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.
Judaism and Tradition ThemeTracker
Judaism and Tradition Quotes in The Chosen
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.
“Things are always what they seem to be, Reuven? Since when?”
“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.”
“I feel like a cowboy surrounded by Indians.”
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.
“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?
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.
“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.”
“I am not satisfied with it either, Reuven. We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves.”
“What followers of a genius aren’t dogmatic, for heaven’s sake? The Freudians have plenty to be dogmatic about. Freud was a genius.”
“It is beginning to happen everywhere in America. A religious renaissance some call it.”
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.
“… 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.”