Friday, September 13, 2013

The Chosen

by Chaim Potok
304 pages, 1987 (originally published 1967)

This is the last novel some of my students will ever read, since we deal with it in the regular Grade 12 English course. For non-readers, it's not a bad way to end your reading career, since it is a thoughtful look at the difficulties of growing up as members of a small religious group in the midst of a society that attaches little or no value to your convictions. In other words, though it deals with members of two different Jewish communities in New York during the Second World War, The Chosen gives students in our Reformed Christian school a good sense of what may face them after graduation.

The narrator of the story, a teen named Reuven Malter, is the son of a brilliant Orthodox Talmudic scholar (a professor of the Jewish scriptures and commentaries) named David Malter. Reuven's father uses rationalistic methods to understand the seeming inconsistencies in the transmission of those sacred and near-sacred books - analogous to liberal scholars who used higher criticism to cast doubts on the reliability of the Bible. Despite this somewhat unpromising parentage, Reuven is devout in his belief in God, and eventually wishes to become a rabbi.

Strangely, Reuven, through the most entertaining (and violent) opening baseball game I have read in fiction, meets and befriends Danny Saunders, the son of a Hasidic rabbi whose beliefs are much clearer and perhaps even simplistic - a bit like Reformed believers who face the temptation to place more stock in tradition rather than the Bible it is based on. Reb Saunders, Danny's father, speaks directly to God, calling him the Master of the Universe; speaks only Yiddish; and uses the methods of his Hasidic forebears to raise Danny in a way that repels both Reuven and his father.

In spite of the injury done to him by Danny, and his lack of sympathy for Reb Saunders' parenting method, Reuven is drawn into the strange and mystical world of Hasidism in his concern for Danny, who, ironically, is also rejecting his seeming destiny in his choice of psychology for a future career.

In the course of Reuven and Danny's intense friendship, we see the value of such friendship; the difficulty of varied American Jewish groups in reacting to the Holocaust and the beginning of the state of Israel; and the challenge of secular worldviews (especially Freudian psychology) to the faith of those who believe in God, in his control of the universe, and in the truth of human responsibility. As well, the novel makes clear the anguish of those who do not understand or trust in either God's providence or His redemptive work in Christ.

It should be clear by now that this is not a Christian novel - but it is a novel that affords ample opportunity to Christians to discern the blessings of their faith by contrast with mysticism, materialism, and other worldviews. As well, it shows the challenges of trying to live within a secular society, challenges that are exacerbated by further division within the faith. However, exactly because it is a faithful portrayal of Jewish life in New York in the War, it also, sadly, reproduces the language of some Jews who, naturally, have no respect for the name of Christ - mostly during this intense conflict of the opening baseball game between the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. Once past this conflict, the novel sheds more light than profane heat.

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