The Chosen

by: Chaim Potok

Themes

Yet Potok does not completely endorse Reb Saunder’s treatment of Danny. When Reuven meets Danny, he is not accustomed to silence. Reuven’s relationship with his father is based on a constant, easy flow of conversation; as a friend, Mr. Malter is a good listener and offers sound advice. As a result, Reuven thinks of silence as something strange, dark, and empty, and he considers Reb Saunders’s silence toward Danny inexplicable and cruel. At the end of the novel, after Reb Saunders explains his silence, Reuven and his father continue to wonder whether its benefits outweigh its drawbacks.

Silence is alternately frightening, confusing, warm, and welcome, but it always leads to introspection, allowing the characters’ humanity, spirituality, and empathy for others to grow. Reuven is blind to moments when silence is comfortable, warm, and inviting, but Potok is careful to show that silence is not always harmful, despite Reuven’s initial ignorance of its nuances. Silence occurs between every pair of major characters at some point in the novel. Danny and his father are the most prominent example, but silence exists also between David Malter and Reb Saunders, who never speak to each other in the novel. Danny and David Malter do not speak after their encounter in the hospital until the very end of the book; Reuven and Danny have silence imposed upon their friendship by Reb Saunders; David Malter imposes a kind of silence on Reuven by refusing to explain Reb Saunders’s way of raising Danny; and Reuven imposes a silence on Reb Saunders when he ignores the rebbe’s requests for conversation. Again, Potok shows that silence exists everywhere, in many forms, and has as much meaning in a relationship as words.

The Conflict between Tradition and Modernity

Though Potok disagrees, many critics believe the conflict between Hasidic tradition and American secular modernity is the central theme of The Chosen. Much of Jewish-American literature focuses on the tension between traditional Jewish values and modern American mores, and The Chosen can be read as part of that tradition. What is unusual about the novel is how little we see of the world beyond Danny and Reuven’s Jewish community in Brooklyn—even the hospital keeps kosher. We never see any of the characters interacting directly with the outside world. Even when David Malter speaks at Madison Square Garden for the first time, Reuven does not attend, making the event seem far away and reinforcing Reuven’s distance from the world beyond his Jewish community.

Instead of coming from the world outside Reuven and Danny’s neighborhood, the tension in the novel is between two conflicting philosophies within the Jewish community: Reb Saunders’s isolationist fanaticism and David Malter’s more open-minded awareness of the world around him. Reb Saunders’s traditionalist mindset is stubborn and parochial. For most of the novel, he is unwilling to engage the outside world or interpret Judaism in ways other than his own. David Malter, on the other hand, remains tolerant of other points of view, even Reb Saunders’s. Most important, David Malter is willing to adapt his religious beliefs to engage modernity constructively. With his activism and scientific approach to Talmudic study, David Malter represents Potok’s ideal of the modern American Jew. He manages to fuse a traditional sense of devotion and spirituality with a commitment to the larger world around him.

At the end of the novel, Reb Saunders says that he wants Danny to be a “tzaddik for the world.” With this acknowledgement of Danny’s responsibilities to the world as a whole, we get a sense that Reb Saunders’s fanaticism has evolved into a more open-minded expression of religion and spirituality.

Choosing versus Being Chosen

According to tradition, Jews are the “chosen people,” somehow set apart from the rest of the world, especially in terms of their obligation to God. None of the novel’s characters actively chooses to be Jewish; it is an aspect of each character’s life that has been chosen for him by virtue of his birth. Each of the characters in the novel, though he loves his religion and does not resent it, struggles with what it means to be chosen in this way. For Reb Saunders, being Jewish means one must accept a special set of obligations to study Torah and serve God. For David Malter, being Jewish means a certain intellectual and spiritual obligation to fill one’s life with meaning. For Reuven, being Jewish means a joyful commitment to religious tradition and intellectual engagement. For Danny, being Jewish means carrying a difficult burden at the same time as it means respecting a proud intellectual tradition.