Summary: Chapter 14
For the remainder of their first year at college, Danny and Reuven have no contact with each other, and Reuven is furious at Reb Saunders. Meanwhile, Danny’s father has intensified his anti-Zionist activity, and tensions increase between the opposing factions at the college. Reuven’s pain at losing Danny’s friendship leads him to do poorly on his exams. The summer provides little respite: July and August are marked by horrible violent events in Palestine, then David Malter is forced to cut short the annual vacation in Peekskill to deal with pressing Zionist matters. When the new semester begins in September, Reuven decides that he wants nothing more to do with Danny Saunders, but his resolve is challenged by the fact that he now shares Rav Gershenson’s Talmud class with Danny.
Rav Gershenson is a gentle, wise old scholar. His Talmud class is rigorous, and, of course, Danny is his star pupil. Danny and Gershenson frequently have lengthy discussions in class that remind Reuven of the Talmud sessions he and Danny used to have with Reb Saunders. Reuven feels comfortable with the material, and when he is called on in early October, Gershenson is pleased with his response. But for some reason, Gershenson refuses to call on him again. By the middle of October, Reuven is the only student who has not been called more than once and he is perplexed.
In November, the United Nations votes in favor of the Partition Plan to establish a Jewish state, and Reb Saunders accelerates his anti-Zionist activities. His supporters plaster anti-Zionist leaflets all over Hirsch College, and fistfights nearly break out among the students. Reuven almost screams at the anti-Zionist protestors, but stays silent. As the first semester ends, Reuven receives straight A’s—even in Rav Gershenson’s class—and Reuven’s father continues to work tirelessly in support of the UN decision. During Reuven’s winter break, his father collapses at a Jewish National Fund meeting, suffering a second heart attack. In school, Danny brushes up against Reuven in a gesture of sympathy, but remains unable to speak to him.
David Malter is hospitalized for over a month, and Reuven lives at home alone, feeling incredibly lonely. He deals with the newfound silence in his apartment by diving ferociously into his Talmudic studies. Although Gershenson has not called on him for several months, he becomes convinced that he will be called upon for one particularly difficult passage that none of the students can understand, so he prepares an especially intense analysis.
As Reuven expected, Rav Gershenson finally calls on him to clarify the difficult passage, and Reuven finds himself dominating the class for several days. Although he has figured out how to apply his father’s critical methods to resolve the text’s internal contradictions, he refrains from employing these controversial methods in front of the class because he thinks that Rav Gershenson would not approve. Instead, he gives an extraordinarily thorough interpretation using traditional methods like the ones Reb Saunders would use with Danny.
After class, Rav Gershenson detains Reuven and asks him how his father might have resolved the passage’s contradictions. Reuven explains how his father would have reconstructed the text to make sense of it. Rav Gershenson is clearly impressed and praises both Reuven and his father. He says that he is not personally opposed to these controversial techniques but tells Reuven that he must never use them in his class. Afterward, Reuven looks for Rav Gershenson’s name in the school library’s card catalog, but does not find it. He realizes that Gershenson cannot publish, because if he expressed his belief in controversial Talmud scholarship, he would not be allowed to teach at the conservative college. Reuven realizes that his father’s controversial writings are the reason he is not teaching at Hirsch, even though he is a brilliant scholar.
Analysis: Chapter 14
In this chapter, Reuven has neither Danny nor Reb Saunders in his life, and after his father’s heart attack, he feels entirely alone. Rav Gershenson functions as a substitute for all these characters, filling a void in Reuven’s life. Therefore, by observing Rav Gershenson and what he means to Reuven, we get a better sense of what Reb Saunders, Danny Saunders, and Reuven’s father mean to Reuven.
Since he is Reuven’s Talmud teacher, Rav Gershenson functions most obviously as a surrogate for Reb Saunders. In Rav Gershenson’s class, Reuven is given insight into the Talmud, which he loves, and he is indirectly able to interact with Danny. Like Reb Saunders, Rav Gershenson uses silence as a tool of instruction. Yet Rav Gershenson’s silence seems different from Reb Saunders’s harsh refusal to speak to Danny. Rav Gershenson’s silence is gentle, it occurs in the context of classroom learning, and it serves to highlight a student’s lack of knowledge.
Rav Gershenson’s patient, loving approach to learning also echoes David Malter’s education of Reuven. Reuven himself makes this connection, commenting, “he taught Talmud the way my father did.” After his father’s heart attack, Reuven finds solace in his Talmudic studies. Studying for Rav Gershenson helps Reuven feel connected to his father, as he applies, celebrates, and reaps the rewards of his father’s patient teachings.
More subtly, Rav Gershenson’s class serves as a substitute for Danny in Reuven’s life. We understand exactly what Danny means to Reuven by learning how Reuven compensates for his absence. Danny has given Reuven a new perspective. Through Danny, Reuven has crossed into a world so similar to, yet so different from, the world where he always felt comfortable. Danny has broadened Reuven’s worldview and enabled Reuven to look at the world from multiple viewpoints. In Reuven’s Talmudic study, we see how Reuven’s relationship with Danny has initiated Reuven’s maturation. Reuven says, “I worked carefully and methodically, using everything my father had taught me and a lot of things I now was able to teach myself.” His father taught him the tools to learn far beyond the bounds of his upbringing, and Danny is the one who showed Reuven other ways of studying the Talmud.
The strength of Reuven’s analysis, which impresses Rav Gershenson, is its breadth the multiplicity of voices he includes. Reuven learned depth from his father, but from Danny, he learned to approach a problem from several different perspectives. In the end, Reuven does not even use his father’s methodology during his in-class explication, but instead uses Reb Saunders’s approach. From the start of his friendship with Danny, Reuven learned to look beyond superficial appearances, doubt his initial impressions, and search for multiple ways of looking at a situation. In Rav Gershenson’s class, we see how these lessons have impacted Reuven’s life.
Throughout the novel, Reuven criticizes Reb Saunder’s silent treatment of Danny. He also finds unbearable the silence Reb Saunders has imposed between Reuven and Danny. At the beginning of this chapter, Reuven says that he frequently met eyes with Danny, “but [their] lips exchanged nothing.” This comment implies the pain Danny’s silence is causing Reuven, and it also suggests that Reuven believes wordless interactions are meaningless. Yet the silence Reuven experiences throughout this entire chapter results in his most accomplished scholarship. Also, after Reuven restrains himself from shouting at the anti-Zionists, he says, “I was grateful for that silence.” He sees that words as well as silence can hurt and cause suffering, and he is glad that he restrained himself. Reuven is growing to understand that the difference between silence and speech is not as clear-cut as he initially believed.
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