The Chosen

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Themes and Colors
Judaism and Tradition Theme Icon
Choosing and Being Chosen Theme Icon
Fathers, Sons, and Rebellion Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
World War II and War Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Chosen, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Choosing and Being Chosen Theme Icon

The title, The Chosen, introduces this theme immediately into the novel. First of all, in a novel about Jewish people and culture the term carries a religious meaning: the idea written in the Torah that Jews are the people chosen by God. This means that practicing Jews believe that they have a specific and exclusive order to follow and obey God. “Chosenness,” as it is called, is seen in the way that Danny and Reuven’s fathers teach them the responsibility that they have towards God and Jewish laws and customs. The novel then brings up the question of responsibility among chosen people: is there free will within this structure, or must the characters only follow the path given to them as chosen people?

This conflict of choice plays out in the relationship between Danny Saunders and his father, Reb Saunders. Danny is supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps as the next tzaddic (leader of the Hasidic community). His family has passed this role down through six generations, and Reb Saunders has been preparing his son since he was a small child. Danny, on the other hand, is interested in psychology and Freud, and does not want to become a rabbi. Much of the novel focuses on Danny’s guilt and confusion over whether he should follow his dreams or his familial and religious responsibility. His choice to veer from what seems to be his fate, and his father’s acceptance of his new secular life path, demonstrates the value of individual choice within the novel. In a world of so much tradition and religious responsibility, Potok argues for the value of individual choice.

Danny and Reuven’s friendship shows a combination of both choosing and being chosen. They seem almost thrown together by fate in the dramatic softball game that starts the novel. Yet although it seems like they should hate each other after Danny injures and nearly blinds Reuven, David Malter encourages them to choose to become friends. Events often seem to be set in motion by a higher power in The Chosen, but the characters must choose to take action on them. David Malter says this himself when he argues for the importance of making something of one’s life: “A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life.”

Choosing and Being Chosen ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Choosing and Being Chosen appears in each chapter of The Chosen. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Choosing and Being Chosen Quotes in The Chosen

Below you will find the important quotes in The Chosen related to the theme of Choosing and Being Chosen.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I couldn’t imagine what it was like to know that no matter whether my eyes were opened or closed it made no difference, everything was still dark.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eyes and Blindness
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuven has been sent to the hospital after sustaining a nasty eye injury during a softball game. Reuven is told that there's a chance he could lose his vision in the injured eye--a possibility that he finds terrifying.

The passage is important because it suggests blindness as one of the key symbols of the book. In a novel about tolerance and understanding for other people, eyesight symbolizes the human soul's capacity to love those who are "different." Reuven's inability to imagine what blindness is like suggests his natural instinct to sympathize and empathize with others (except, notably, the blind)--an instinct that no amount of mob mentality can suppress. Finally, the image of blindness might symbolize Reuven's understanding of death. In the time of the Holocaust, death hangs over the entire Jewish community, and adds a sense of urgency to Reuven's friendship with Danny. When the Jewish community as a whole is under attack, Reuven and Danny should focus on what they have in common instead of becoming jealous rivals.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

“What I tried to tell you, Reuven, is that when a person comes to talk to you, you should be patient and listen. Especially if he has hurt you in any way.”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker), Reuven Malter, Danny Saunders
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Reuven has stubbornly refused to see Danny in the hospital. Danny has come to apologize to Reuven for injuring him in their game of softball, but Reuven refuses to listen to the apology. Reuven's father is disappointed with his son for being so stubborn. He reminds Reuven that the Talmud encourages Jews to practice love and tolerance at all times--especially tolerance of people who have caused others pain.

The notion that we should be compassionate to everyone--especially those who have hurt us--can be found in many world religions. Despite mentioning the Talmud, Reuven's father doesn't frame his advice in explicitly religious language in the passage, suggesting that Reuven owes Danny the chance to apologize for the sake of human decency more than anything else.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I stood in that room for a long time, watching the sunlight and listening to the sounds on the street outside. I stood there, tasting the room and the sunlight and the sounds …

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker)
Related Symbols: Silence
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Potok contrasts the silence of Mr. Malter with the ambient noises of New York City. Mr. Malter is a quiet, hard-working man, who believes in the beauty of silence, especially while he's working. While Potok seems to respect Mr. Malter's point of view, he also suggests, very subtly, that Malter is too limited and narrow in his worldview. To be silent in New York City is absurd: there'll always be a million sounds (sirens, cars, kids playing, etc.)--sounds that, it's suggested, Reuven embraces but his father tries to ignore.

Symbolically, then, the passage suggests the difference between the ways that Reuven and his father view the world. In spite of his compassion and broad-mindedness, Mr. Malter might be too serious and focused in the way he perceives life. Reuven is looser and freer in his thinking: he embraces chance and uncertainty, and savors the uncontrollable sounds of the world around him.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“Reuven, as you grow older you will discover that the most important things that will happen to you will often come as a result of silly things, as you call them – ‘ordinary things’ is a better expression. That is the way the world is.”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker), Reuven Malter
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the chapter, Mr. Malter gives Reuven some interesting advice: he claims that the most important events in a person's life are often the result of (what appears to be) random chance. While it appeared to be "silly things" that led Danny Saunders to hurt Reuven's eye with a softball, the accident has led to a friendship between the boys--a friendship that, Malter insists, is of vital importance to the entire Jewish community.

Mr. Malter's worldview suggests his faith in God. There are no accidents in life, he believes: everything is the product of God's work. And yet the fact that God has "planned" to bing Danny and Reuven together as friends doesn't automatically force Reuven to change his behavior. Reuven must choose to befriend Danny: he must choose whether or not to embrace God's plan for him, and for Danny.

Chapter 9 Quotes

A spider had spun a web across the corner of the upper rail, and there was a housefly trapped in it now, its wings spread-eagled, glued to the strands of the web, its legs flaying the air frantically.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important bit of foreshadowing, Reuven sees a housefly trapped in a web, about to be eaten by a spider. Reuven is struck by the way the housefly wriggles in pain--it seems to know that it's about to be eaten. Symbolically, the scene anticipates the news of the Holocaust--the greatest tragedy to the Jewish people in the 20th century, and perhaps in recorded history. The nihilistic mood of the scene is surprising: Potok seems to suggest that death and suffering (symbolized by the fly's fate) are natural parts of the universe. The duty of the Jews, then, is to transcend inevitable death and suffering through the strength of their faith.

Chapter 11 Quotes

It was as senseless, as – I held my breath, feeling myself shiver with fear – as Billy’s blindness was senseless. That was it. It was as senseless, as empty of meaning, as Billy’s blindness. I lay there and thought of Roosevelt being dead and Billy being blind, and finally I turned over and lay with my face on the pillow and felt myself crying. I cried a long time.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker), Billy Merrit
Related Symbols: Eyes and Blindness
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the low points of the book, Reuven receives word of Frank Delano Roosevelt's death, the horrors of the Holocaust, and his friend Billy's failed medical operation, all within a few days of each other. Reuven is overcome by the senseless tragedy of the world: there's so much pain and suffering around him.

Reuven's behavior in this scene indicates how compassionate he's become: he's genuinely moved by the pain of other people. At the same time, the scene represents a challenge to Reuven's faith in God--like so many religious people in the 40s and 50s, he questions how a just God could possibly allow so much tragedy to occur.

“The world kills us,” he said quietly.” Ah, how the world kills us.” … “The world drinks our blood,” Reb Saunders said. “How the world makes us suffer. It is the will of God. We must accept the will of God.”

Related Characters: Reb Isaac Saunders (speaker)
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Reb Saunders responds to the senseless tragedy of the Holocaust. Saunders--just like Reuven--is nearly overcome with the magnitude of the tragedy. Six million innocent Jews have been murdered, simply because of their religion. Saunders--knowing full-well that an entire community is looking to him for guidance and reassurance--gives the only interpretation of the Holocaust that his faith allows him to give. He concludes that the Holocaust, while horrible, is a reflection of the will of God, and therefore must be accepted by the Jewish community.

Saunders' behavior reflects both the weakness and the strength of the Hasidic community. The way he accepts the facts of the Holocaust might seem rather weak-willed: instead of trying to overturn tragedy, he just acknowledges it. And yet Saunders also seems incredibly strong in this scene. Instead of savagely looking for vengeance upon the Nazis who committed such enormous crimes, he takes the high ground. All Jews in the world have to come to terms with the Holocaust, sooner or later: because of his boundless love for God, Saunders is able to come to terms with tragedy and be a pillar of strength for his followers.

“I am not satisfied with it either, Reuven. We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves.”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker), Reuven Malter
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Malter here gives Reuven his own interpretation of the Holocaust. Mr. Malter takes offense to the quiet, almost passive way that Reb Saunders accepts the tragedy of the Holocaust as "God's will." Whether or not the tragedy is God's will, Malter insists, Jews can't just wait around for God to make the tragedy better. Instead, they need to mobilize their ranks and find ways to care for Holocaust survivors, repairing the Jewish communities that were devastated by the Nazis. In short, where Saunders responds to tragedy with calm, arguably noble acceptance, Malter responds with action.

In a nutshell, Malter and Saunders's responses to the Holocaust sum up the differences between Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism, while also reminding us that the differences between types of Judaism have always reflected the differences in the ways human beings cope with pain. Hasidism accepts pain and moves past it, trusting that God will resolve all human problems in the end; Orthodoxy tries to remedy pain with concrete, real-world action.