"You can listen to silence, Reuven. I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes, and I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it....You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn't always talk. Sometimes--sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to."
-Chapter 17, The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Chaim Potok's excellent book The Chosen highlights the divide between Hasidic Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews during and after WWII. While this book is not written from a Christian perspective, it provides keen insights into the Jewish culture and parent/child relationships. As Christians, it is our responsibility to have an understanding and love for the Jewish people, for though they do not recognize Jesus as their Messiah, we are sharing in their blessing of their gift of salvation, and they will one day be gathered in along with the Gentiles.
The Chosen is told through the eyes of Reuven Malter, a Modern Orthodox Jew living in Brooklyn, New York. When Hasidic Jew Danny Saunders pitches a ball that shatters Reuven's glasses into his left eye, he is forced to come to terms with his boyish dislike of Hasids during an enforced hospital stay. Reuven's father is a professor at a local college, and he would like his son to become a mathematics professor, but Reuven desires to become a rabbi. He lives a fairly free existence--going to the movies, hanging out with friends, extensive academic study as well as Talmud during school hours.
Then Danny comes to apologize, and as Reuven struggles to overcome his antipathy towards him, he learns just how free his existence is. Danny's father is a rabbi, and Danny, as the eldest son, is expected to take on his dynasty. It extends for generations, and even though Danny would like to become a psychologist, he will not do so unless he can find someone to take his place. Hasidic Jews looked down on extensive academia, preferring to focus almost entirely on Talmud studies. And Danny is keenly suited to studying Talmud, for he has a photographic memory that can repeat every page he reads by heart, as soon as he has read it.
So the two form an unlikely friendship. Reuven finds that his father has been helping Danny with a course of psychological reading at the public library, unknown to Danny's father. When Danny takes up Freud, both Reuven and his father are concerned. Danny's father invites Reuven to their synagogue to meet him; as Danny's friend, Reb Saunders is concerned that a Modern Orthodox Jew will lead him astray.
While there, Reuven gains his first insight into the strange customs that permeate the Hasidic household. He also wonders why Reb Saunders never speaks to his son except during Talmud studies. In a moment of privacy, Reb Saunders tells Reuven that he knows about Danny's secret reading at the library, and he trusts the Malters not to lead his son astray--but what Reuven cannot understand is his softly moaned out statement: "What can I do? I can no longer speak to my own son. The Master of the Universe gave me a brilliant son, a phenomenon. And I cannot speak to him." But Reuven knows, and Danny knows, and Reb Saunders knows, that it is not any wall that Danny has built that is blocking off their communication. It is for some inexplicable reason that neither of the boys can fathom, and that Reb Saunders will not explain.
The boys finish high school, WWII ends, and they move on to college. Danny has now told Reuven that he intends to become a psychologist, but he will tell his father after he finishes his college education. Reuven still desires to be a rabbi, so his father consents to his wish. Then Reuven's father becomes involved in a Zionist movement; Danny's father forbids the boys to communicate with each other, and the streets of Brooklyn erupt into passionate rallies. When Reuven's father suffers a heart attack from overwork, Reuven lives alone while he is in the hospital recovering. And Reuven begins to taste the silence that Danny has been suffering under all these years.
Neither of them understand why Reb Saunders will not speak to his son. Each of them dreads the moment when Danny tells his father he is not carrying on the dynasty.
Neither of them knows if they have the strength to break the silence.
First of the bat, and something I include with every book review, The Chosen contains a hefty amount of language, which should be edited out. Addition: While I do not endorse the use of language at all, I sometimes consider it worthwhile to use white-out on it when the content of the book provokes worthwhile thought. Obviously, much of this depends of the actual words themselves. In the case of The Chosen, the swear words used were of the kind often found in a Dickens, Austen, etc., not the more vulgar ones I have highlighted before. More on this in upcoming posts.
The Chosen has the pitfall of accommodating both sides of the life purpose issue, which, if not correctly examined, brings no resolution to the question. The pain of choosing life purpose according to the gifts and abilities God gives you, and the decision of whether or not to carry on family dynasties (whether it be a family business, ministry, or vocation) is a very real one. Life is a balance between the individual and the group. Because Reb Saunders refused to communicate with his son, and the weight of their Jewish history lay so heavily on the shoulders of the next generation, Danny had little opportunity to express his desires to his father. Each of them made mistakes in handling the issue, which Reuven and his father did not. In The Chosen, you sympathize with both the fathers and the sons--but its easy, when reading this as a family, for the children to sympathize exclusively with Danny and Reuven, and likewise with the parents. When both can see across the boundaries, this will spark many fruitful discussions, which, even when there are differences, can be carried on in a God-honoring way.
It would have been easy for Danny to just give in to the dynasty sway, even though he was not fully committed to it. It's easy for any child to accept beliefs that others dole out to them, without making them their own convictions. But Danny chose the hard way, and while I might disagree with some of the finer points of their decisions, I think both he and his father handled it very well. He made his father's beliefs his own, and while they didn't turn out identically, their core of was the same. Danny is determined that he will not leave his father without someone to carry on the dynasty--in otherwards, he refuses to take the attitude "I'm going my own way, and you'll have to figure it out for yourself." He is deeply committed to his life purpose of becoming a psychologist, but equally determined that he will honor his father as much as possible in the way he does so. And Reb Saunders wisely balances what to hold on to, and what to let go of. The pain is there for both of them, but they know and trust to each others' hearts, and neither considers breaking off their relationship. This provides a good example for any young adult. Because when it comes down to it, you and you alone will be accounting to God for how you followed Hi purpose for your life. And He will also call you to account for how you honored your authorities while doing so. Pray. Wait. Honor. And God will honor you for doing so, and open doors through your obedience.
The only other criticisms I have would be on Reuven's standpoint: while he is very respectful and honoring towards his own father, he is not always so when he refers to Danny's father behind his back. Whether or not he thought his friend's father was a tyrant didn't give him license for saying so to Danny's face.
Also, while Danny's father trusted them to take care of his son's reading in the library, the course that Danny takes often causes him to question his Jewish beliefs. While that is not wrong as long as it points him to Christ as his Messiah, it does serve as a warning to us as Christians to be careful what we read. Sometimes Danny seeks out knowledge that is too heavy for him, and that can be a very dangerous thing.
Finally, many of the struggles in this book could have been averted, had the characters known Christ as their Messiah. Traps in any religion are set free when we follow Christ. He alone can truly break the silence, and heal the barriers.
So can you hear silence after all? I think, in a way, you can--and not in a weird, way either. The people who are content to listen, who are often turned to to provide the service of counseling, have a special compassion that senses what people are really saying, even when they cannot find words for their pain.
Maybe that sounded a little odd, but some of you will be able to take my meaning. :) I recommend The Chosen for a clear look into the Jewish culture and a coming into adulthood. Best read with thought, evaluation, and digging beneath the surface.