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.
More characters from The Chosen