cancerous, it was death. I hated it, and I hated Reb Saunders for forcing it upon me and his son”(p. 220-221). We see the richness that open communication with his father adds to Reuven’s life, and, by contrast, we feel the misery created by the lack of contact in Danny’s life. Our verdict is simple and justifiable: Danny is tortured, and it is Reb Saunders’ fault. His methods are wrong. He is a bad father.Is this verdict justifiable, though? Certainly not until we’ve examined available data from Reb Saunders’ own son. Brevity may tempt us to neglect such an inquiry, in favor of the easier route – dismissing Danny as no more able to evaluate his own father than we are; after all, he is faced with the same “silence” as the reader. But an examination of Danny’s opinion of his own father is vital, and yields the data necessary to call our premature “guilty” verdict into question.We must remember that Danny is able to perceive what we can’t. He can’t fully explain it, but he tells his friend, “You can listen to silence, Reuven…you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it”(p. 249). We see that Danny isn’t deprived of his father’s voice altogether – his father speaks to him both through Reuven, and with silence. Danny is the one who is suffering, not us, and Danny is the one who is in the position to judge, not us. Yet, while we condemn Reb Saunders, Danny trusts him:You want to know how I feel about my father? I admire him. I don’t know what he’s trying to do to me with this weird silence that he’s established between us, but I admire him. I think he’s a great man. I respect him and trust him completely, which is why I think I can live with his silence. I don’t know why I trust him, but I do…(p. 191)If Danny does not condemn his father, how can we? Especially since exploring the text with hindsight shows that Danny’s trust isn’t baseless.The easiest way to justify Danny’s trust in his father is to examine the results: Danny is a splendid human being; he is brilliant, ambitious, thoughtful, sensitive, caring, and compassionate. But beyond our view of the finished product that Danny Saunders becomes, we also see that despite the silence, there is a definite discernible relationship between Danny and his father. Danny delights in certain aspects of his upbringing. He basks in the loving attention he receives from his father’s flock, he profoundly appreciates and respects his fathers intellectual abilities, and he positively revels in the Talmudic disputes, both public and private, seldom engaging his father in battle without a wide cartoonish grin spread across his face. But Danny isn’t solely responsible for “extracting” these pleasures. We are forced to acknowledge Reb Saunders, and we cannot ignore the “little things” he does right, such as his delight in losing Talmudic disputes to his son, his face “glow(ing) with fierce pride and his head nodd(ing) wildly”(p. 156). Nor can we ignore the profound faith he displays in his son by even allowing him contact with Reuven and David Malter in the first place, asking only of Reuven, “Reuven you and your father will be a good influence on my son, yes?” (p.159)Still, despite taking into account Danny’s perspective, despite the obvious good connections between he and his father, despite knowing that Reb Saunders must raise his son while at the same time serving as a virtual messiah to his congregation, we resist absolving his apparent negligence. We realize that Reb Saunders must have the answers – he must have the answers for the Talmud, the answers for the Torah, the answers for his congregation, for his people, for the horrible past, for the uncertain future. We understand his burden, but it’s not enough; we want him to answer for his son. And in the end, he does.When Reuven finally listens, so do we, and when Reb Saunders finally breaks his silence with his son, blame becomes irrelevant. His words are full of wisdom, compassion, humility, and love. Reb Saunders’ motives, his fears, his intentions – all that had remained shrouded for a lifetime – come pouring out. We see that his battle to instill his son with a soul, his struggle to both enjoy the blessings and endure the “curse” of Danny’s intellect, his quest to raise a tzaddik while also being a tzaddik, his resignation to accept God’s will in all things, and his suffering over Danny’s decision to take a “different” path have mercilessly wore him down. We see that the burdens of raising his son have been harder on Reb Saunders than on Danny.So, Reb Saunders has not been a perfect father. Does this make him unique? On the day of the Festival of Freedom, how can we possibly judge Reb Saunders? How can we possibly say that he has failed as a father? Reb Saunders speaks his son’s name and gives Danny his freedom. In the emotional climax of the novel, as Reb Saunders asks for forgiveness, how can we refuse? Reb Saunders has raised a tzaddik, and he has selflessly given him away to the world, asking only that he remain an observer of the commandments. How can we deny him “final acknowledgment of his tortured victory”(p. 268)? Rather, we should grant it willingly, and acquiesce to Reb Saunders in his victory. We should delight in Danny’s victory, and in Reuven’s. And we should delight in Potok’s victory – his subtly masterful creation of a powerful character and a work of literature that resonates.
“All the darkness in the world could not put out the light of one small candle.”These words from the headstone of a Jewish holocaust victim perfectly define Chaim Potok’s use of light as a symbol of knowledge and truth in a world of tradition. Potok uses Reuven’s observations of light to give the reader clues of Danny’s awakenings to the truth and knowledge of the outside world in The Chosen. Danny’s surroundings particularly show the lack of acceptance toward society and the feelings of his family, friends and himself toward the outside world. Light also helps demonstrate the growth and maturity Danny gains during the novel. Finally, it also shows his constant struggle with the importance of religion versus knowledge in his life. Danny has a brilliant mind, and finding a way to integrate the supreme emphasis his family places on their hasidic religion with his ravenous hunger for knowledge, is a battle he fights throughout the book. Whether or not he wins this battle is entirely up to the judgement of the reader, but Potok expresses his opinion by using the constant theme of light.Light comes into play primarily while Potok describes the surroundings of the characters. He shows how secluded Danny’s life is by comparing it to the complete opposite lifestyle of Reuven Malter. Reuven enjoys an open and aware childhood, whereas Danny is brought up under the silent lips of his severe father. The Malter home is described as having three wide windows through which sunlight pours. This light ties to the fact that David Malter, Reuven’s father greatly stresses the importance of modern ideas in his son’s life. David Malter is always studying, trying to find new and better ways of doing things. He disagrees with strict obedience to the sometimes-vague laws of the Talmud. Instead he uses his own logic to discover and become an example of the true meaning of this Holy Scripture and it’s commandments. This explains the constant visualization of light the authors uses when in reference to Reuven and David. This light symbolizes the Malter’s openness to the knowledge and philosophies of the outside world. Following the trend, the Malter’s synagogue shows similar characteristics. Unlike others, the Malter’s synagogue is flooded with sunlight, further proving Reuven’s exposure, even through his orthodox religion, to modern society. In comparison, Danny’s street is shaded by protective sycamore trees, which allow for very little light. The windows in his synagogue are carefully curtained with black velvet, deliberately keeping the light out. Instead of natural light, “naked bulbs on dark wires flood the synagogue with harsh light.” The absence of light in Danny’s environment directly contradicts the openness and acceptance of the Malters and proves the sheltered, isolated lifestyle of the Saunders. The ideas of the world are curtained from Danny as literally as the black velvet covering the windows. Danny is raised by strict tradition and blind obedience. For Danny there is no need for light. He is expected to follow directly in the footsteps of his father, finding his own path seems impossible. Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, is a firm believer in following the culture of his ancestors and using the same methods of raising his son. The Saunder’s live by the rigid rules of the Talmud, refuse to make exceptions, and remain perfectly faithful in following the structure of their firm religion. Danny’s family is unwilling to acknowledge the light of the modern world, and strongly discourages Danny’s curiosity toward secular knowledge. Instead they encourage the ancestral custom of Danny becoming tzaddik after his father.As the novel progresses, light fluctuates depending on the circumstances of the characters. Other examples of light prove its use as a symbol of secular knowledge and truth. Because of its diversity, the hospital windows allow plenty of sunshine. It is also appropriate for the library, a center of learning and innovation, to be described as having “huge windows through which sunlight streamed.” On the other hand, Danny’s house is lit by the same sparse light used in the synagogue, closed off to the rest of the world.As Danny Saunders grows and is exposed to life outside of Hasidism, he changes the light within and around him. Thus we see how one small light is able to affect the surrounding darkness. This maturity begins to grow profusely immediately after Reuven meets Danny. Reuven’s first real encounter with Danny is while he is staying in the hospital. He is alerted to Danny’s presence because of the absence of light. Danny blocks the sunlight from the hospital window, foreshadowing Danny’s ignorance of the outside world. The significance of Reuven in Danny’s future is also exposed in this scene. Reuven is irritated at once by Danny’s shadow, and helps him discover the light he has been shadowing. As Danny matures, not only does the light change in him, but he is also able to transform the sparse light of his childhood. The morning Danny and his father break the silence, light has penetrated the protective sycamore trees, indicating that Danny has overcome his upbringing and accepted the outside world into his life. The most poignant example of light in The Chosen is Reuven’s final encounter with Danny. There is a light in Danny’s eyes, which Potok appropriately defines as almost blinding’. The knowledge and understanding of others is such a huge part of Danny that there is light within him for the entire world to see; a light to illuminate the darkness.The symbol of light in The Chosen signifies the acceptance and understanding of the outside world in the lives of a people who live by ancient traditions. They struggle with the balance of present ideas versus primeval commandments. Light shows us Danny’s awakening to the world outside Hasidism, and his battle to find balance and acceptance. The environments of Danny and Reuven emphasize the extreme nature of Danny’s upbringing. This comparison also proves how difficult it was for him in overcoming the expectations of his father so he could use his mind to its full potential. The light of The Chosen shows how an individual can overcome the greatest of trials, and emerge not only victorious, but stronger and wiser. Finding his way through the dark and searching for his place in the world was a grueling battle for Danny Saunders, but by the light of others, and the fire in his heart, he was able to conquer it all.
Saunders vs. Malters
The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, is a novel written about two Jewish boys growing up in Brookyln. Though they lived only five blocks from each other, Danny and Reuven lived very different lives, primarily because of the influence of their fathers. Reb Saunders and Mr. Malters approached raising a child, their Jewish faith, and the world in general from two very different perspectives. Despite the profound differences, both men tried very hard to do what was right for their sons.As fathers, Reb Saunders and Mr. Malters both loved their sons very much, however they demonstrated this love quite differently. Reb raised his son in complete silence, wanting him to learn compassion and to develop a soul to go with his great mind, talking to him only when studying the Torah. To be specific, unless it related to his religious studies, Reb did not talk to or with Danny after the age of 3. On the other hand, Mr. Malters placed a great deal of emphasis on good and frequent communication between himself and his son. Reb wanted Danny to find things out for himself, while Mr. Malters wanted Reuven to be able to come to him with questions. Mr. Malters and Reuven would often talk for hours about various subjects, such as the time Mr. Malters explained the history of Hasidism to him. Mr. Malters was his son’s friend and could be depended on for emotional support such as when President Roosevelt died. Danny did not have this close relationship with his father, thus explaining his dependency on Reuven. Even though Reb Saunders and Mr. Malters raised their sons in opposite ways, they did so out of love and deeply felt that they were doing the right thing. Because both Saunders and Malters were Jews, they had the same basic doctrines and worshiped the same God. However, because they belonged to different sects, there were some significant differences as well. Worshiping as a Hasid, Reb Saunders lived a strict and structured life. As the tzaddik, he was expected to bear the emotional burden of his people. Mr. Malters, not a rabbi, simply a scholar, was an orthodox Jew and abstained from the formality of Hasidism. While Hasids were required to wear earlocks, tallits and dark clothing at all times, orthodox Jews were not required to wear earlocks or dark clothing and only wore a tallit while praying. The Hasidic community felt it wrong to publish any kind of writing whereas in the orthodox community publishing was commonplace, a freedom Mr. Malters took advantage of. Both placed their son’s religious education as a top prority and actively observed all the Jewish holidays, though they did so in accordance with their own particular sect. Despite these differences, both men truly loved God and wanted to serve him in everything they did.Mr. Malters and Reb Saunders held drasticly opposite views on the world. Reb believed that he was simply passing through the world on his way to eternal life and that it was unimportant and burdening. In contrast, Mr. Malters thought life was important and needed to be productive. He said, ” A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life.” Mr. Malters felt it necessary to go out and change things in the world, while Reb shrank away from the world, in fear that it would corrode his faith. Beliving he had to protect himself from the evil found in the world, Reb said “A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame.” Reb Saunders feared the world would take him further from God, whereas Mr. Malters felt you had to take God to the world. Extremely different with very few similarities, Reb Saunders and Mr. Malters approached life from two angles, both truly seeking to do the right thing. They differed as fathers, as men of religion and men of the world but they were working towards the same goal; to raise their sons well. Both being successful, they raised two strong godly men, men who learned from their fathers and loved them for how they were raised.