The Chosen

The Chosen Study Guide

The Chosen comes out of experiences both relevant to twentieth century world history and the particular life of its author, Chaim Potok. Potok includes autobiographical details in The Chosen with regard to each of the two main characters. Like Danny Saunders, Potok was born around the beginning of the Great Depression and was raised in an Orthodox household but later became drawn to less restrictive Jewish doctrine. However, Potok also shares traits with the novel's narrator, Reuven Malter; like Reuven, Potok studied theology and was ordained as a conservative rabbi.

Full appreciation of the novel depends on historical knowledge relevant to the end of the second world war as well as a working knowledge of Jewish and Hasidic culture. While Potok does include the relevant information about Hasidism necessary to describe this subset of Jewish culture, there are nevertheless basic details necessary for greater understanding of the novel. The most basic of this information concerns the Talmud and the Torah, both religious texts that Danny and Reuven study throughout the novel. There are two Talmuds produced by Rabbinic Judaism. The first is the Babylonian Talmud, the most famous in the western world, and was completed around the fifth century, while the Palestinian (or Jerusalem) Talmud was edited around the early fourth century. Both of these Talmuds are based upon the Mishnah collection of the tannaim and include commentary discussion by the teachers of their respective locales. The Torah refers to the "five books of Moses" in the Hebrew scriptures. In general, torah refers to the study of the whole gamut of Jewish tradition. Perhaps the most significant term with regards to the novel is tzaddik, which in Hebrew means "righteous one." It is a general term for a righteous person in Jewish tradition, and more specifically means the spiritual leader of a modern Hasidic sect. Other important but less-known details of Jewish culture included in The Chosen are "tefillin," which are box-like appurtenances that accompany prayer and are worn by Jewish adult males at morning services. These boxes contain scriptural excerpts: one box is placed on the head, while the other is placed on the left arm, near the heart. A final detail is "pilpul," which is a dialectical rational method of studying Jewish oral law as codified in the Talmud.

The Chosen also depends on historical knowledge relating to the end of the second world war and the establishment of Israel. The Zionist movement began in the late nineteenth century in Europe, with its goal the creation of the state of Israel in the area then known as Palestine. The Zionist movement had some support throughout the beginning of the twentieth century, most prominently by Britain through the Balfour Declaration, but it was only after the end of World War II when the establishment of a Jewish secular state became a realistic possibility. During the war, a Zionist conference held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York called for unrestricted Jewish immigration into Palestine and the ultimate establishment of the area as a Jewish commonwealth. After the war, President Truman made public his support for Zionism, and the British (who were the main supporters of Zionism) referred the issue to the United Nations, which urged partition of Palestine and the establishment of Israel.

This United Nations declaration led to the Palestine War between Jewish and Arabic forces in Palestine. Zionist forces secured control of Palestine, and the state of Israel was soon recognized by both the United States and the Soviet Union. During this time, an active participant in the conflict was the Irgun, a Jewish right-wing underground terrorist organization. Irgun committed numerous atrocities against the British and Arabs in Palestine, most prominently launching an attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing nearly one hundred people. After the establishment of Israel, the Irgun disbanded and its members pledged loyalty to the Israeli defense forces.