The Chosen

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Fathers, Sons, and Rebellion Theme Analysis

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.
Fathers, Sons, and Rebellion Theme Icon

The Chosen revolves around male relationships and the most important of these is that between a father and a son. Both Danny and Reuven are deeply influenced by their fathers. Both of their relationships are based on education, but they differ in every other way. Reb Saunders only speaks with his son when they are studying the Talmud because of Hasidic tradition and, as we learn later in the novel, a belief in the importance of silence as a tool for developing compassion. For much of the novel this silence seems irrational and cruel, demonstrating the confusion and mystery that can be a part of father-son relationships. What seems to be cruel treatment is a sacrifice for Reb Saunders as well. He chooses to act this way because he believes that he is saving his son’s soul. His methods are questionable but we come to learn the great love that he has for his son.

David Malter also teaches his son how to read the Talmud using close reading and careful thought. Reuven is greatly influenced by his father, and he eventually proves his intellectual maturity and prowess by using his fathers reading techniques in his college Talmudic course with his respected and difficult teacher, Rav Gershenson. David Malter also extends this teaching to other parts of life, encouraging Reuven to become friends with Danny, and to look closely at and take care with this friendship once he has it. David Malter is the prime example of a careful and thoughtful father and he also provides guidance to Danny when he cannot turn to his real father.

Rebellion is also an important aspect of the father son relationships in The Chosen. Danny directly rebels against his father by not becoming a tzaddic, and this choice of rebellion plagues him for the entire novel. His long path towards this decision is reflected in his growing interest in Freud. Although Freud’s concept of the Oedipal Complex (which includes rebellion of the son against the father) is never directly mentioned, his interest in and struggle with Freud points towards the importance of this fraught relationship with his father.

With all of this focus on fathers it is also necessary to mention the lack of mothers, and female figures in general, in The Chosen. Reuven’s mother died when he was very young and is only briefly discussed. Danny’s mother is alive, and presented as warm and loving, but she is also sick and frail. Danny’s sister is only briefly married and has an arranged marriage with a man who leaves a bad taste in Reuven’s mouth. Overall women are powerless and only ever seen on the fringes. Men are victims of a set culture and deep traditions, but they have their intellectual pursuits to occupy their minds and set them free if they truly want to. Women, on the other hand, are stuck. This marginalization of women is present in Hasidic societies, and Potok does critique it in some ways, but The Chosen is also largely uninterested in the role of women in this culture.

Fathers, Sons, and Rebellion ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Chosen related to the theme of Fathers, Sons, and Rebellion.
Chapter 7 Quotes

“You think a friend is an easy thing to be? If you are truly his friend, you will discover otherwise.”

Related Characters: Reb Isaac Saunders (speaker), Reuven Malter, Danny Saunders
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuven meets Reb Saunders, and Reb seems to approve of Reuven's friendship with Danny, in spite of the boys' religious differences. Like Reuven's father, Reb thinks of Danny and Reuven's friendship in large-scale, almost sacred terms. Danny and Reuven aren't just two boys spending time together--their relationship is broader and deeper than that. Reb insists that Reuven will soon discover how difficult it is to be a true friend to Danny.

Notice that while Reb alludes to the challenges of true friendship, he doesn't clarify what these challenges are. The implication is that no amount of teaching or lecturing can show Reuven how to be a good friend to Danny: he'll have to figure it out for himself. The passage suggests that The Chosen isn't just a book about friendship: it's a coming-of-age story in which Reuven's friendship will teach him valuable lessons about maturity and respect.

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Chapter 8 Quotes

“Master of the Universe,” he almost chanted. “you gave me a brilliant son, and I have thanked you for him a million times. But you had to make him so brilliant?

Related Characters: Reb Isaac Saunders (speaker), Danny Saunders, Reb Isaac Saunders
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Reuven tells Reb about the books Danny has been reading--books that, much to Reb's annoyance, have nothing to do with the Torah. Reb is impressed with his son's obvious intelligence (the intelligence that's led him to read so much) but he's equally irritated that Danny's intelligence has led him to focus more on psychology and history than religion.

Reb's problem illustrates the pitfalls of being a father, and of being a community leader. Reb is grateful to have such a brilliant son, but he also knows that his son must (he feels) one day replace him as the leader of the Hasids. Thus, Danny needs to focus on his studies--specifically, his studies of the Torah. Ironically, Danny's brilliance and love for reading--the very qualities a Hasidic leader needs to have--are pulling him away from his religious duties.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“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.

Chapter 13 Quotes

“What followers of a genius aren’t dogmatic, for heaven’s sake? The Freudians have plenty to be dogmatic about. Freud was a genius.”

Related Characters: Danny Saunders (speaker)
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Danny Saunders gives us his interpretation of Freud and of the scientific method. Danny is a student of the teachings of Sigmund Freud; he believes in Freud's model of the unconscious. While Danny wants to be a psychologist, like Freud, his relationship with Freud is almost religious in nature. When criticized by his college professors, Danny defends Freud to the point where he admits to being "dogmatic" in his respect for the man.

Danny's defense of Freud is both rather un-scientific and deeply Hasidic. The scientific method is based on constant questioning of the world--even of the people and theories one believes in. Danny rejects the premises of the scientific method here because he's always been taught to embrace what he believes in with his whole heart. As a Hasidic Jew, Danny's model for "truth" isn't science at all--it's the Torah. Thus, Danny has a hard time accepting that good science hinges on questioning truth at all times.

Poor Danny, I thought. Professor Appleman, with his experimental psychology, is torturing your mind. And your father, with his bizarre silence – which I still couldn’t understand, no matter how often I thought about it – is torturing your soul.”

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker), Danny Saunders, Reb Isaac Saunders, Professor Nathan Appleman
Related Symbols: Silence
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Potok sums up the challenges that Danny faces as a Hasidic student of science. To Professor Appleman, his teacher, Danny's religious affiliation is interfering with his scientific studies: Danny is more focused on his subjects' souls than on their minds. By the same token, Danny's own father sees him as being overly scientific: Danny is focusing too much on psychology when he should be studying the Torah.

With great difficulty, Danny tries to balance his commitment to science and his commitment to Judaism. In doing so, however, he alienates both the scientific and the Jewish community. To Danny's father, he's overly invested in science; to Danny's college professors, however, he's allowed his Judaism to warp his scientific sense of the world.

Chapter 14 Quotes

The death of six million Jews had finally been given meaning, he kept saying over and over again. It had happened. After two thousand years, it had finally happened. We were a people again, with our own land. We were a blessed generation. We had been give the opportunity to see the creation of the Jewish state.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker), David Malter
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Following the events of the Holocaust, a schism breaks out in the Jewish community. There are some, like Reuven's father, who see the Holocaust as paving the way for the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. As Mr. Malter argues, Israel will give "meaning" to the meaningless tragedy of the Holocaust: it will finally give the Jews a homeland (the very thing they've been lacking for thousands of years).

It's characteristic of Mr. Malter's worldview that he manages to find a "silver lining" even in a tragedy as horrific as the Holocaust. Malter cannot allow himself to accept pain and suffering--he's always trying to take action to reduce pain. Here, for example, Malter tries to mobilize the Jews in his community to support the establishment of an Israeli state. (The sad part about the post-Holocaust Zionist movement, Potok acknowledges, it that it tore apart the Jewish community once again. Some of the Jews in the country believed in a Jewish state; others bitterly opposed it.)

Chapter 18 Quotes

“… words are cruel, words play tricks, they distort what is in the heart, they conceal the heart, the heart speaks through silence. One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, he would say, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s soul.”

Related Characters: Reb Isaac Saunders (speaker)
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Reb Saunders tries to justify his actions to Reuven. Saunders has spent Danny's entire life treating him with stony silence--instead of playing with Danny or talking to him, Saunders has essentially ignored him.

While it's easy to condemn Saunders's actions as cruel, Potok makes it clear that Saunders acts out of love for his child. Saunders wants Danny to grow up to be the best leader he can possibly be: Saunders has been taught that the best way to raise a religious leader is to be silent around him. Even though Saunders' silence causes Danny a great deal of pain and loneliness, Saunders' silence is even more painful to Saunders himself: Saunders is forced to turn off his natural fatherly instincts.

In the end, then, Potok is sympathetic to Saunders' behavior, even if he doesn't necessarily agree with it. To be a leader is to make sacrifices. Arguably Saunders' greatest sacrifice is his affection for his children. And yet by being silent around Danny, Saunders is expressing his love for his child: with every second of silence, Saunders proves his total confidence in Danny's abilities.