Summary: Chapter 18
“It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe.”
On the afternoon of the first day of Passover, Reuven goes over to the Saunderses’ house, where Danny greets him. Full of fear, Danny leads Reuven up to his father’s third floor study. Inside, everything is exactly as Reuven remembers it, except Reb Saunders himself, who looks haggard and stooped with suffering. He greets Reuven and makes some small talk. When Reuven says he plans to be a rabbi after graduation, Reb Saunders stiffens as though in pain. In a soft voice, he remarks that after graduation, Danny and Reuven will go “different ways.” Danny’s mouth falls open in shock: he and Reuven realize that Reb Saunders knows about Danny’s plans not to become a rabbi.
Reb Saunders continues, talking to Danny through Reuven, never once looking at his son. He explains why he raised the Danny the way he did. From a very early age, he saw that Danny had an unbelievably brilliant mind, but possessed little soul. As a young boy, Danny felt no compassion for the suffering of others, no empathy, no sense of mercy. Reb Saunders tells the story of his brother, who forsook Jewish observance in favor of intellectual pursuits and then died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He explains that only knowledge of the immense suffering in the world can redeem one’s soul.
Reb Saunders reveals that the silence he imposed upon Danny was a way to teach him compassion, to teach him to feel the suffering of others. His own father raised him that way. Reb Saunders learned through silence to turn inward, to feel his own pain and, in doing so, to suffer for his people. He says that bearing this burden of suffering is a fundamental part of being a tzaddik.
In America, Reb Saunders explains, he could not prevent Danny from his ravenous pursuit of knowledge. He decided to raise Danny in silence, understanding that it would drive Danny away from becoming a rabbi, because he felt it was most important that Danny’s “soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.”
Danny’s father finishes by telling Reuven that he and David Malter have been a blessing to Reb Saunders. He says he knew Reuven and his father both possessed good, deep souls, and he thanks God for sending both of them to Danny at a time when he was ready to rebel. In conclusion, he announces that he does not care what profession Danny chooses—he knows now that his son has the soul of a tzaddik, and “he will be a tzaddik for the world” no matter what job he holds.
Reb Saunders turns to Danny. Speaking quietly, he asks his son if he will shave off his beard and earlocks for graduate school; Danny nods that he will. He asks if Danny will continue to observe the Ten Commandments; Danny nods again. Stuttering, Reb Saunders then asks Reuven to forgive him for the silence he imposed between him and Danny. His voice breaks, and he turns to Danny, asking his son to forgive him for the pain his style of parenting caused. Then, his shoulders stooped and his face full of grief, he shuffles out of the room. Danny bursts into tears. Reuven, also crying, tries to comfort him. Afterward, the two boys walk for hours in total silence.
When Reuven returns home, he and his father discuss what Reb Saunders said. David Malter says that a father has a right to raise his son however he sees fit, but that he does not like the way Danny was raised. He tells Reuven that he is glad not to be a tzaddik and not to have the burden of raising his son as a tzaddik. A few weeks later, Reb Saunders announces to his congregation that Danny will study psychology, thereby implying that he is transferring inheritance of the tzaddikate to Levi. Reb Saunders also withdraws his promise to the family of the girl Danny was supposed to marry.
Both Reuven and Danny graduate summa cum laude from Hirsch College. One evening in the fall, Danny, now without beard or earlocks, comes over to the Malters’ apartment to say goodbye before he moves to an apartment in Manhattan, near Columbia University. Danny mentions that he and his father now speak regularly to each other. David Malter asks Danny if, in the future, he will raise his son in silence. Danny replies that he will, unless he can find another way to teach his son to have the soul of a tzaddik. Danny promises to return on Saturdays to study Talmud, and Reuven watches as Danny turns and walks away, his metal-capped shoes tapping on the sidewalk.
Analysis: Chapter 18
We shook hands and I watched him walk quickly away, tall, lean, bent forward with eagerness and hungry for the future, his metal capped shoes tapping against the sidewalk.
Chapter 18 resolves the conflict between Danny and his father that resulted from Danny’s unexpressed desire to break away from his culture and tradition. The chapter also reveals the meaning of the novel’s mysterious instances of silence. In the novel’s resolution, Potok radically alters our perspective on all the characters, and on Reb Saunders in particular. We learn the surprising news that Reb Saunders knows of and does not object to Danny’s decision not to assume his legacy. As Reb Saunders tearfully explains why he raised Danny the way he did, we learn the same lessons that Reuven and Danny have been learning throughout the novel: people are not always how they initially appear, and we cannot dismiss that which we do not understand. By revealing information to us in the same order he learned it himself, Reuven narrates his story in a way that makes us experience the lessons he and Danny learned as they experienced them. We therefore empathize with Reuven and Danny’s newfound awareness.
At first, Reb Saunders’s silence toward Danny seemed a cruel punishment that indicated he did not care about his son. Now, we realize that Reb Saunders’s silence reflects how much he cares about Danny—through silence, he has taught Danny to find his own soul. Therefore, we realize that Reb Saunders’s goal was noble, even though his methods were harsh. He chose to cultivate Danny’s emotions and sympathy for others by treating him with silence, knowing it would turn him away from the tzaddikate. Reb Saunders wants his son to have the essence of a tzaddik, however he chooses to live his life.
David Malter’s reaction to Reb Saunders’s parenting also tempers our understanding of Mr. Malter and Reb Saunders. Instead of condemning Reb Saunders’s actions, Mr. Malter merely acknowledges that Reb Saunders had no choice. It is an acknowledgement of the difference between his situation and that of Reb Saunders, and of a respect for those differences. Like the other characters in the book, David Malter too has been educated and broadened by Reuven’s relationship with Danny.
Danny’s experience with his father’s silence parallels Reuven’s brush with blindness. Reuven’s injury forced him to reevaluate and deepen his understanding of the world. Through suffering, Reuven gained empathy for others. The threat of blindness, of lack of perception, gave Reuven a greater appreciation for his abilities of perception. For Danny, enduring his father’s silence was a similar experience of stifled perception. When Danny was surrounded by silence, he learned to turn inward, to examine his own soul, to feel empathy for others, and to feel suffering.
For Reuven and for us, the meaning of silence has been mysterious throughout the novel. Moments of silence in the novel alternate between being terrible and welcome, cruel and warm. Always, silence leads the characters to introspection. Potok emphasizes the importance of words, communication, and conversation, but he equally emphasizes silence and its profound broadening effect. To underscore the effectiveness of silence, after the talk with Reb Saunders, Reuven and Danny walk “in silence … saying more … than with a lifetime of words.”
It is notable that The Chosen’s climax—Reb Saunders’s conversation with Danny and Reuven—involves a trio of characters. Most of the novel’s action concerns pairs of characters: either Danny and Reuven, or Danny and Reb Saunders, or Reuven and Mr. Malter. Mr. Malter and Danny, and Reb Saunders and Reuven also have moments of conversation. Even the previous meetings between Reb Saunders, Danny, and Reuven were not really trios, because Danny had to leave the room for earnest conversation to take place. By disrupting the normal two-person structure of interaction in the novel, the novel’s climax highlights the way Reb Saunders’s words disrupt the seemingly rigid world of Danny’s Hasidic life. Reuven and Danny have been learning that the world is full of surprises, that if they keep an open mind they will discover new ways to look at the world. This lesson is reinforced by the presence of a trio in the world that up until this point has been dominated by pairs.
To highlight the way Reuven and Danny’s perception of the world has been broadened, the novel’s final passage places heavy emphasis on sight and sound. Reuven watches Danny walk away and listens to Danny’s shoes tap on the sidewalk. In its focus on sight and sound, the novel’s closing reminds us of the way Reuven and Danny learned about the world through near-blindness and silence. Because it describes the separation of Danny and Reuven, the passage also highlights the importance their friendship held to their growth. Their empathy for human beings and for each other results from their reciprocal interaction, from the way they complement, parallel, and contrast with and teach each other. Reb Saunders acknowledges this same fact when he thanks God for bringing Reuven into Danny’s life.
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