The Chosen

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Judaism and Tradition Theme Analysis

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The Chosen takes place in an Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that is shaped by Jewish faith and customs. Chaim Potok highlights the influence of Judaism on his characters by filling his novel with references to and quotes from the Talmud (a book of Jewish laws and lessons) and the Torah. Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, although they are teenage boys, think more about complex interpretations of Jewish texts than they do about girls, sports, or general adolescent preoccupations. They are both shaped by the expectations and values of their families and neighbors in their isolated yet highly educated community.

The Chosen is not simply a Jewish book for Jewish readers, although it was the first widely read and popular book of its time to depict such a world. The people in this community are clearly separated from the rest of America, but Potok takes care to demonstrate that many of their struggles are the same. Danny fights against his family’s expectations in order to follow his own dream for his own life. As Danny works to find his place in the world he has to struggle with distant treatment from his father (based on Hasidic tradition) and the knowledge of the complex and often conflicted history of the Hasidic sect. In other words he has a complicated relationship with his dad and a complex cultural past, which he learns about as he ages. Taken out of a Jewish context, his path is like that of many other smart ambitious Americans, or any Faulkner novel.

The Chosen also focuses on the thin line between different sorts of Jewish faith, and between piousness and fanaticism in both religion and life. Hasidic Judaism, with its strict rules based on hundreds of years of tradition, demonstrates how close piety can be to fanaticism. Reb Saunders and his family and followers are deeply devout but there are costs to their religious and cultural inflexibility. Danny has to live through years of silence from his father because of a Hasidic tradition, and Reb Saunders breaks apart Danny and Reuven’s friendship for two years again because of his religious beliefs. David Malter, orthodox but not Hasidic, provides an example of an equally pious yet more open-minded father figure, yet he also nearly works himself to death because of a fanatical obsession with Zionism (the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine). The Chosen’s geographically and culturally narrow focus on Jews in Brooklyn leads the reader towards larger questions about a blind obsession with the rules of tradition and religion.

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Judaism and Tradition ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Chosen related to the theme of Judaism and Tradition.
Chapter 1 Quotes

What annoyed him was their fanatic sense of righteousness, their absolute certainty that they and they alone had God’s ear, and every other Jew was wrong, totally wrong, a sinner, a hypocrite, an apikoros, and doomed, therefore, to burn in hell.

Related Characters: David Malter
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first chapter of the novel, we're introduced to the tense relationship between two types of Judaism: Hasidic Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. Reuven and his father, David Malter, are Orthodox Jews, who believe in obeying the laws of the Torah (the holy book of Judaism, and the first part of the Christian Old Testament). In this scene, Reuven is playing a game of baseball against a group of Hasidic boys: Jews who consider themselves the "original" Orthodox Jews, and who believe that they have a responsibility to act as religious leaders within their community.

As Reuven reports, his father resents the Hasidic Jews for what he perceives as their self-righteousness. The Hasidic Jews, we're told, believe that they and they alone have the love of God. The irony of the scene, of course, is that from the perspective of most Americans (certainly in New York, where the novel is set), the Hasidic and Orthodox Jews are more or less identical. Instead of focusing on the 99% of their beliefs that they share with the Orthodox, the Hasidic Jews in the scene focus on the 1% of their beliefs that are different: a classic example of what Freud called the "narcissism of petty differences." (For that matter, the critique of Hasidic Judaism that David makes here could easily be applied to Judaism as a whole: the Jews claim to be God's "chosen people," thus making all other religions wrong.)


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“Things are always what they seem to be, Reuven? Since when?”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker), Reuven Malter
Related Symbols: Eyes and Blindness
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mr. Malter angrily tells his son Reuven to question his assumptions about other people. Reuven, who's in the hospital with a ruined eye, claims that Danny Saunders (his opponent in the softball game) deliberately tried to hurt his eye with a softball. Mr. Malter tells Reuven not to jump to conclusions based on what "seems" to be true: instead, he must weigh the facts and assess all the evidence.

Mr. Malter's advice is both rational and deeply emotional. On one hand, he's trying to teach his kid to be logical and rational; in other words, to be a good student and (one day) a great mathematician. On the other hand, Mr. Malter's words can be interpreted as a plea for tolerance and friendship: as we'll see, Reuven will use his father's advice as an inspiration for befriending Danny, the very boy who hurt him.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“We are like other people, Reuven. We do not survive disaster merely by appealing to invisible powers. We are as easily degraded as any other people.”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker), Reuven Malter
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Mr Malter tells Reuven about the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. As Malter sees it, the Hasidics have always been too superstitious; too willing to believe that God will protect them through all their trials and tribulations. In Poland, the Hasidic population endured tremendous suffering: the leaders of Poland slaughtered thousands of innocent Jews. Years later, during the Holocaust, Polish Jews were sent to concentration camps to die.

As Malter sees it, the Hasidics have always been too naive in their acceptance of "disaster." Instead of using logic and rationality to solve their problems, the Hasidics have always appealed to "invisible powers"--i.e., God.

It's important to notice how pain and suffering are integral parts of what it means to be Jewish, at least as Mr. Malter sees it. For a Jew, the question is--how do we respond to tragedy? In large part, the rivalries and arguments that we see between the different types of Judaism reflect Jewish communities' different responses to the historical tragedies that Mr. Malter alludes to here.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“I feel like a cowboy surrounded by Indians.”

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker)
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Danny takes Reuven to the local (Hasidic) synagogue. Reuven has never spent so much time around so many Hasidic Jews; he's always stayed within the Orthodox community. Reuven feels awkward and "foreign" among the Hasids: he compares his situation to that of a cowboy surrounded by Indians.

Once again, Potok emphasizes the big differences between the two Jewish communities, Hasidic and Orthodox--differences which, while large from Reuven's perspective, are basically invisible to the majority of the world. At this point in the novel, Reuven still feels uncomfortable outside his own ethnic and religious group--he's too unfamiliar with Danny's community to feel at ease there. Cowboys and Indians are, traditionally speaking, enemies, suggesting that Reuven still feels some leftover antagonism with the Hasids.

Notice also that Reuven frames his discomfort in distinctly American terms. Reuven is an Orthodox Jew, but he shows his awareness of broader American culture (baseball, cowboys, etc.). Reuven is a Jew, but he's an American Jew.

I didn’t agree at all with his notions of the world as being contaminated. Albert Einstein is part of the world, I told myself. President Roosevelt is part of the world. The millions of soldiers fighting Hitler are part of the world.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker), Reb Isaac Saunders
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuven listens to a sermon delivered by Reb Saunders, the leader of the Hasidic community in Williamsburg. Reb claims that without the laws of the Torah, the world is "contaminated"--i.e., it's a dirty, immoral place.

Privately, Reuven disagrees with what Reb says. The world isn't divided between good and evil, black and white, Hasidic and non-Hasidic. On the contrary, Reuven believes, there are plenty of "good" people who don't embrace the letter of the Torah: Einstein, Roosevelt, etc. Reuven's more nuanced view of the world suggests that he's more assimilated with his American community: unlike Reb, he has respect for quintessentially American (and secular) figures like FDR.

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 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

“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.

“It is beginning to happen everywhere in America. A religious renaissance some call it.”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker)
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mr. Malter explains to Reuven that the Jewish-American culture is rapidly changing. After the atrocities of the Holocaust, many non-observant Jews are turning back to their synagogues for guidance and comfort. Malter mentions his non-observant friends, who have unexpectedly donated large amounts of money to their temples. Throughout the country, Jews are uniting together in the face of tragedy.

Note that Mr. Malter doesn't necessarily claim that the changes in Jewish culture are a "religious renaissance"--he just suggests that they could be interpreted that way. Perhaps the changes Malter describes are cultural more than religious. While some non-observant Jews are rediscovering their faith in God, many more are turning back to their religious communities for reasons that have nothing to do with religious faith. A temple isn't just a place for Jews to worship God; it's a place for them to feel a sense of love and community. Following the atrocities of the Holocaust, Jews feel a need to rekindle their communities, recognizing that religion provides comfort and acceptance, not just faith.

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.