Reb Saunders personifies the Hasidic rebbe (from "rabbi," or teacher) and personifies strict, traditional, Orthodox Judaism. He led his followers out of Russia to the United States to escape physical persecution by the secular authorities. The Reb and his disciples devote themselves to a life similar to that led by their ancestors in the eighteenth century, including strict, ultra-Orthodox religious rules and customs and a unique style of dress, including long black coats, round fur hats, and Jewish prayer shawls underneath their clothes. They remain largely isolated from the outside, secular world, believing that their religious practices are vastly more important than world knowledge and, thus, must be protected from secular threats. Reb Saunders and his congregation expect that Danny, his son, will follow the Hasidic tradition and assume his father's position.
The Reb acknowledges that Danny is brilliant and that it would be fruitless to try to rein in his abilities. This decision does not come without a price, however. By the last scene in the novel, the Reb is described as a weakened, tired man whose "dark eyes brooded and burned with suffering." Even though he accepts that Danny will not follow in his footsteps as leader of his people, the "loss" of his son takes a great toll on him. Just as Danny finds it difficult to reconcile his secular interests with his religious obligations, Reb Saunders has difficulty reconciling his responsibility as a tzaddik to his people with his role as a father. He tells Danny, "A wiser father . . . may have done differently. I am not . . . wise." He does remain the unquestioned leader of his congregation, however. For example, when he authoritatively announces Danny's decision not to become the next tzaddik, "no one dared to challenge" the decision.