The Chosen: Essay Q&A
1. What is the significance of the novel's title?
The title, The Chosen, refers to the Jewish belief that the Jews are the chosen people of God. According to the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Jews were chosen to be in a covenant with God: "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people. For all the earth is mine: and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5, 6). The covenant imposed on the Jews the duty of obeying God's commandments. This also has meant that the Jews feel a special responsibility to be an example to other nations and to bring moral and ethical behavior to the rest of the world.
At certain points in Jewish history, the notion of the "chosen people" was taken to mean the superiority of Jews to non-Jews. But this was often in reaction to periods of persecution. The result of such persecutions was that Jews withdrew into ghettos and adopted beliefs that separated them from the gentile world.
In the novel, the carrier of the belief in the Jews as the chosen people is Reb Saunders. As he says in his exhortation in the synagogue: "We are commanded to study his Torah! We are commanded to sit in the light of the Presence! It is for this that we are created!" (p. 135). It is this notion of the Jews' special relationship to God that is behind Saunders's fanatical opposition to a Jewish state founded on a secular basis. For him, this is a betrayal of everything the Jews stand for.
2. What is the significance of Rav Gershenson's negative attitude to Reuven's method of analyzing Talmud passages?
Reuven has learned from his father a modern method of studying the Talmud, using historical and textual scholarship. In chapter 14, he sets himself the task of explicating a particularly thorny passage in the Talmud, which he expects to be called upon to explain in Rav Gershenson's class. He notes that one of the simpler commentaries on the passage does not seem to be based on the text it is explaining. Reuven therefore tries to reconstruct the exact wording of the text that the medieval commentator had in front of him. He does this by comparing various versions of the text, from different volumes of the Talmud (he mentions the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud) until he has reconstructed the text that he believes is the correct one. This helps him to understand both text and commentary. But he decides not to use this method in class. The reason is that Rav Gershenson is strictly conservative in his methods. He is a fundamentalist who refuses to meddle with existing texts. In this view, the text cannot be altered in any way, whereas Reuven's method acknowledges that in ancient documents there is a human process of transmission involved, which may legitimately be analyzed. As Potok himself once commented, Reuven's method of analysis makes the text fluid, and this is directly opposed to Rav Gershenson's belief that every word is sacred, as if it came direct from God.
3. What is the significance of the fact that Danny is drawn to the study of Freud?
Danny is raised in the most rigid of religious environments that does not permit original thought, or skeptical or rational inquiry. In the Hasidic sect led by Reb Saunders, Danny's father, everything is based on tradition and a religious view of the world. The sect is hostile to the modern world, which it regards as evil. This is a claustrophobic environment for Danny to grow up in. He has a brilliant mind and likes to exercise it, and not only in Talmud studies. He is also in rebellion against his father, although he is not permitted to express this openly. It is therefore not surprising that he should be drawn to study Freud, since Freud's view of man as being at the mercy of subconscious forces in his own mind is directly opposed to the religious view. It leaves no room for God. For Danny, studying Freud is a way of expressing his desire to escape his father's influence. For a while he has almost a religious veneration for Freud, studying him as he would study the Talmud. It seems as if he is about to replace one religion (the Hasidic version of Judaism) and replace it with the secular religion of Freudian psychoanalysis. His decision to read Freud in the original German is also an act of rebellion (perhaps unconscious) since the Germans, at this point in history, are the deadly enemies of the Jews, and Reb Saunders would be horrified if he knew Danny was reading German. Later, Danny learns to assess Freud more rationally and rejects aspects of his work. But the fact that he is drawn to Freud in the first place, without any encouragement from anyone else, demonstrates how deep is his desire to escape his background and his apparently pre-destined future as the next leader of the Hasidic sect.
I would say that The Chosen is about two components in the core of Judaism . . . one component looking inward and one component looking outward to solve its problems. Both of these elements are in confrontation with an element from the core of Western civilization." In this quotation, Potok is referring to Hasidism, the inward component, and 69
4. What does Reb Saunders mean by teaching through silence? Does it succeed?
According to the novel, teaching through silence is a method of instruction used in Hasidism by fathers to educate their sons. Reb Saunders adopts it in raising his son. He does not talk to Danny except when they study Talmud together. This is how Reb Saunders was raised by his own father. The intention is that because the son does not have his father to talk to, he will be forced to turn within himself, to find strength. He will learn to find answers for himself. This will involve pain, but Reb Saunders believes that pain and suffering lead to empathy with the suffering of others. Reb Saunders guessed that his son, because he was living in a country where access to other forms of knowledge was freely available, might not remain within the fold of the Hasidic sect. He decided that by raising him in silence, he could give him the soul of a tzaddik (a righteous leader), who could feel all the suffering in the world, even if he chose another profession.
Other characters in the novel, such as David and Reuven Malter, disapprove of Reb Saunders's raising of his son in silence. It certainly causes a lot of pain to Danny, and perhaps fuels his desire to rebel against his father, although he never says that he dislikes his father. On the contrary, he says he respects him. It is questionable, however, whether the method of teaching by silence achieves the goals that Reb Saunders desires. It does not make Danny especially sensitive to the suffering of others (Reuven has as much and probably more compassion for others than Danny). However, at the end of the novel, when Malter asks Danny if he would raise his own son in silence, Danny replies that he would, if he could find no other way. This rather ambivalent answer suggests that Danny does not resent the way he was raised, and regards it as a legitimate method, although he also leaves open the possibility that there may be better ways.
5. How does the novel demonstrate the value of education?
The Chosen is unusual amongst American novels in that it extols the value of intellectual pursuits amongst the young. Reuven and Danny are hardly typical American teenagers. When they meet at the beginning of the novel, they are only fifteen years old, but their lives are already intellectually rich, and they spend many hours studying. They seem to have little time (the occasional softball game apart) for life's trivial pursuits. It is not long before Danny, still only fifteen, starts teaching himself German in order to read Freud, while Reuven, sitting alongside Danny in the public library, reads a scholarly article on symbolic logic. Danny and Reuven both convey the thrill and the joy of learning. This is an environment where books and ideas matter; the characters pursue their intellectual interests with passion. The arguments over the Talmud in Reb Saunders's study become as passionate and exciting as the baseball game.
This emphasis in the novel can be seen as a tribute to the Jewish tradition, which has always emphasized the value of education and learning. The boys inherit their love of learning from their fathers. Both David Malter and Reb Saunders are learned men, and they both try (in different ways) to pass on their learning to their sons. They have very different attitudes to education, however, and employ different methods. Malter values what modern scholarship has to offer. For example, he evaluates the history of Hasidism critically and rationally. He keeps a balance between faith and honest intellectual inquiry. He is not hostile to the secular world of learning. For Reb Saunders, however, education is valuable only if it enhances the knowledge and practice of Hasidism.