Potok chooses Reuven to narrate The Chosen, even though the novel’s central conflict is Danny’s desire to break away from his obligation to inherit his father’s position as Tzaddik. Reuven works well as a narrator because we share his position as a curious outsider looking in on the unfamiliar, secret world of Hasidism. Reuven is a more accessible character than Danny; it is more difficult for us to relate to Danny’s unique genius and his Hasidic lifestyle. At the same time, these aspects of Danny’s character make him very interesting, and as narrator, Reuven is able to instill in us the same fascination with Danny that Reuven himself feels.
Reuven’s presence also reminds us that The Chosen is not just the story of Danny’s struggle between his obligation to the traditions of his family and the possibilities of a modern, secular society. Reuven also deals with conflicts and change. Through his interactions with Danny and Reb Saunders, his perspective on the world is broadened. He deepens his empathy for others and enlarges his intellect. Both Reuven and Danny are protagonists, and each is central to developing the novel’s themes and driving its plot. Potok’s focus on two protagonists instead of one underscores the importance of friendships and relationships to the novel, and the related ideas of reciprocity, choice, and compromise.
Although The Chosen focuses equally on both Reuven’s and Danny’s personal and religious development, it is Danny’s story that provides the central conflict of the novel and sets in motion both protagonists’ process of discovery. Danny and Reuven’s similarities—their love of learning, quick minds, and deep Jewish faith—allow them to relate to one another and become friends. At the same time, their differences in family situations, culture, and relationships to the non-Jewish secular world allow them to learn from one another. Throughout the novel, Danny learns restraint and introspection from Reuven. As Reb Saunders points out in the final chapter, Reuven entered Danny’s life when Danny “was ready to rebel.” Reb Saunders argues that God sent Reuven to Danny to help him.
At the beginning of the novel, Danny is tense and unsure about how to deal with his inner desire to rebel against his upbringing. He has difficulty speaking openly, and only after warming up to Reuven does he reveal the awkwardness of his situation. Furthermore, Danny’s repressed anger toward his father has made him highly susceptible to embracing any criticism of Hasidism. In Chapter 8, Danny reads Graetz’s History of the Jews. The book contains a harsh denunciation of the Hasidim, but Danny reads it with a surprising lack of skepticism. Reuven, on the other hand, provides a tempering, rational perspective, balancing Danny’s anger and frustration with compassion and contemplation. By the end of the novel, Danny has resolved his conflict with his father; furthermore, like Reuven, he has developed a broadened, more balanced sense of himself and the world around him.
Sanford Sternlicht writes that the conflict between Danny and his father should be seen in terms of Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex, which posits that a son holds an unconscious wish to take his father’s place and be the sole object of his mother’s affection. Sternlicht argues that Danny expresses his hostility toward his father as aversion to the idea of taking his father’s place as leader of the congregation. Sternlicht adds, “Most significantly, it is Danny’s reading of Freud that provides much of the ammunition for his successful revolt against and defeat of his father, who, unconsciously, may be trying to deprive Danny of his individual manhood by turning him into a clone of himself.” Yet Danny’s rebellion is against his culture as well as his father. He has a repressed need to rebel against the traditional, constrictive role of a tzaddik—and the type of life that Danny fears his father wants him to lead.
In an interview presented in Edward Abramson’s book Chaim Potok, Potok says that a “teacher should be somebody like Reuven Malter’s father. In many ways he exemplifies the Jewish adventure.” David Malter represents the ideal American Jewish father. He combines religious rigor with scientific inquiry and a love of knowledge, all of which he tempers with his overwhelming love and respect for his son. Throughout the book, David Malter displays a profound tolerance of and respect for a variety of traditions. His open-minded spiritual and intellectual rigor represents the balanced perspective that both boys want to achieve. He is an individual who understands the importance of relationships and reciprocity, and he values and accepts the dual perspectives of tradition and secularism.
David Malter’s perfection makes him the novel’s most one-dimensional, static character, but his character does evolve in one crucial way. After he learns about the Holocaust, we see him change from a gentle, mellow father into an impassioned Zionist activist. David Malter states his motivations for his ceaseless Zionist activity clearly in Chapter 13, when he explains to Reuven that a “man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life.” This statement reflects David Malter’s growing feeling that it is not enough to wait passively for biblical prophesy, as Reb Saunders does. Rather, David Malter feels it is up to mankind to actively give meaning to the world and make sense of the horrible suffering of the Holocaust. As Sternlicht explains, the only way for David Malter to make sense of the Holocaust is for the Holocaust to incite the Jewish people’s return to the ancient land of Israel. Unlike Reb Saunders, David Malter believes that religion should impact politics, and that it is important for Jews to actively engage the outside world.
For most of the novel, Reb Saunders is an extraordinarily limited character, who embodies the stereotypes of the intolerant religious fanatic and of the provincial immigrant father. Reb Saunders’s harsh public quizzes, his refusal to speak to his son, his explosion toward Reuven concerning Zionism, and his prohibition of Danny and Reuven’s friendship all contribute to our impression of him as a fierce, autocratic, and narrow-minded individual. We assume that his only concern for Danny is that he study obsessively and follow the traditions, rituals, and customs of Hasidic Judaism, in preparation to inherit his father’s position as Tzaddik of his congregation.
Yet a few of Reuven’s early observations subtly contradict this impression. The first occurs during Danny’s heated Talmud battles with his father, when Reuven observes that losing to Danny makes Reb Saunders happier than winning. Reb Saunders’s happy willingness to have his son disprove his arguments suggests a passionate, caring, and respectful love for his son that does not fit with the rest of his behavior. Later during the same Talmud session, Reb Saunders confronts Reuven and reveals that he knows about Danny’s library visits, but he expresses no anger. Instead, he seems saddened and, above all, bewildered. This reaction to Danny’s treachery is not what Reuven, Danny, or we were expecting. Finally, Reb Saunders’s suffering manner—the way he walks as if he is carrying a burden, the way he suddenly bursts into tears—seems to indicate a mysterious level of compassion and empathy.
In The Chosen’s final chapter, Reb Saunders finally reveals the motives behind his harsh actions, showing us he is a complex, conflicted character. Reb Saunders seems to have a limited, parochial perspective, but, in fact, it is Reuven’s view of Reb Saunders that is limited. To everyone’s surprise, Reb Saunders is not enraged that Danny has decided not to become a rabbi, and he reveals he has known of Danny’s feelings for quite a while. He explains that his silence toward Danny, which Reuven assumes reflects a lack of love, reflects just the opposite. He sees his silence as a selfless act to give his son emotion and compassion, respect and empathy for others, and an awareness of the suffering of others.
However, despite Reb Saunder’s explanation of his cruel actions, his method is nevertheless dubious. Even Reb Saunders himself acknowledges the pain he caused, revealing his own conflicted feelings about the Hasidic tradition. We get the sense that he struggled to find another way to teach his son, but failed—he had no choice but to teach through silence. In the end, Reb Saunders is a very complex character. He represents the dangers of fanaticism and harmful isolationist behavior, but he also shows a profound, painful love for Danny and a deeply human sense of the importance of empathy and emotion.