Summary: Chapter 13
“But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something….”
Danny and Reuven commence their studies at the Samson Raphael Hirsch Seminary and College, an Orthodox Jewish institution where the students’ time is divided between Talmudic and secular education. Danny is placed in the highest Talmud class, taught by Rav Gershenson, and quickly becomes the leader of the small Hasid community at the school. Reuven is placed only one class below Danny. Danny, however, is primarily concerned with his psychological studies, and he is extremely distressed to learn that the psychology department at Hirsch only focuses on experimental psychology, and that the head of the department, Professor Appleman, criticizes Freud’s methodologies. Reuven encourages Danny to talk with Professor Appleman about his concerns.
Reuven’s father grows increasingly sickly and frail, but continues his passionate involvement in Zionist causes. He exhausts himself by speaking at rallies, raising money for the Jewish National Fund, and teaching adult education classes in Jewish subjects. When Reuven expresses concern about this father’s health, Mr. Malter tells his son that he is trying to do something meaningful with his life before he dies, so that he will feel worthy of rest. Such blunt talk of death stings Reuven, and David Malter reassures his son that he will see a doctor for a checkup. The two continue talking, and eventually Reuven declares that he is firmly committed to becoming a rabbi. David Malter lovingly approves his son’s decision, but warns him that American rabbis have a great responsibility to educate newly curious Jews in the aftermath of World War II.
On a Friday afternoon, Reuven goes to the college library and looks through some texts on experimental psychology. He begins to understand Danny’s frustration with his studies. However, a few days later, Danny tells him that after an hour-long talk with Professor Appleman, he has come to respect Appleman’s opinions. Danny also mentions that Appleman suggested he find someone to help him learn mathematics, so Reuven agrees to tutor Danny.
The Hirsch student body becomes polarized into two starkly opposed factions: those who support the Zionists on one side and those who oppose the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine on the other. Day by day, tension grows between the groups. One night, Reuven’s father delivers an influential speech at a Madison Square Garden rally in support of the Zionist cause. The day after the rally, Danny avoids Reuven entirely, and the next day, he secretly tells Reuven that his father has forbidden him to see or speak to Reuven, on account of David Malter’s Zionist beliefs. This is extremely painful for Reuven, but when he denounces Reb Saunders as a fanatic to his father, his father responds, “the fanaticism of men like Reb Saunders kept us alive for two thousand years of exile.” Despite his father’s words, Reuven remains deeply angry with Reb Saunders and sad that his relationship with Danny appears to be over.
Analysis: Chapter 13
Chapter 13 introduces a series of conflicts between tradition and modernity. We see the novel’s characters trying to preserve their traditional beliefs as they encounter the modern world they inhabit. Danny is the first character to deal with this conflict. His reaction to Hirsch’s psychology department humorously introduces the inevitable conflict between Danny’s upbringing and the world of modern intellectualism he wants to enter. Danny has always seen psychology as a way of breaking away from his tradition, but we already have seen that he only mastered Freud after using the same method of studying he uses when reading the Talmud. Danny’s arduous intellectual upbringing emphasized theory and commentary, but left him ill prepared for the modern world’s emphasis on scientific analysis and experimentation. Danny’s frustration demonstrates that, despite his efforts to break away from his tradition, he is unquestionably a product of that tradition.
The most significant conflict between tradition and modernity occurs over the question of a Jewish state. As the previous two chapters make clear, traditionalists like Reb Saunders believe that, despite the tragedy Jews have experienced, they must continue to observe scripture and wait for the coming of the Messiah. The other position, held by David Malter, argues that modern Jewry must give meaning to the horrible tragedy of the Holocaust by establishing a modern Jewish state. The climax of this conflict between anti-Zionism and Zionism is Reb Saunders’s prohibiting Danny from seeing or speaking to Reuven following David Malter’s speech in support of Zionism. Yet, at the end of the chapter, David Malter’s defense of Reb Saunders’s fanaticism underscores the complexity of the conflict. The conflict between tradition and modernity is something all the characters must struggle with individually, and all Jews must struggle with as a culture. No character simply chooses one side or the other; the reconciliation of tradition with modernity is a process of balance and compromise.
David Malter’s speech at Madison Square Garden implies a certain kind of fanaticism that parallels Reb Saunders’s zealous behavior, including his refusal to speak with his son. Just as the rabbi is fanatically opposed to the modern State of Israel, so too is David Malter fanatically committed to its establishment—even at the expense of his health. We again realize that on a personal level, these two fathers are not as different as they appear to be.
When Danny worries about Professor Appleman, Reuven displays his belief in open verbal communication by suggesting that Danny go talk to his professor. Reuven’s advice is a product of his upbringing, in which his father has lovingly educated him using the spoken word. Reuven equates silence with loneliness, a lack of communication, and the elimination of learning. In his thoughts, he pities Danny for having to deal with his father’s inexplicable, “bizarre silence,” which Reuven believes must be “torturing [Danny’s] soul.”
In David Malter’s speech to Reuven about the importance of giving his life meaning, he refers to the image of the eye, which suggests the centrality of the eye—and by extension, the centrality of vision—to human life. Furthermore, the fact that he uses an eye not as a symbol of looking but as an example of something to be looked at introduces some complexity to the novel’s exploration of vision. Here, David Malter suggests that vision operates in two directions: the eye functions both to send and to receive information. He implies that vision—seeing the world—is a reciprocal process, a two-way street of giving and receiving.
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