“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.
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