Conflicting Cultures in The Chosen
The predicament of Danny Saunders lies at the core of Potok's The Chosen: Should Danny remain in the very ethnic world of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, or should he reach out to join mainstream American culture? In this regard, Danny's predicament symbolizes the concern of many Jews in the United States.
The background against which Danny must make his decision about how much to assimilate into popular culture is the changing political and cultural situation of Jews in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For hundreds of years, Jews were excluded physically and intellectually from the predominantly Christian civilization. They lived in their own world. As long as their communities, called ghettos, paid taxes and acted in a passive, almost subservient manner, they were allowed to exist peaceably. Their schools taught mostly traditional Jewish texts, with little instruction in secular affairs.
The French Revolution of 1789 had a great impact on Jews and their communities. To a certain extent, more and more Jews were prompted to enter mainstream society. However, a new dilemma arose for them — the same kind of dilemma that Danny Saunders faces in The Chosen: How much of the secular culture can a Jew absorb without completely giving up religion?
This question seems to be answered better by Reuven than by Danny. Reuven has integrated his Modern Orthodox faith and American culture. But Danny is not allowed to go to movies and must wear the same kind of clothing that his ancestors did. At the end of the novel, however, Danny decides to cut off his earlocks, wear modern clothes, and yet still observe the Jewish commandments in an Orthodox fashion as he always has done.
Interestingly, Reb Saunders, the most dogmatic character in the novel, seems to change as well. He realizes that he cannot keep Danny, with his brilliant mind, sequestered from the modern world. As he says, "This is America. This is not Europe. It is an open world here . . . . All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be atzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik."
When Reb Saunders asks Danny if he will shave off his beard and cut his earlocks when he goes away to college, Danny nods his head "yes." And when the Reb then asks him if he will continue to observe Hasidic customs, Danny again nods. Because Danny vows to remain faithful to Hasidic customs, Reb Saunders seems more accepting of his son's decision than if Danny had completely broken from his father's religion. However, the Reb is still saddened at the "loss" of his son. He knows that the secular world calls to Danny and that he cannot force his son to accept the religious position.
Danny's studying at Columbia University and yet pledging to remain an observant Jew indicates that he has grown closer to the culturally balanced world of Reuven Malter. Reuven adroitly moves between a secular culture, symbolized throughout the novel by his interest in world events, and a religious one, best emphasized by his ability to discuss Talmudic law both in class and with Reb Saunders. Although the novel ends without the reader having seen Danny completely immersed in his studies at Columbia, we expect that Danny will thrive in the highly intellectual university environment while, at the same time, respecting his father's wishes — perhaps unspoken but of great importance — that he remain devoted to the Hasidic religion in which he was raised.