There are novels which once read become part of the way you think and look at the world. The story draws you in, you become identified with the characters and plot, you slowly invest yourself in the narrative flow and in the outcome and resolution of the plot. Chaim Potok's The Chosen is one such novel in my own life. I read it in 1974, on my way to University on University Avenue in Glasgow. I was in the upstairs deck of a double decker bus, it was dreich and wet and nearly dark, and I was lost in that first chapter about the baseball game and how an enmity turned into a friendship between two boys from very different Jewish traditions, living in Brooklyn in the 1940's.
I've re-read The Chosen several times since, and saw the movie which had Rod Steiger as the Rebbe and a cameo by Potok as a Talmud Professor. If you've never read it, do yourself a favour and do so, and the sequel The Promise which continues the story of the two friends, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malters.
Here are a number of reasons why I think this is a wonderful novel, and transformative of the way we look at the world
This is the story of a friendship. Two 15 year old students become friends after they have a serious confrontation in a baseball game, injected with religious hostility between two different ways of being Jewish. Reuven's father is a professor of Jewish studies, expert in historical criticism, liberal in his methods and conclusions, but nonetheless devoted to Talmud and Torah as the foundation of his people's identity. Danny's father is the Rebbe of a local Hasidic sect, a powerful and charismatic religious leader of conservative and even reactionary views about Talmud, and the Messiah the hope of Israel. Through the two friends, these two cultures clash, and the friendship is threatened by the collision of two worlds.
Throughout the story Talmud, the text, has the significance of a pervasive character, which takes on a life of its own in the studies, discussions and collision of ideas as Jewish faith either accommodates to or confronts the modern world. The historical critical methods call in question the fixed integrity of the text and look for meaning through scientific research and text critical methods. The vast traditional oral and written commentaries provide the given options for the conservative Talmudists of the Hasidic community. The confrontation of these approaches to Talmudic text at several places is a revelation of the piety, passion and devotion of both traditions to the text, and these are embodied in the two friends, and their fathers.
A major theme of the novel is silence. The use of silence as a formative imposition on Danny by his father the Rebbe, the enforced silence between the friends by the Rebbe's reaction to the foundation of the State of Israel, but also the times of silence for healing, grieving, listening both to the world and to others. In libraries the two friends find a place to meet and talk and think; not so much silence as a congenial place for listening, another major theme woven throughout the story.
The novel begins with an eye injury, and then time in a hospital ward where others have eye problems. All the main characters have spectacles, and different eye problems, whether from lack of sleep, tension headaches, overwork in studying and writing, and these background references are subtly suggestive in the accounts of reading and studying Talmud, Danny's feverish study of Freud, and also in the background a refrain from the start of the book by an eye-injured boxer that the world is cock-eyed.
These and other elements of Potok's novel are interlaced with the main theme of friendship and its tensions, and the place of religion in the modern world. That the friendship survives and indeed flourishes points to the possibility of religious accommodation, mutual respect and an alternative to the need to negate the other in order to secure one's own identity.
I'm reading a number of Potok's novels again. And being made aware of the significant nudges still felt in the reading. The Palestine and Israeli conflict and the exclusion of Torah from the political and civil legislation of Israel; the dangers of both fundamentalism and of scientific criticism when they claim a monopoly of authority, methodology and interpretive validity; the importance of the sacred text in a religious tradition, and its capacity to be a power for enlightenment or ignorance, or its capacity to bring together or divide. This is a novel written in 1966 - 50 years later it still has prophetic echoes.