Criticism Ann Hibert Alton
In the following essay, Alton, an honorary research associate at the University of Sydney, provides an overview discussion of Potok's novel. Chaim Potok's The Chosen focuses on the contrasts between extreme ends of Orthodox Judaism. Despite criticisms that Potok is overly optimistic — Reuven regains his sight, Danny renounces the tzaddikate without being ostracized by his father, Danny and Reuven resolve many of the conflicts they feel between the secular world and Orthodox Judaism — Potok's novel provides us with valuable insights into American Orthodox Jewish life during and after World War II. The novel explores in detail the lives and traditions of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, and creates an apparently realistic portrait of both cultures. The Chosen attempts to explore the place of Judaism in a secular society, provides insights into tensions between faith and scholarship, and suggests Judaism's need to create a new philosophy for the modern world.
The setting is Brooklyn in the 1940s. Reuven's detailed descriptions of his and Danny's homes and Reb Saunders' synagogue appear as set-pieces in the novel. This focuses our attention on plot and theme. This self-contained Jewish world, completely separate from the secular world, suggests the conflict between Hasidic existence and secular life — a theme which is repeated throughout the novel.
Reuven Malter's first-person narrative encourages our strong identification with him. Like him, we are bewildered by Reb Saunders' silence, and are furious when Reb Saunders excommunicates him. The dialogue is direct, uncomplicated, and convincing, though relatively flat. The strong focus on plot and theme results in little richness of tone: as Sheldon Grebstein comments, the novel's "overall color is gray."
An understanding of Judaism is crucial to interpreting The Chosen, which focuses on the opposite poles of Orthodoxy and Hasidism. Hasidism originated in eastern Europe in the 18th century, and its followers immediately came into conflict with the Mitnagdim (opponents), or established religious authorities. The Mitnagdim focused on scholarship and formal prayer, while the Hasidim (pious ones) believed that studying Talmud (the book of Jewish law and ritual) was not as important as making every aspect of their lives holy. By the 20th century Hasidism's focus had changed substantially to value studying Talmud and eliminating anything from the secular world. Hasidism's leaders were called tzaddikim (righteous ones), and were regarded as superhuman links between God and the community. The Hasidim believed that the only correct form of worship was to approach God through their tzaddik, rather than individually as Orthodox Jews did. Non-Hasidic Jews were considered apikorsim (Jews who denied the basic tenets of their faith), and were shunned. This conflict appears during the baseball game between Reuven's Orthodox team and Danny's Hasidic team, which takes on overtones of a holy war.
Two significant historical contexts are World War II and the Zionist movement. Reuven mentions the D-Day invasion in France, the Battle of the Bulge, the death of President Roosevelt, the Germans' surrender in May 1945, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war serves as a reminder of the secular world. No one is immune to its effects, as we see in the different reactions of the Hasidic and Orthodox communities to news of the German concentration camps. Reb Saunders believes these camps were God's will, and speaks of Europe's Jewish communities having disappeared "into heaps of bones and ashes." In contrast, Rav Malter believes that Jews can wait no longer for God or the Messiah, insisting: " 'If we do not rebuild Jewry in America, we will die as a people." He becomes an outspoken supporter of the Zionists, who believe that the American Jews must make Palestine into a Jewish homeland. The Zionists' opponents, of which Reb Saunders is one, believe this would corrupt the Holy Land. Eventually, the United Nations votes to create the Jewish state of Israel. After escalating violence between Arabs and Jews, the Zionist and Hasidic communities feel more unity. These historical contexts suggest the tension between the different sects of Judaism, and more specifically between the Malters' Orthodoxy and Reb Saunders' extreme Hasidism.
The central imagery of The Chosen appears in metaphors of vision. Reuven's eye trouble leads him into another world, one which forces him to leave the pieces of his old identity behind "alongside the shattered lens of my glasses." His new identity incorporates his friendship with Danny along with a much wider view of the world. Danny begins wearing glasses just before he enters Hirsch College. His eye problems suggest his limitations: although he is intellectually curious, he lacks compassion, and doesn't see the wider view of the world that Reuven sees. Once Danny learns empathy, "there was a light in his eyes that was almost blinding."
The novel's main relationships are between narrator Reuven Malter, Danny Saunders, Reuven's father Rabbi David Malter, and Danny's father Reb Saunders. Reuven — whose name in Hebrew means "behold a son" — loves mathematics, but wants to become a rabbi like his father. He is a good scholar, with an open mind, and a compassionate young man. Danny — Hebrew for "God is my judge" — is heir to the tzaddikate, but wants to become a psychologist. Despite his brilliant mind, he lacks compassion, which we see in his feelings of murderous rage during the baseball game, and in his cool appreciation of Hemingway's artistry in describing ants being roasted alive on a burning log. Danny is terribly torn between the demands of his intellect and the traditions of the tzaddikate dynasty. He dreads the thought of becoming tzaddik, for he fears losing his contact with the secular world. Despite this, he already thinks of himself as tzaddik, and feels pride in the respect he's given as heir.
Like Reuven and Danny, their fathers represent opposite philosophical and religious poles. Rabbi Malter, Reuven's father, is tremendously understanding: despite his broad knowledge of Talmud, he is open to ideas from the secular world. His passionate support of the Zionist movement arises from his desire for a meaningful life. Reb Saunders, Danny's father, is tzaddik to his community. He is both a great Talmudist (scholar of Talmud) and a great tzaddik with a reputation for both brilliance and compassion. However, he is also a tyrant, absolute ruler of his household and his community. He cannot accept any idea coming from the "contaminated" or secular world; in his eyes, the Zionist movement is sacrilege and a violation of the Torah. Danny pities his father because he's intellectually trapped in his Hasidic traditions and therefore has an extremely narrow view of the world.
Minor characters include Tony Savo and Billy Merrit, whom Reuven meets while in hospital. These two characters suggest the importance of faith in a world which is often incomprehensible. Professor Appleman, Chair of the Psychology department at Hirsch College, reconciles Danny to studying experimental psychology. Rav Gershenson, the Talmud instructor, cannot allow secular methods of analysis in his class despite his sympathy for them. Danny's brother Levi — whose name in Hebrew means "joined in harmony" — is a "delicate miniature" of his father, and eventually inherits the position of tzaddik. Female characters are virtually non-existent. Only Manya, the Malters' Russian housemaid who "babbles" in Ukrainian, has a name. Reuven's mother is dead, Danny's mother is alive but practically invisible, and Danny's sister disappears into an arranged Hasidic marriage. This lack of women significantly weakens the novel's realism and leads to a lack of balance.
The theme of father-son relationships is central to the novel's underlying conflicts. Reuven's strong relationship with his father is open and affectionate: they can — and do — talk about anything. Rav Malter teaches Reuven compassion, forgiveness, and tolerance. He encourages Reuven to become friends with Danny, and tries to teach Reuven about Danny's Hasidic heritage so that Reuven will understand Danny. Even when Reb Saunders excommunicates Reuven, Rav Malter forbids Reuven to slander him, insisting that it was just this sort of fanaticism which kept the Jews alive through two thousand years of exile. In the end, it is largely because of Rav Malter's attitudes that Reuven chooses to preserve his culture and religion by becoming a rabbi. In contrast, Danny has extremely mixed feelings about his father. Although he fears his father's temper and dreads his continued silence, he believes that his father is " 'a great man.' " However, he dreads being trapped the way his father is: " 'I want to be able to breathe, to think what I want to think, to say the things I want to say.' " When Danny realizes he cannot become tzaddik, he becomes terrified about telling his father, because "if the son doesn't take the father's place, the dynasty falls apart." However, Reb Saunders realizes Danny's intentions and acknowledges him as a man. His acceptance of Danny's decision is influenced by three factors. First, he has come to respect his son's soul as well as his mnind, and knows Danny intends to continue to observe Jewish law. Second, he feels Danny now has the soul of a tzaddik, and that" 'All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik.' " Finally, he realizes the dynasty will not be destroyed: since "the tzaddikate was inherited, and the charisma went automatically from father to son — all sons," Levi will become tzaddik in Danny's place. Despite this happy resolution, Reb Saunders' insistence on the strict traditions of Hasidism at the expense of the secular world have the effect of driving Danny away from his tzaddikate heritage and into his study of psychoanalysis.
Another theme arises from the Talmud's direction that the two things one should do are to choose a friend and to acquire a teacher. After their initial antagonism towards each other, Reuven and Danny find many common aspects of their lives. Despite their different heritages and opinions, they become fast friends. Certainly they illustrate Reuven's father's comment that "'Honest differences of opinion should never be permitted to destroy a friendship.' " Their friendship survives various crises, including a year of enforced silence, as well as major differences of opinion about the value of experimental psychology, mathematics, Freudian thought, and even Reb Saunders.
Both boys have teachers in their fathers. Reb Saunders chooses the traditional method of teaching Danny through public quizzes on his Talmud sermons. Later, both Danny and Reuven review Talmud with Reb Saunders, and through vehement arguments they learn the meanings of various passages. However, Reb Saunders isn't an ideal teacher because his exclusively Hasidic viewpoint completely excludes secular considerations. In contrast, Rav Malter teaches Reuven the heretical "scientific method" for studying Talmud, which includes the use of sources outside Orthodox Jewish tradition. When Reuven successfully uses this method to analyze a difficult passage, Rav Gershenson reveres the explanation but forbids him to use this method in class. Reuven then realizes his father is regarded as an heretic because of his methods and opinions. He also realizes that one can hold heretical notions, as perhaps Rav Gershenson does, and still be a rabbi.
Both boys are serious about their studies, and Danny is committed to extensive reading of secular works. In addition to knowing Ivanhoe, Danny reads Darwin, Huxley, and Hemingway before becoming intrigued with the writings of Freud. It is during his study of Freud that Danny begins to question many of the aspects of Hasidism. He realizes that he can approach Freud in the same way as he approaches Talmud, suggesting his temporary conversion to Freud as a religion. Just as he became upset by various interpretations of Hasidism, Danny becomes increasingly upset by Freud. However, he can't stop reading Freud because of his uncanny insights into nature of man. Here we come to one of the most significant aspects of the book: the tension between faith and scholarship. Danny cannot stop thinking about Freud and his analysis of the psyche of man, and the more he thinks about it the less he believes he can conform completely to Hasidism.
Finally, the theme of silence dominates The Chosen. Danny and his father don't talk, except when they study Talmud. This silence is Reb Saunders' attempt to teach Danny compassion. As a child, Danny recounted a story about terrible suffering to his father to demonstrate his excellent memory, displaying no compassion for the story's victims. Reb Saunders concluded that despite Danny's brilliance he lacked a soul. By enforcing silence between them, he believed that Danny would learn to know pain and suffering. Since a tzaddik must suffer his people's pain, Reb Saunders justifies his actions: " 'I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.' " In the end, this silence is the price he's willing to pay for Danny's soul.
Two central metaphors suggest The Chosen's meaning. The first is the fly that Reuven gently frees from the spider's web. The fly represents Danny, who is caught in the almost invisible web of history, the rigidity of Hasidic tradition, and his father's silence. Reuven is the outsider from the secular world who sees Danny's predicament, and whose gentle influence frees Danny from his oppressive trap without destroying either the tzaddikate dynasty or Danny's relationship with his father. The second metaphor is the novel's title: The Chosen. Its most obvious meaning suggests the Hasidim themselves, who believe they are God's chosen ones. However, the chosen also refers to the vocations chosen by Danny and Reuven: psychoanalysis and the rabbinate respectively. Finally, Danny himself is the chosen, in the sense that his father chooses to raise him in silence so that he develops the soul of a tzaddik. This fate is the final choice — one which Danny was powerless to make, but for which he suffers the consequences — becoming tzaddik not for his Hasidic community, but instead for the world.
Source: Ann Hibert Alton, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.