– Sheila Nielsen
The Chosen is a novel published in 1967 by Chaim Potok, a noted Jewish-American author. As a bildungsroman, Potok focuses on two protagonists, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter. Coming from very strong, but diverse, Jewish backgrounds, the friendship that develops between the boys strengthens their individual desires for spiritual and intellectual growth. Complementing this friendship are their fathers, David Malter and Reb Saunders. Both men are well educated, politically influential, and deeply grounded in their Judaic traditions and beliefs. Sheldon Grebstein says that this “improbable but possible ‘only in America’ cast of characters” gives the novel a broad appeal to an American audience (25). This partly explains the wide approval of the book in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. William Purcell, in speaking of Potok’s fathers and sons says, “If his heroes are young, they are nonetheless mature seekers of truth; if they are rebels, they are only reluctantly so. And if his fathers are tyrants, they are benevolent ones who are motivated by a loving, fatherly concern for their sons” (75). This “cast of characters” struggles with the differences between Hasidic Judaism practiced by Danny and his father and Conservative Judaism practiced by Reuven and his father. To heighten the contrast between these Judaic traditions, Potok uses sight and vision as a metaphor to understand the intellectual and moral evolution of the boys. In this way, the symbolism of vision throughout The Chosen is three-tiered: it places Reuven and Danny in a position to gain greater insight into themselves; it gives them a more compassionate and tolerant view of each other; and it increases their capacity to look at world issues that are particularly relevant to their families in post-WWII America.
The metaphor for sight, vision, and enlightenment can be traced back to the “Allegory of the Cave” in Plato’s Republic. Plato tells the story of a prisoner who has been released from a cave in which he has only been exposed to shadows and echoes. As he turns and walks toward the light, he suffers sharp pains and is distressed by the glare. Nevertheless, as he approaches the entrance of the cave “his eye is turned towards a more real existence, he has a clearer vision” (Book VII). Plato continues to explain the allegory: “The prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and […] the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world [… and] the world of knowledge” (Book VII). Often, reference is made to a wise person having vision, an intuitive person having deep insight, or a leader seeing the big picture. In each case, to use an old adage, these individuals are “looking with the mind’s eye.” They are engaging the world with intellectual awareness, just as the prisoner ascending from the cave with new vision.
The “Allegory of the Cave” serves as a literary type for The Chosen. Adopting this metaphor of vision as his motif, Potok makes repeated references to seeing, looking, sight, and eyes. Symbolically, vision connects the characters within the book as a means of self-awareness, enlightenment and growth, and it provides continuity from beginning to end. Early in the book Potok introduces an ideological conflict to Danny and Reuven that is religious, intellectual, and political, and strikes deeply at the core of their individual cultural experiences. The story begins with a competitive baseball game between rivaling Jewish teams. This game is not a battle of sportsmanship, but a moral and ethical battle, almost a personal, holy war (Wilson 123). A line drive at the pitcher, Reuven, by the batter, Danny, results in a serious eye injury. Potok’s strong use of imagery and visualization create a vivid setting for the baseball game. Hugh Nissenson explains that Potok is a talented “painter” who uses words to create his literary settings (122). As an opening scene in the book, the baseball games sets a visual tone for the remainder of the text.
Plato also uses imagery and visualization to describe the prisoner in his allegory. As the prisoner ascends to the mouth of the cave, Plato describes the pain he feels in his eyes from exposure to the light. Acclimating to the light, the prisoner will emerge from a world of shadows to see reflections and then see objects. (Book VII). Reuven also ascends as he is moved upstairs in the hospital for a closer evaluation of his injury. As he is shifted onto the stretcher, he cries out in pain as flashes of black, red, and white colors appear before his eyes (Potok 39). This sequence of colors from black to white are reminiscent of the intensity of light the prisoner experiences as he moves from the dark cave to the bright day. For Reuven this moment foreshadows the enlightenment that awaits him both physically and metaphorically. Not knowing whether his eye will heal Reuven ponders his own fate if he loses his sight. Billy, a little blind boy, reminds him that he must be careful with his eyes (Potok 46). Reuven does not know how to respond; he never thought about his eyes before. Now the risk of losing one terrifies him because he has always taking his eyes for granted (53). Under specialized medical care, Reuven’s eye quickly heals and the threat of blindness is removed; however the motif of vision and sight continue to be relevant through the remainder of the text.
This confrontational baseball game leads to a deep and lasting friendship between the boys. During the week that Reuven is in the hospital, Danny comes to talk about the game. Initially, Reuven does not want to talk to him; he is angry and hateful about the accident and absolutely unwilling to reconcile. His father reminds him what the Talmud says: “If a person comes to apologize for having hurt you, you must listen and forgive him” (Potok, 64). This straightforward instruction cannot be disputed. After talking with his father further about the Jewish traditions of forgiveness and friendship, Reuven is more willing to open up to Danny.
The tender nature of Danny and Reuven’s burgeoning friendship is unusual in a 20th century bildungsroman centered on adolescent boys. According to Grebstein, this book is unusual because it is “totally devoid of such sure-fire elements as violence, sexuality or romantic love”, in a word “mundane” (23). In contrast to Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, Potok chooses for this novel to be singularly focused on personal growth and friendship. Another critic takes a different stance on this issue, applying sexual overtones to the text. Nissenson says that the absence of women in the text and the platonic “love” the boys share, implies a homoerotic relationship, underpinned by the obsession Danny has in the study of Freud (122). This view of a single critic seems far-reaching and inconsistent with the enduring elements of “the nuclear family, comradeship, and that old time religion” (Grebstein 26). The companionship we find with Danny and Reuven is meaningful and encouraging, without the need for overt sexuality in a book about adolescent boys.
The more symbolic interpretation of sight and vision is applied differently to both Reuven and Danny. Reuven, having experienced the eye trauma becomes acutely aware of his surroundings. Upon arriving home he notices that everything seems luminous and alive (93). This observation leads to a lengthy discussion that David Malter shares with his son about the history of the Jews in Europe. A potentially tedious history lesson becomes a vibrant reality for Reuven as he comes to understand the foundation of Hasidism. By extension, he is also able to see more clearly the traditional values practiced by Danny and Reb Saunders. At the conclusion of the discussion with his father, Reuven says, “I don’t understand it…weeks and weeks go by, one Shabbat follows another, and I’m the same, nothing has changed, and suddenly one day something happens, and everything looks different” (107; emphasis added). The difference is that Reuven has a personal connection to the Hasidic community through his new friend Danny. This is a significant change from the feeling that things were unfocused when Danny was visiting him in the hospital (67). Grebstein identifies these strong emotions in a sensitive character as an essential and affirmative element in The Chosen (25). These traits give Reuven a particular appeal as a developing character. It is challenging to come to a new awareness of something and learn that previous perceptions and misperceptions are wrong. For Reuven, he is able to reorient himself to a greater awareness of the world because of the close relationship he has with his father.
Danny also gains insight about himself through friendship with Reuven and mentorship with David Malter. While Potok indicates elements of personal enlightenment for Reuven by illuminating his surroundings, for Danny it is reflected in his eyes. When Danny is caught in the tangle of Hasidic traditions with its complex set of religious and cultural expectations, his eyes are described as glassy, dark, or sad. When he discusses his classes, his interests, and the secular books he is reading, his eyes become bright and happy. During a hospital visit Danny explains his religious obligations to assume the inherited position from his father. He further explains that he has no choice. Watching Danny’s face, Reuven notices both a sad smile and sad eyes (Potok 81). During the same discussion, however, the subject changes to mathematics and Reuven sees a marked change in Danny’s appearance saying, “He laughed… His eyes were bright and alive with excitement” (82). These changes in appearance are evidence of the cultural conflict with which Danny struggles. In an interview, Chaim Potok talks with Doug Morgan about this “core-to-core confrontation.” Potok says, “Danny Saunders, from the heart of his religious reading of the world, encounters an element in the very heart of the secular reading of the world—Freudian psychoanalytic theory” (56). Potok continues in his interview to explain that psychoanalytic theory runs wholly opposed to Western religions, and yet there are in this theory wonderful and insightful perspectives into the nature of humanity. The challenge for Danny, Potok says, is establishing a type of “cultural fusion” in which a yielding and blending occurs thus creating something new (Morgan 56).
This same hospital visit includes an introduction of Reuven’s father to Danny. Unbeknownst to Reuven, his father is Danny’s library mentor. It is at this meeting that Reuven understands what his father meant when he encouraged the friendship, gently reminding him that there are two things a person needs: a teacher and a friend. This triangulation is a stabilizing force for both boys. David Malter can provide greater insight for his son in religious and historical instruction, while mentoring Danny as he expands his secular learning; as a result all three are strengthened.
In the beginning, Danny and Reuven receive encouragement from their fathers to nurture their friendship, but they are also encouraged to expand their religious and secular knowledge under the tutelage of both fathers as a means of understanding themselves and each other. At the outset, Reuven shows tremendous mastery of his secular subjects, particularly mathematics, whereas Danny’s strength is in his religious knowledge of the Talmud. Their specific skills are tested when Reuven meets Reb Saunders for the first time; he feels vulnerable under his close scrutiny. In looking at the Rabbi’s eyes Reuven says, “I had a sudden vision of my father’s gentle eyes behind their steel-rimmed spectacles, but it vanished” (Potok 120). As an element of foreshadowing, this suggests to Reuven that Reb Saunders is a gentle man who, under a foreboding exterior, is as caring as his own father. The full recognition of this, however, does not come until the end of the novel. When Reb Saunders quizzes the boys on their knowledge of the Talmud, Reuven observes the congregation closely watching them and he begins to feel the strength of the Hasidic community (137). Danny is quick to catch the errors his father makes while reciting the Torah. Reuven, on the other hand, catches the errors Reb Saunders makes in the gematriyia, the Assryo-Babylonia system of numerology. Each boy is credited with catching the mistakes and praised for their scholarly prowess. Grebstein explains that Reuven represents the “logical, inductive, and quantitative,” whereas Danny represents the “intuitive, deductive, and qualitative” (29). At this moment, however, each must expand beyond his own mastery into other areas. According to Grebstein, for Danny to advance in psychology, he must show mastery in mathematics. For Reuven, he must move beyond mathematics and prepare for his rabbinical training (29). The Talmudic quizzing that each boy experiences give them greater insight into each other. Reuven better understands the role of the tzaddik, and he begins to fathom the tremendous burden that Reb Saunders carries for his people. He is moved to compassion for Danny and the role he is expected to assume. Danny gains a deeper respect for Reuven as he sees his new friend, an outsider and David Malter’s son, hold his ground with Rabbi Saunders.
Danny also receives religious instruction under the guidance of Reuven’s father. He is given Graetz’s History of the Jews with David Malter’s instruction to expand his education and read the history of his own people (Potok 147). This religious history, while controversial, gives Danny greater awareness of the criticism that is levied against his Jewish sect. Complementing this religious insight, Danny comes across a statement in his psychology book that supports David Malter’s advice to become informed. Danny tells Reuven, “The most mysterious thing in the universe to man is man himself. We’re blind about the most important thing in our lives, our own selves” (147). David Malter knows that a broad education will help Danny and Reuven come to a greater awareness of themselves and the world around them. This is consistent with Potok’s carefully developed motif of seeing to acquire knowledge and understanding.
While the sons and fathers work through the intricacies of this friendship, there is divisive and volatile element of the partitioning of Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel. This topic is so contentious between various sects of Judaism, and specifically in the opposing political opinions of Reb Saunders and David Malter, that a separation is forced upon Reuven and Danny. Ironically, this physical separation has always existed between the fathers. Each man is intimately aware of the other, but they never see each other or talk with each other. Sam Bluefarb believes that this contention, and the source of this intentional separation, is rooted in their individual visions of the Holocaust (54). Danny blinks his eyes nervously as he listens to his father mourn for the millions of Jews who died in Europe: “How the world drinks our blood, […] makes us suffer. It is the will of God. We must accept the will of God. […] Master of the Universe, how do you permit such a thing to happen?” (Potok 181). This is a very divisive point for both men. When Reuven tells his father of Reb Saunder’s lament, David Malter asks: “Did God answer him, Reuven?” (181). Reuven cannot accept that this suffering and destruction is God’s will: “I am not satisfied with it, either, Reuven” says his father. “We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves” (182). Reuven finds it incredible that this ideological separation between the fathers, and imposed on the sons, is not because of the influences of secular literature or psychology, but rather interpreting the will of God and Zionism (219). Out of respect for their fathers and to maintain the autonomy they have, each agrees not to breach the separation. This becomes a time of introspection, and intellectual and moral growth for both of Danny and Reuven. It also presents the most difficult challenge they will face. Where there had been guidance and camaraderie, there is now loneliness and isolation.
The fanaticism and singular focus of both David Malter and Reb Saunders are difficult for the boys to reconcile. Each father has taken a firm stand on the issue of Zionism and whether or not the world community should facilitate the establishment of a Jewish State. So rigid are both men in their position that neither can see the fanaticism within themselves (Wilson 130). Rabbi Saunders reacts violently to Reuven’s suggestion that the establishment of Israel might be a good thing: “The land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob should be built by Jewish goyim, by contaminated men?” Reb Saunders shouts again. “Never! Not while I live!” (Potok 187). This blinding rage closely parallels his blind faith. Wilson explains that Rabbi Saunder’s blindness is “evident in his strict adherence to Talmudic principle[s]” (132). Certainly commitment to Hasidic Judaism is commendable, but as Wilson further explains, “When this religion diminishes the very humanity that would make him an effective rabbi, then the blind faith is corrupted and distorted” (132). Reuven is completely taken aback by the outburst. His father is a pious and faithful Jew, and he is one of the most outspoken supporters of Zionism. In this tirade, Reb Saunders attacks Reuven and his father: “Who says we should build Eretz Yisroel, ah? I’ll tell you who says it! Apikorsim say it! Jewish goyim say it! True Jews do not say such a thing!” (Potok 188). The silence and anger at the dinner table leaves Reuven shaken and defensive. Fearful of his own father’s reaction upon returning home, Reuven chooses to keep this hostile encounter to himself.
David Malter shares an equal but opposite intensity in his fanaticism. He becomes so obsessed with writing, speaking, and teaching about Zionism, that he neglects other things, particularly his health. When he suffers a heart attack, he still remains steadfast to the cause, justifying his own sacrifices as nothing, dismissing them like a blink of an eye. The establishment of a Jewish state must happen immediately in Palestine, says David Malter: “Where else could the remnant of Jewry that had escaped Hitler’s ovens go? The slaughter of six million Jews would have meaning only on the day a Jewish state was established. Only then would the songs of faith they had sung on their way to the gas chambers take on meaning; only then would Jewry again become a light to the world, as Ahad Ha’am had foreseen” (215). What David Malter and Reb Saunders share, though neither will acknowledge it, is a desperate desire for a place of safety and refuge for the ancestry of Jews displaced for over 2000-years. As confrontational as these differences are, the respect David Malter shows Reb Saunders is admirable. When Reuven expresses his anger over the apparent fanaticism of Rabbi Saunders, his father reminds him quietly, “The fanaticism of men like Reb Saunders kept us alive for two thousand years of exile. If the Jews of Palestine have an ounce of that same fanaticism and use it wisely, we will soon have a Jewish state” (219). Ideologically, where both fathers differ is method by which this Jewish state should be established. Charles Wilson explains, “each man, in his estimation, has at heart the interest of the Jewish people. [It is] their intracultural conflict [that] diminishes the very humanity they strive to protect” (130). Unfortunately, their sons bear the brunt of this deeply rooted and controversial ideological divide.
During this time of separation the meaning of the words “sight” and “vision” take on subtle and nuanced meanings. Reuven comes to see and understand very acutely what Danny has felt all these years under the imposed silence from his father (244). He also finds himself seeking for greater understanding of the Talmud, drawing on cross-references and parallel texts to supplement his studies (229). His time of isolation is well spent. Reuven’s father reflects on the growth his son has shown. David Malter says, “It is almost impossible to see the way your mind is growing. […] Three years ago, you were still a child. You have become a small giant since the day Danny’s ball struck your eye. You do not see it. But I see it. And it is a beautiful thing to see” (204). He also reminds Reuven that life is as short as the blink of an eye when compared to the vastness of eternity. David Malter exhorts his son to find purpose and meaning in the things he does:
I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. (204-05)
Reuven’s father continues to explain that he works hard at the things he believes in to give his life meaning; to merely exist is not enough. This serious reflection gives Reuven a greater appreciation and acceptance of his father’s drive and determination to further the cause of Zionism. The insight he gains also provides Reuven with further impetus to expand his own education. As his knowledge and understanding of Judaism increases, Reuven sees that his future as a rabbi is clearly delineated. Becoming a rabbi is not a difficult decision for him because his religious and secular experiences do not contradict each other. Metaphorically speaking, Reuven has excellent sight; he sees things both near and far, present and future, and he sees his choice to become a rabbi as a balanced element in his life.
Danny, on the other hand, struggles not so much with sight, but with vision. Optically, if the eyes are monocular or not focusing together, or if the periphery is compromised, one’s vision becomes limited. Poor vision can result in eyestrain, inability to focus and chronic headaches. These maladies affect Danny, and often Reuven describes Danny as rubbing his head or his bloodshot eyes (189). In this sense, Danny eyes are getting worse and he will ultimately need glasses. Applying vision metaphorically, Danny is monocular as he looks at two opposing choices: assume the inherited position as the tzaddik and remain entrenched in Hasidic Judaism, or separate himself from his religious foundations in pursuit of a secular career in psychology. Leslie Field quotes Potok as he explains his own breaking with fundamentalism and moving toward a more Western reading of Jewish tradition. Potok describes the agony of losing teachers and friends who had been very close to him for many years. He says it was as if “[a] whole world that was very warm, very tribal, very protective of its people, simply vanished from my life. It was as if I had lost my past, and had to rebuild my world from nothing” (Field 4). For Danny, there is a great deal that he stands to lose if he pursues his secular interests. When Reuven describes how he sees Danny when they first meet, he tells his father, “The way he acts and talks doesn’t seem to fit what he wears and the way he looks” (Potok 74-75). Reuven says it is like looking at two different people. Charles Wilson explains that Danny is, in essence, two different people: the person he is expected to be and the person he actually is (132). Danny will not be able to see himself clearly until he can reconcile this opposition within himself. Potok speaks to this particular challenge in his interview with Doug Morgan. He is asked if it is possible to have a plurality of views while maintaining a clear identity and sense of purpose. Potok responds that for Jewish fundamentalists, the very orthodox will say it is not possible: “There is one reading of the Jewish tradition; all other readings are wrong” (Morgan 61). Reuven’s tradition is more accepting of alternative views; however, Danny’s choices put him in direct conflict with his father and his faith, and resolution will be very difficult.
By 1948, the State of Israel is established, the political tension in the United States among the different Jewish sects subsides, and Danny and Reuven are permitted to renew their friendship. Upon their first meeting Reuven notices that Danny’s blue eyes light up when he speaks of psychology (Potok 244), thus linking and underscoring the motif of eyesight and its metaphoric connection to knowledge and self-awareness. Nevertheless, Danny still struggles with his decision to become a psychologist. Reuven observes that the stress of this decision is evident in Danny’s incessant blinking as evidence of the terror he feels in disappointing his father (258). Once this is resolved, however, Danny’s eyes are glowing and luminous (270). He is a kind, respectful young man, honoring his father to the best of his abilities, but the personal insight he gains eventually determines the direction he must take his life. Purcell defines the ultimate reconciliation at which Danny and his father arrive: “By becoming a psychologist, [Danny] also becomes a healer of souls like his father, and in the process inherits his father’s role as a ‘tzaddik for the world’” (79.) His father has acknowledged that he has not seen Danny except through Reuven’s eyes; he has not looked at his books, looked at his university letters, or looked into his eyes. He does not see his son until Danny makes this decision to forsake the role of tzaddik. Then Reb Saunders “looked at his son a long time […] and Danny took his hand away from his eyes and looked at his father” (Potok 267). This moment when father and son look at each other, forgiveness is extended and blessings are received. Potok effectively uses this tender and compelling moment to reiterate the motif of looking and seeing for enlightenment and understanding.
Reuven has also grown to be a more compassionate and understanding young man who follows the course he has set for himself. Perhaps the sense of community he gains while participating in Shabbat with Danny and his father sparks his desire to become a rabbi. The Talmudic quizzes, the congregant disputes, the singing, chanting, and celebrating were gone during the imposed separation. Reuven felt a loss of community, particularly during his father’s illness, and it left him feeling angry and hurt. At the admonition of his father, Reuven begrudgingly meets with Rabbi Saunders following the forced separation. Acting as an intermediary between Danny and his father, Reuven gains a greater insight into Rabbi Saunders and his role as the tzaddik. He is not the “God-intoxicated Hassid” that Bluefarb describes (55), but a father desperate to teach his son compassion through suffering. Rabbi Saunders confesses that it was the way he had been taught, and it was the only way in which to teach his son (Potok 266). Reuven realizes that these are important lessons for him to learn as he assumes the role of a rabbi and takes his place as a righteous man in Israel. Rabbi Saunders pleads to the Master of the Universe, “A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul” (264). These are the same traits that Reuven must acquire as counterbalance to his logical and analytical mind if he wants to be an effective rabbi. The conclusion Plato draws in his allegory complements the metaphoric journey the boys have taken:
[T]he power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good (Book VII).
For both David Malter and Reb Saunders, their sons may be on different paths than either father expects, but Danny and Reuven are learning the life lessons on this journey that will make them the men they ought to be.
Chaim Potok follows the motif of sight and vision throughout The Chosen, making symbolic connections to self-awareness, enlightenment, and intellectual and moral growth in the protagonists Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter. At the beginning of the novel, Reuven bends the earpieces of his glasses to assure they stay in place during the game. He does not want his glasses falling off suddenly during an important play (13). Ironically, this action exacerbates his injury because the glasses remain firmly on his face and shatter in his eye. Were it not for this injury, Danny and Reuven would have continued living parallel lives, never intersecting and never becoming friends. By the end of the novel, the physical healing of his eye parallels Danny’s symbolic healing. For Danny, the novel begins in uncertainty. He cannot see clearly to reconcile his religious and secular learning, and his future is unclear. By the end, he experiences a metaphoric healing of his vision as he looks to the future with eagerness (Potok 271). In a bildungsroman personal growth is expected, but Potok gives us characters that have not only become more tolerant and compassionate, but they have also developed into young men who are emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually strong. Danny and Reuven learn that paths to personal edification must be discovered and honored, not for their fathers or their communities, but for themselves.
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