On a recent day off occasioned by some evil thing fastening upon me and laying me temporarily low, I re-read Chaim Potok’s two wonderful novels, The Chosen and The Promise, the pleasures of which happily compensated for my indisposition.
The Chosen is a modern classic, a brilliant story of fathers-and-sons evocatively set in a distinctive slice of Americana: Brooklyn orthodox Jewry during and immediately after the Second World War. It’s one of the few really good novels that isn’t completely ruined by the movie made from it, but the book is far more richly textured than the film, and much more sensitive to the nuances and tensions in the encounter between biblical religion and the modern world.
The Chosen revolves around an unexpected friendship between two boys, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders: the first, the brilliant, pious, assimilated son of a Talmud scholar, a widower who embodies wise paternity; the second, an intellectual phenomenon who memorizes entire pages of the Talmud in minutes even as he chafes under the burden of a closed future — the elder son of Reb Isaac Saunders, head of a large Hasidic congregation, he will inherit his father’s role as rabbi, judge, and community leader. Fearful that his son’s matchless intellect will not be complemented by a compassionate soul — essential in a tzaddik, a Hasidic sage — Reb Saunders decides to raise Danny in silence: aside from the hours they spend studying Talmud together, there is no conversation between father and son. Danny is struggling, intellectually and emotionally, in this claustrophobic environment when a chance meeting in the public library leads him to David Malter and then to his son, Reuven.
These two remarkable sons of equally remarkable fathers grow through their high school and college years amidst stirring times: the end of the war, the revelation of the Nazi extermination camps, the founding of the State of Israel. In the debates that ensure — How could God allow the Holocaust to happen? Can there be a Jewish state that is not founded by the Messiah? – the tensions between orthodox biblical faith and modernity define the fault lines within families, between classmates, and across communities. Yet the beauty of The Chosen is that it always brings us back to the inner world, the spiritual world. In Reuven’s and Danny’s struggles to mature, we confront time and again the issue that Reb Saunders faces in raising his genius son: How is brilliance refined into wisdom? How does a man stand firmly, yet with compassion, within a religious tradition he believes to bear eternal truths?
The Promise picks up the story of these sons and fathers in the early Fifties. Danny, with his father’s permission, is doing doctoral work in psychology, rather than inheriting Reb Saunders’ position; Reuven is pursuing rabbinic ordination and graduate studies in philosophy, while both he and his father struggle to convince the hardened, brilliant scholars who have come to Brooklyn’s Jewish seminaries from the horrors of the concentration camps that modern methods of Talmud study do not threaten traditional faith. Another fathers-and-sons motif is the dramatic centerpiece of The Promise, as both Reuven and Danny become involved with the deeply troubled son of a Jewish scholar who is a controversial theological modernist. In the resolution of that conflict, we see that Danny Saunders has become what his father hoped he would be: a tzaddik, a compassionate healer, for the world. At the same, time, Reuven and his father, who have seemed throughout both novels to enjoy a perfect paternal/filial relationship, discover even greater depths of mystery in the age-old business of fathers-and-sons. The Promise can get a bit too Freudian for some tastes; but, as in The Chosen, it is effective compassion, if in the form of very tough love, that makes the final difference.
There are many thing Catholics can learn about their Christian faith from an encounter with vibrant Judaism — which is, I suppose, another story of fathers-and-sons. Think of The Chosen and The Promise, then, as good Easter reading.