The Chosen traces a friendship between two Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn at the end of World War II. Reuven Malter, the narrator and one of the novel’s two protagonists, is a traditional Orthodox Jew. He is the son of David Malter, a dedicated scholar and humanitarian. Danny Saunders, the other protagonist, is a brilliant Hasid with a photographic memory and a passion for psychoanalysis. Danny is the son of Reb Saunders, the pious and revered head of a great Hasidic dynasty. Over the course of eighteen chapters (divided into three books), the novel tells the story of the friendship that develops between the two boys, and it examines the tensions that arise as their cultures collide with each other and with modern American society.
In Book One, Reuven’s high school softball team plays against Danny’s yeshiva team in a Sunday game. Tension quickly develops as the Hasidic team insults the faith of Reuven and his teammates. The game becomes a kind of holy war for both teams, and the resulting competition is fierce. In the final inning, Reuven is pitching. Danny smacks a line drive at Reuven that hits him in the eye, shattering his glasses and nearly blinding him. Reuven is rushed to the hospital, where he spends a week recuperating. While in the hospital, he becomes friendly with two fellow patients: Tony Savo, an ex-boxer, and Billy Merrit, a young blind boy.
Danny visits Reuven in the hospital to ask his forgiveness, and a tenuous friendship begins. Tentatively, the two boys begin talking about their intellectual interests and their hopes for the future. Danny reveals that he has an astounding intellect, including a photographic memory, and he displays a prodigious knowledge of the Talmud. Danny also confides that he secretly reads every day in the public library, studying books of which his father would disapprove. He also says that a nice older man often recommends books to him. Both boys are surprised to discover that David Malter—Reuven’s father—is this man.
Book Two focuses on the rest of Reuven and Danny’s time in high school. Reuven begins spending Shabbat afternoons at Danny’s house. On their first Sabbath together, Danny introduces Reuven to his father, Rabbi Isaac Saunders. Reuven witnesses a strange ritual: Reb Saunders quizzes Danny in public during their congregation’s Sabbath meal. Reb Saunders also surprises Reuven, asking him a question about the speech Reb Saunders gave. Reuven answers correctly, impressing Reb Saunders.
Danny and Reuven begin spending most afternoons together in the library and Saturdays studying Talmud with Reb Saunders. Reuven learns that Reb Saunders believes in raising his son in silence. Except for discussions of Talmud, Danny’s father never speaks to him directly, though he begins to use Reuven as an indirect means of talking to his son. Outside of the shul, Danny and Reuven spend almost all their free time together and have many conversations.
Meanwhile, almost everyone is obsessed with news about World War II. President Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 saddens the entire country. In May, Reuven and his father celebrate the end of the war in Europe, but are shocked by the discovery of concentration camps behind enemy lines. Everyone, even Reb Saunders, is disturbed by the reports of Jewish suffering and death at the hands of the Nazis.
After Reuven’s finals that spring, his father suffers a heart attack, and Reuven goes to live with the Saunders family for the summer. While there, Danny and Reuven talk a great deal, and Reuven learns that Danny plans to study Freudian psychoanalysis instead of inheriting his father’s position in the Hasidic community. Danny hopes that his younger brother Levi can succeed his father in his place. In the fall, both boys begin studying at Hirsch College in Brooklyn.
Book Three chronicles the experiences of Reuven and Danny at Samson Raphael Hirsch Seminary and College. Danny immediately becomes a leader of the Hasidic student body, but he is disappointed by the college’s emphasis on experimental, rather than Freudian, psychology. Meanwhile, Reuven decides that he is firmly committed to becoming a rabbi. Reuven is also worried about his father, whose health is rapidly deteriorating in part due to his frenetic Zionist activity. In school, Danny continues to be frustrated by the psychology curriculum, but Reuven convinces Danny to discuss his differences with his psychology professor, and the resulting conversation is very productive for Danny. With the help of Reuven’s tutelage in mathematics, Danny comes to appreciate the value of the experimental method.
As the conflicts over a Jewish state become more intense, tensions swell among the various student factions at the college. After David Malter gives a highly publicized pro-Zionist speech at Madison Square Garden, Reb Saunders, who is staunchly anti-Zionist, forbids Danny from speaking to Reuven. The silence between the two boys continues into their second year at college. They both take Rav Gershenson’s Talmud class, which allows them to interact indirectly. Yet Reuven misses Danny’s friendship terribly, especially after Reuven’s father suffers a second heart attack. As David Malter recovers, Reuven rigorously studies the Talmud and dazzles the entire class—including Danny—with one particularly brilliant classroom display of knowledge. After Reuven’s father returns from the hospital, the college is staggered by the news that an alumnus of Hirsch died in the fighting in Israel. Finally, during Reuven and Danny’s third year of college, after the United Nations officially declares the creation of the State of Israel and after it becomes clear that Israel will triumph in its battles against the Arabs, Reb Saunders relents and allows the two boys to speak to each other again.
Danny and Reuven quickly resume their intense friendship. Over the summer, Reuven returns to Danny’s shul, goes to Danny’s sister’s wedding, and sees Reb Saunders again. Reuven still harbors anger toward Danny’s father, and ignores the older man’s invitation to a Sabbath Talmud discussion. During the boys’ final year at college, Reuven sees Reb Saunders while attending Danny’s brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and again the rabbi invites Reuven over. Reuven ignores the request.
Meanwhile, Danny secretly applies to graduate programs in psychology, but soon realizes that his father will inevitably see letters from the schools in the family’s mailbox. One night, after a discussion with his father, Reuven realizes that Reb Saunders is asking him to come over so he can indirectly talk to Danny. Reuven goes to their house, and Reb Saunders, using Reuven as a buffer to speak to Danny, finally explains why he raised Danny in silence. He says he always knew his son had a great mind, but was worried that his soul was empty, unable to empathize with the suffering of others. Silence was a way to make Danny explore his own soul and feel the suffering of the world. Reb Saunders further reveals that he is aware of Danny’s plan to become a psychologist instead of a rabbi. He apologizes to Reuven for separating the two boys, and he apologizes to Danny for raising him in silence. At the same time, he says he saw no other way to raise Danny to become a true tzaddik—a tzaddik for the world, not only a tzaddik for his congregation. Later, in front of his congregation, he gives his blessing to Danny and the life he has chosen for himself. Danny shaves his beard and earlocks, and enrolls in a graduate program at Columbia University.