Reconciliation and Reconstruction in “The Chosen”

“Behold, a king will reign in righteousness . . . Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed, and the ears of those who hear will give attention.” Isaiah 32:1, 3, ESV

Last weekend, I finished my third book of the summer — !!! — Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel, The ChosenWow. I told Elizabeth, who you may know from her recent posts, that OMG you need to read it, so so good. It was one of my more pathetic book reviews, but at the time I had no other words.

But today I thought I’d be a bit more sophisticated and write about the book here, as my first post back from a really, long, tiring, strenuous term. (It’s good to be back!)

“The Chosen” – Impossible Pairings

The Chosen tells the story of Reuven, a Jewish boy, and his unlikely friendship with a Hasidic boy, Danny. The novel follows six years of their friendship, 1944-1950, from when they meet (at a softball game where Reuven pitches a curveball to Danny who, anticipating the curve, smacks the ball right back at Reuven, knocking him in the eye)  to when they become friends (during Reuven’s 5-day hospital stay), to when they’re forced apart because of Reuven’s affiliation Zionism, to when they graduate from college.

One of the major motifs in the novel is the interplay of sight and blindness, silence and the spoken. Blindness is considered a curse or misfortune; it’s what Reuven fears for himself after a piece of eyeglass got stuck in his eye. Silence is the distance between Danny and his father; it’s what stands between Danny and Reuven when they’re no longer allowed to be friends.

I loved Potok’s mastery of pinning together two things that seem to contradict. The boys’ friendship was odd to begin with: Danny with his earlocks, tassels, his family obligations and Reuven with his street clothes and shaven face. Then there’s the contradictions of Orthodox Jews playing baseball and a good Hasidic Jew like Danny studying Darwin, Freud, and secular literature.

Reuven says to Danny early on in the novel,

I really am mixed up about you. You look like a Hasid, but you don’t sound like one. You don’t sound like what my father says Hasidim are supposed to sound like. You sound almost as if you don’t believe in God.

The question of My Name Is Asher Lev found its way into this book as well: what does the secular (literature, psychology, baseball, mathematics) have do with the sacred (the Talmud, the Jewish faith and Jewish lifestyle)?

Potok’s answer, or at least my answer, comes late in the book when Reuven is in a Talmud class with Danny. The professor, a wise, strict man named Rav Gershenson asks his students to read and interpret sections of the Talmud in class, reciting commentators in order to make sense of the passages. Much of this includes reconciling texts that seem to contradict each other.

Reuven notices that several months into his class with Rav Gershenson he hadn’t been called on to recite and interpret text. He started working extra hard in the meantime, finding himself several days ahead of the his class in his reading. He came to a passage of the Talmud that was exceptionally confusing; none its the commentaries made sense. Reuven got a feeling then that he was going to be called upon to recite and interpret that text for Rav Gershenson and the class.

So Reuven spends time sorting out the text in his head, first the way he had been taught: to look at commentaries and finding ways to reconcile the text. Then he uses a technique his father had taught him, a rather unorthodox method, one that involves reconstruction of the original text itself.

Eventually Reuven is called on to interpret the text, and he spends four days in front of the class breaking it down (but he is careful only to do it the way the school had taught him, the orthodox way, through reconciling interpretations). Finally he is done; Rav Gershenson has been quiet the whole way through–until the very end:

I heard Rav Gershenson ask me whether I was satisfied with the late medieval commentary’s attempt at reconciliation. It was a question I hadn’t expected. I had regarded the effort at reconciliation as the rock bottom of the entire discussion on the passage and had never thought that Rav Gershenson would question it.

In front of the class, Reuven does not admit what he had done with the original text — reconstruct it — but he admits that he’s not satisfied with the commentary.

I answer that it was strained, that it attributed nuances to the various conflict in commentaries that were not there, and that, therefore, it really was not a reconciliation at all.

After class, Rav Gershenson pulls Reuven aside and asks how his father would have interpreted the text, to which Reuven admits, “I think he would have said the text is wrong.” Reuven explains to his professor how he reconstructed the text so it would make sense. The wise professor says his method is not bad; it’s a method he himself would use. But he must never use that method in a class at that Orthodox college.

Conclusion

What I understand Potok to be saying here is that while throughout the whole book the characters, and maybe the reader herself, were trying to reconcile contradictory elements, instead they should have been asking: what if the text itself is wrong? What if the religion, culture, or society suggesting these things don’t belong are the ones who are wrong? Maybe a Hasidic Jew can become a psychoanalyst. Maybe Zionists and anti-Zionists can come together in friendship. All it takes, I think Potok is suggesting, are ears to hear and eyes to see that the possibility is there.

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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