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.

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