Analysis: Chapter 8

Chapter 8 relates two separate study sessions: Danny and Reuven’s secular session at the library and their Talmudic session in Reb Saunders’s study. The beginning of the library session again underscores the way vision functions within the novel as a metaphor for seeing the world. Reuven is struck by the depiction of Homer’s blindness in the mural in the library entrance. He is particularly sensitive to this portrayal because of his earlier eye injury, and he empathizes with Homer’s handicap. Danny thinks that Reuven is asleep and rouses him in a scene that echoes Danny’s first hospital visit to Reuven in Chapter 3. In that scene, Danny stood at Reuven’s bedside and waited for him to wake up. Once again, Danny’s presence forces Reuven to open his eyes and change his view of the world.

At the library, Danny’s perspective changes when he reads the depiction of Hasidism presented in Graetz’s History of the Jews. That book, published in six volumes in 1846, was the first attempt to write the history of the Jews from a Jewish point of view. Graetz’s contention that Judaism is a historical phenomenon that develops in time was rejected by his more Orthodox contemporaries, including Samson Raphael Hirsch, the namesake of the college that Reuven and Danny later attend.

Graetz’s harsh words about Hasidism reinforce our sense of tensions within Judaism. Graetz argues that the Jews were formed by history and have developed throughout history. This perspective is problematic for more religious Jews, such as Reb Saunders, who see themselves as the inheritors of the religion of their God-chosen ancestors. This tension between an evolving Judaism and a static Judaism can be seen in the contrasting opinions of David Malter and Reb Saunders, as well as in the Zionist and anti-Zionist movements. Even more generally, such a tension is a part of any culture that struggles with a changing world and a desire to remain true to its history and traditions. Also notable at the library is the way Reuven finds Danny’s life to uncannily parallel the life of Solomon Maimon, a young Polish Jew who lived in the second half of the eighteenth century. Solomon Maimon studied non-Jewish literature after the Talmud could not satisfy his hunger for knowledge, and as a result of his heresy, he died rootless and alone. Potok’s inclusion of Maimon in the story provides suspense, as we hope Danny does not meet the same fate as his predecessor.

The geography of Reb Saunders’s apartment replicates almost exactly the layout of the Malter’s apartment, reinforcing the parallel nature of the two father-son relationships. Yet, where open communication exists between David Malter and Reuven, silence exists between Reb Saunders and Danny. Therefore, true to his father’s prediction, Reuven finds himself in the uncomfortable role as a go-between for Danny and Reb Saunders. All parties involved are glad that Reuven and Reb Saunders’s conversation takes place. Reb Saunders is curious to learn what books Danny is reading, Reuven feels compelled to educate Reb Saunders about his son’s behavior in the library, and Danny is relieved to find out that his father knows about his library visits. The fact that breaking the silence makes everyone involved feel better implicitly undermines the value of Reb Saunders’s practice of silence toward his son.