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The Chosen | Book 2, Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

It is Shabbat. Reuven Malter and his father go to pray in their synagogue, a converted grocery store. Reuven is comfortable there; he enjoys the morning sun through the windows. Reuven is called to the podium to speak a blessing over the Torah.

The Malters go home, eat lunch, and talk some more. David Malter tells his son that he may return to school the next day, but he cannot read. David goes to rest and Reuven goes back out to the porch to think, look at the flowers, and listen. David then goes out to see a colleague and Reuven remains on the porch, thinking about Danny Saunders, and Billy Merrit, and their eyes. With that, he falls asleep.

Reuven awakens to Danny standing on the porch beside him. He feels him looking at him before he opens his eyes. Danny invites Reuven to his father's shul; he says that Reb Saunders wants to meet him. Reb must approve of Danny's friends. Danny asks Reuven, "Do you mind my telling him that we're friends? ... Because I really think we are."

Danny says that his father telling him to bring Reuven over is the longest sentence he has said to him in years. Reuven says he'd hate having his father not talk to him. Danny agrees that it isn't pleasant, but says his father is a "great man."

As they walk, Danny tells Reuven about his father's history in Russia. His father was the second son, but the older son disappeared after going to Odessa to study. Reb Saunders was ordained at 17 and by 20 had a reputation as a Talmudist. He became tzaddik when his father died; he was 21. Two months after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, a band of Cossacks murdered his wife and two babies and left him for dead. He was found and cared for by a Russian peasant. The synagogue was burned to the ground, the Torah destroyed, and the community gutted. Only 43 of 118 families survived. When the remnants of the community found their rabbi still alive, they nursed him back to health. The village continued to be raided, but the Jews were warned by Russian peasants and were able to hide. In the spring of that year, the rabbi announced that they were leaving Russia, and bribed and bargained their way to America. The rabbi married again in America and Danny was born in 1929, just a day before the stock market crash. His sister was born 18 months later and a brother five-and-a-half years after that.

Reuven marvels at the story of Reb Saunders's life. He is surprised that the community would leave everything behind to follow their rabbi. Reuven has a difficult time imagining a tzaddik, or that Jews would blindly follow another human being.

As they get closer to Danny's house, the neighborhood, while structurally similar, changes. The streets are more crowded, messier, and noisier. The care that is bestowed upon the brownstones in Reuven's neighborhood is missing here. Reuven is roughly shoved aside by a man trying to avoid contact with a woman. A crowd of black-caftaned men blocks the entrance to the last brownstone on the street. They part for Danny.

The boys enter the synagogue, which is the size of Reuven's apartment. Two elderly men approach Danny to settle a disagreement they are having about a passage in the Talmud. Danny settles their disagreement; he recites the passage and its commentary and finds the contradictory interpretations and suggests that they are both, in a way, correct in their interpretations. He admits to Reuven that the passage is baffling and says that David would probably suggest that the text is wrong, and reconstruct it himself. Danny has sneaked David Malter's articles from his father's desk and is familiar with his methods of studying the Talmud. As they walk toward their seats, Reuven is discomfited to find all eyes upon him.

Reuven opens the prayer book, which is old and yellowed—totally different from the book he uses in his own synagogue. The room is noisy and then suddenly quiet. Reuven describes it like "a door ... slammed shut on a room full of playful children." Reb Saunders enters the room, followed by his son Levi. Danny introduces Reuven in Yiddish. Reb asks about his eye and Reuven answers in English. Reb conducts the service with his back to the congregation. At its conclusion, he heads to the table for a meal. The meal ends with singing in which Reuven, a little more comfortable, joins in.

At singing's end Reb Saunders stands, and after some silence gives a fiery sermon on the Jewish responsibility to do God's will. He says that one who gets distracted by the outside world and is distracted from study may forfeit his life. At this, Danny sighs and suppresses a small smile. Reb then goes on to his lesson in gematriya. Reuven is very interested in this numerological tradition; he finds it very interesting. In gematriya, each letter has a number value and the numbers have significance. Reb takes spiritual meanings from the numerical value of certain words. Although Reuven doesn't agree with Reb's pessimism, he finds the sermon fascinating.

After the speech, Reb looks at Danny and asks him if there is anything he wants to say. Danny finally corrects his father; Reb had attributed a comment to the wrong medieval rabbi. The congregation approves when Danny finds his father's mistake and soon the two are engaged in a discourse, a "contest" as Reuven calls it, that requires Danny to know and memorize a breadth of passages and conflicting commentaries. Reuven likens the experience to the quizzes that fathers sometimes give their children about what they've learned in school that week; but he says, this was more than a quiz—it was a contest, and it was public and spanned far beyond a week's worth of knowledge.

The quiz ends, but Danny is admonished for listening only until he found the mistake. Finally, Reb turns to Reuven and asks him about the gematriya. Although hesitant, Reuven points out a mistake that Reb made in his calculation. Reb is pleased with Reuven's answer and assures him there will be no more mistakes in the gematriya. Reuven, aware that he has passed some sort of test, relaxes.

After the contest, the evening service begins. At the end, as all the men file out, Reb Saunders tells Reuven that he is glad he and Danny are friends. He is worried about David Malter's scientific-based methodology of reading the Talmud, but takes comfort in the fact that Reuven and his father follow the Commandments. He tells Reuven that because of his responsibilities, he can't always talk to his son, so their friendship comforts him. Reb knows it won't be easy to be a good friend.

It is late as Reuven and Danny walk back to Reuven's house. Danny confirms that the Talmud quiz happens every week, but that his father makes mistakes he knows he will catch. The quizzes will stop when he enters college next year. Danny and Reuven realize they will be attending the same Jewish school, Hirsch College. They make plans to meet in the library the next afternoon.

When he gets home, Reuven's father is worried about him. Reuven recounts his day. He is confused about Reb Saunders, who is a tyrant one moment and kind the next. David Malter explains that the quiz isn't cruel or terrible, as Reuven thinks it is, but rather an old academic tradition. For Danny and his father and their congregation, the Talmud discussions are a source of pleasure and pride. The quizzes give the men of the community faith that their next leader is a great scholar, with a deep grasp of Jewish law. However, David does not like the insertion of a mistake and calls gematriya "nonsense."

Reuven talks of his confusion about Reb Saunders. David, who is no fan of the Hasidim, echoes Danny, and tells Reuven that Reb is a great man. David says, "It is a pity he occupies his mind only with Talmud. If he were not a tzaddik he could make a great contribution to this world."

David tells his son he is proud of him.

Analysis

This is a long and packed chapter. Whether a Hasidic rabbi would deliberately make mistakes is questionable. However, in every quest, the heroes must pass a series of tests. In the quest for friendship and for knowledge, Reuven Malter passes his first test.

Reuven is confronted with Reb Saunders's silence toward him. It contrasts with his own father's sympathetic ear and lovingly dispensed advice. David Malter, if anything, is a talker. The night before Reuven meets Reb, his father lectures him on the evolution of the Hasidic movement. It is such a long lecture that his throat becomes dry and he needs to refresh himself with another cup of tea. When there is silence between the Malters, it is the silence that accompanies rest or a pause between thoughts.

The difference between the two fathers is also apparent in the Talmudic study of the afternoon. Reb Saunders is Danny's spiritual father; they discuss the Talmud. It is David Malter, however, who talks to Danny about books and ideas; he is Danny's intellectual father. It is Reuven, ultimately, who talks to Danny about emotions. Although the boys are peers, Reuven has had a lifetime of talking about everything with his father, including feelings. Danny, in finding Reuven, has just found someone to talk to. In that way, Reuven is kind of an emotional father to Danny.

Finally, the contrast between the two fathers makes David Malter seem almost one-dimensional. He is fully present intellectually and emotionally for his son; his weaknesses are purely physical.

David dismisses gematriya as mystical nonsense. He uses and writes about a rational approach to the Talmud. However, he follows the Commandments, and wears a skullcap. For Chaim Potok, again, this middle ground between faith and reason is a difficult but important place to live. His comment about Reb being a great man who could have brought greatness to the world indicates his firm positioning in the intellectual life of the world. He regrets Reb's narrow focus on the Talmud and his community. He appreciates his strength but wonders what could have been, had a man of his strength and intellect been focused outwardly. While the tension of The Chosen is largely that of the secular versus the religious, there is a very real tension within David Malter. He balances the secular with the religious and joins the two; his reading of the Talmud "rationally" is a marriage of both worlds that can easily be upended and unbalanced.

This chapter foreshadows a good bit of the plot to follow. When Reb Saunders tells Reuven he is glad he will be Danny's friend, Danny is present. He is actually talking to Danny, using Reuven as a vessel through which he can speak. His sermon about the distraction of secular texts suggests he knows more of Danny's reading than he is letting on and suggests that he thinks long and hard about his son and about his son's inner conflicts.

There are no women in this chapter at all. Study and worship are reserved for men.

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