The Conflict Between the Secular and the Religious
The main conflict between the book is between the secular and the religious; this is a conflict that manifests itself in numerous instances both internal and external. The most obvious juxtaposition of the ësecular' and the ëreligious' is shown in the friendship between Reuven Malter, who has more flexible religious customs, and Danny Saunders, who comes from a very strict Hasidic background. This conflict also takes place internally within Danny Saunders, who must choose between a life devoted to intellectual study of psychology, which holds an irreligious view of human nature, and a life devoted strictly to the Hasidic religious tradition as a tzaddik. Chaim Potok develops these as contrasting ideas, with the religious as symbolic of history, tradition and the ëold world,' while the secular symbolizes the more modern and progressive aspects of society aligned with a broader, international scope. This theme, obviously relating to the Jewish background of its characters, can be taken as a question of Judaism's place in a modern world, as its adherents are torn between the demands of the secular world and their religious faith. The inclusion of details about the founding of the state of Israel relates to this conflict, for the supporters of this state wish for a secular Jewish nation-state, while the opponents, such as Reb Saunders, want only to have a Jewish state that adheres strictly to religious convictions.
The characters in Potok's story communicate to a great extent through means other than direct verbal communication. The most obvious example of this is the strange means by which Danny and his father behave toward one another, speaking only to one another when Reb Saunders asks him questions about the Talmud on Shabbat. Yet other examples of this also arise throughout The Chosen. When Reb Saunders enforces his ban on Reuven after David Malter gives his speech on Zionism, Danny Saunders and Reuven continue to communicate through eye contact and subtle gestures. Even the relationship between Reuven and his father displays marks of non-verbal communication; the two characters leave a great deal unstated when they speak to one another, as when they purposely avoid discussing the possibility that David Malter may soon die. The recurring theme of non-verbal communication demonstrates that two characters can reach an understanding without directly stating facts.
Potok develops the theme of father-son relationships through the parallels between David and Reuven Malter and Reb and Danny Saunders. The paternal relationship dominates the novel; Reuven's mother has died before the novel began, and Danny's mother receives little more than a brief mention throughout the entirety of the novel. Potok allows a great deal of flexibility in the father-son relationship, suggesting the multitude of ways that a father may raise a son such as Reb Saunders' strict training as compared to David Malter's open and direct relationship with Reuven. Potok also endows the paternal relationship with a strong sense of lineage; as the son of a tzaddik, Danny Saunders is expected to be a tzaddik as well, while even Reuven uses his father for his sense of history, which he passes down to his son. Perhaps the most striking illustration of the importance of father-son relationships in The Chosen is Danny's response to David Malter's question of whether he will raise his son in silence, for Danny's answer that he will do so unless he finds a better way essentially validates Reb Saunders' methods and emphasizes this role of paternal lineage.
The Religious Implications of Friendship
During the final chapter of The Chosen, Reb Saunders claims that Reuven Malter was sent by God to Danny when he was ready to rebel from his Hasidic background. This echoes an earlier comment by David Malter that the Talmud instructs a person to find a teacher and a friend. Potok thus develops the idea that the friendship between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter is one with great religious significance, born of destiny and God's will. The meeting between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter on the baseball field was no mere chance, nor was the seeming coincidence that Reuven is the son of the man who has been instructing Danny. There is instead a divine explanation for this occurrence, as articulated by Reb Saunders.
Illness and Mortality
Serious, debilitating illnesses are prevalent throughout the novel, as characters suffer from trauma including heart attacks, blood disorders and even serious vision problems. This theme serves as a reminder of the morality of the characters, as shown most clearly by David Malter, whose heart attack causes him to confront his own mortality and force Reuven to confront it as well. This also relates to the importance of religion throughout The Chosen, for reminders of the characters' mortality emphasize the relationship between people and God.
The theme of assimilation relates to the conflict between the secular and the religious, but also operates on a different scale, placing the conflict on another level between specifically Jewish traditions and the dominant Christian tradition and values of American society. Although this theme recedes in some degree after the relationship between Danny and Reuven takes precedence, Potok develops this theme through the softball game and the hospital ward. The entire rationale for the softball game is the desire of the yeshivas to demonstrate that their students are as American as students who go to public schools by having their students play the most American sport. In the hospital, this theme continues when Mr. Savo questions Reuven about his religious practices, unaware of rituals that he considers part of his everyday life.
The Chosen Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Chosen is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.