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The Chosen | Book 3, Chapter 14 | Summary

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Summary

Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter spend the rest of the term not speaking. Reuven is so distraught that his grades suffer; he tells his teachers he is having personal problems. He hates Reb Saunders and tells himself that often.

Reb has started an anti-Zionist league. The league is boycotting stores owned by purported Zionists, threatening excommunication to those who fraternize with Zionists. David Malter, on the other hand, is consumed with Zionism. He no longer studies the Talmud with Reuven; he is so busy writing and teaching that he must rest on Shabbat. Fistfights are breaking out at Hirsch College, and students are threatened with expulsion.

Reuven fails his midterms and then his finals. The Malters leave for their cottage, happy to have some rest and get away from a horrible four months. However, once there, the news that the Irgun had hanged innocent British officers precludes their joy in being together. Two weeks after arriving at the cabin, David is called back for some urgent Zionist meetings.

School starts again in September, and Reuven ends up sitting a few seats away from Danny at registration. Danny neither looks at nor acknowledges him. Reuven says to himself, "To hell with you, Danny Saunders." He repeats this mantra often.

Reuven decides to just avoid Danny, to forget him completely and not let him ruin another semester. This proves difficult, as Reuven is moved into the highest Talmud class, the class of Rav Gershenson. Naturally, Danny is the premiere pupil in the class.

Rav Gershenson teaches the Talmud like David Malter, emphasizing depth over breadth and teaching a few lines at a time. The classes at Hirsch are set up so that the students can study the Talmud on their own in the morning, eat lunch, and then study with their instructor from one to three in the afternoon. Typically, in Rav Gershenson's class, a student is called upon to explain something, and then, as the questions escalate and get more probing, the student falls silent. Danny often steps in and solves the puzzle. While Danny's interactions with Rav Gershenson are usually only a few minutes, there are times they go back and forth for 45 minutes. Reuven tells himself that he is like Reb Saunders; he only hears Danny's voice when they are studying the Talmud.

One day in early October, Reuven is called upon. When he is given a question that seems impossible, he struggles, but at the last minute, stammers out an answer. Rav Gershenson is impressed, and Reuven sees a slight smile of encouragement on Danny's lips. This lightens his feelings toward Danny.

By mid-October, everyone in class has been called on twice but Reuven. Reuven participates in class; he raises his hand, offers answers, but still, he is not called on to explain a passage. November passes. David, working harder than ever, becomes weaker.

In late November 1947, the United Nations votes on a resolution to partition the land, paving the way for the formation of a Jewish state. David and Reuven are ecstatic and talk and celebrate until the wee hours of the morning. Groggy on the bus, Reuven hears the news that a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been attacked and people are dead. He is furious when he gets to school and sees that Reb Saunders's group has plastered the buildings with leaflets denouncing the U.N. resolution and ordering Jews to ignore it. They say that a Jewish state is a desecration and that they will oppose any U.S. recognition of said state.

Reuven is ready to fight an anti-Zionist but holds himself back. He is glad he does so. As Arab attacks on Jews increase, the voices of the anti-Zionists become more muted. More Jewish blood being shed is not what anyone wants.

Reuven receives high scores at term's end, even in Talmud. The day after break begins, David, attending a Jewish National Fund meeting, has a second heart attack. As he wavers between life and death, Reuven sleepwalks through his days. Manya must remind him to eat.

At the start of the new term, David begins to recover. However, he must stay at the hospital for six weeks and then rest at home for six months. At school, Reuven is shown concern by his fellow students. Danny brushes his hand, and Reuven takes comfort in this "accidental" touch.

Although Manya comes in in the morning, she leaves after dinner and Reuven is truly alone in the apartment. He takes long, cold walks, and when that proves to be too cold and depressing, he throws himself into studying the Talmud. He uses his schoolbooks, books from his father's library, and alternate versions of the Talmud. (There are two versions of the Talmud; the Babylonian Talmud is what they study in class.) Reuven memorizes commentaries and cross-references the passages.

Reuven still has not been called upon in class by early February, but is convinced that Rav Gershenson will call on him soon. He is days ahead of his class in preparation when he comes across a passage with big gaps and inconsistent commentaries. The different versions of the text seem to contradict each other. Reuven has a hunch this passage will be the one Rav Gershenson calls him on. Working backwards, he painstakingly reconstructs the text, figuring out the content the original commentators must have had access to. He then checks this with the parallel text he has on hand. The work is frustrating, but he enjoys it and is looking forward to sharing it with his father. He knows better than to share it with Rav Gershenson; suggesting that the text is wrong is not acceptable in his class.

Reuven's hunch is proved correct and he gets called on. His classmates are relieved; the text is very difficult to make sense of. Reuven describes the Talmud as being broken into thought units. It is up to the reader to discern when the thought units begin and end; there is no punctuation to act as a guide. Because Reuven has studied, he is confident in where to turn for commentary and how he wants to read the passage. As he lays out the text for the class, he is surprised to realize that he has been speaking, uninterrupted, for an hour and a half. Rav Gershenson is sitting at his desk listening. When the bell rings, he still has not stopped Reuven and dismisses the class with a gesture. This goes on for four days. Reuven is happy that he is doing well, but wishes his teacher would say something. The Hasids in the class are jealous of Reuven, and surprised that he is so good a Talmudist. Danny, however, is smiling.

On the fourth day, as Reuven prepares to conclude, Rav Gershenson asks him a question. He is surprised by the question: whether one of the medieval commentaries is satisfactory to him. Reuven is dumbstruck, but finally, after being asked again, answers no, it isn't satisfying. It is "pilpul." Pilpul is a type of critical analysis, but it is hairsplitting; argument for argument's sake. Gershenson says that Reuven is like the great Vilna Gaon, a famous rabbi (Elijah of Vilna) who also opposed pilpul. Rav Gershenson says, "Tell me, Reuven ... why is it pilpul? What is wrong with his explanation?" Reuven notes that it is the first time Rav Gershenson has ever used his first name.

Rav Gershenson admits he does not understand the inyan, or passage, either. It is the first time Reuven has ever heard a rabbi admit to not understanding a passage of the Talmud. Rav Gershenson dismisses the class and keeps Reuven after. He is surprised to hear that David Malter is in the hospital and surprised to hear that Reuven has studied alone.

Rav Gershenson tells Reuven that his father is a great scholar and asks how David would have answered his question. Reuven hesitates and tells him that his father would say that the text is wrong. Rav Gershenson tells him to explain, and Reuven explains how he reconstructed the text, and then quotes the reconstructed text from memory, explaining how it fits perfectly in with the simplest commentary. Rav Gershenson tells Reuven that his father has taught him well.

Rav Gershenson tells Reuven again that his father is a great teacher and a great scholar, but tells Reuven never to use his method in class. He says he will call on Reuven often now. Reuven goes to the library to look up Rav Gershenson and sees that he has not been published; he understands why his father does not teach at Hirsch College.

Analysis

Danny Saunders tells Reuven Malter early on that his father does not write. He reads, but does not contribute to the scholarly literature on the Talmud at all. This is in contrast to Reuven's father who writes quite a bit; his reputation precedes him with Reb Saunders and Rav Gershenson. Finding Rav Gershenson's name absent from the card catalogs suggests that somehow Gershenson is in the Saunders's camp. He is kind and compassionate, but possibly as unwilling to compromise as Reb Saunders.

Reuven hates the silence of his house. It is not the comfortable silence he and his father fall into when they are alone on Shabbat. It is the silence of loss; he calls it a dark silence. The silence makes him more sympathetic to Danny. Reuven starts the chapter cursing Danny and ends it slightly thawed.

Reuven's reconstruction of the text has multiple meanings. He is trying to make his father proud; he wants to present him with his gift of scholarship, and bring him back to a time before the Holocaust and the Zionist fervor, to when they studied together. David Malter is already proud of Reuven, and this will make him prouder.

The text reconstruction also puts Reuven firmly in the camp of the scientific study of the Talmud. While he will be a rabbi, he will be in the middle place, a place with great reverence for the text, but situated within the understanding that the text can be wrong.

Reuven also uses the text to define his own intellectual character. He does not have a photographic memory. The Talmud excites him; it is a puzzle to figure out, and figuring it out is like a proof in logic.

Reuven is central to this chapter. Even though this is ostensibly his story to tell, the focus has been consistently on Danny. But Danny, Reb Saunders, and David Malter, all strong and interesting characters, are in the background here. Reuven, on his own, breaks through the silence that has been imposed upon him in Talmud class. It is clear he will continue to use his voice in this class; he will not have silence imposed upon him again.

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