Summary and Analysis
Book 3: Chapters 16-18
Danny resumes talking to Reuven, and the boys apologize to one another. Danny has resigned himself to experimental psychology and wants to study for a Ph.D. He dreads telling his father about this plan, but is intent on going through with it.
Reuven tells his father of Danny's plans to study psychology in graduate school and thus give up the position of tzaddik that he was to inherit from his father. Mr. Malter says that this decision is going to cause Reb Saunders a lot of pain.
Reuven asks Danny if he will still practice Orthodox Judaism when he goes to graduate school, and Danny replies that nothing will prevent him from keeping the tradition. Danny is accepted into Columbia University and is apprehensive about telling his father but knows that he has to. He procrastinates.
Reuven visits the Saunders home for the first day of Passover. Reb Saunders, Danny, and Reuven talk. Reb Saunders speaks to Danny through Reuven. The Reb discusses how he himself was raised in silence and the reasons for his continuing this practice with Danny. In addition, he knows all about Danny's academic intentions and discharges him from his responsibilities as a tzaddik, acknowledging that Danny will be a "tzaddik for the world."
Danny and Reuven graduate from Hirsch College, and Danny leaves to go to Columbia University. He and Reuven vow to continue their friendship.
At the start of Chapter 16, Reuven and Danny discuss their period of forced silence. Reuven's statement "Welcome back to the land of the living" suggests that silence equals death, a theme further emphasized when we recall Mr. Malter's comments concerning the world's refusal to do anything that might have prevented the Holocaust. Although the silence between Reuven and Danny was not as drastic as Danny and his father's extended silence, Reuven learns from the experience that he hates not being able to communicate with his friend. When he asks Danny how Danny copes with his father's lack of communication, Danny can only respond, "You learn to live with it." Danny has no choice but to accept his father's decision not to talk to him except when studying the Talmud.
We now know that Reb Saunders and not Danny himself decided that Danny could once again talk to Reuven, for Danny says, "The ban has been lifted." What we do not yet know is why Reb Saunders demands silence from his son. Mr. Malter comments to Reuven, "What a price to pay for a soul," but he does not clarify this statement.
Danny's decision to enter the field of clinical psychology demonstrates his continuing maturity. He no longer accepts the blanket statement that Freud is God, nor does he embrace experimental psychology. Instead, he finds a middle ground between Freud and experimentation in clinical psychology. He determines to study humans, not rats.
The climax of the novel — Danny's telling his father that he does not want to become the rabbinic leader of his community — is foreshadowed when Reuven asks Danny if Reb Saunders knows of his future plans. Reb Saunders learns about his son's decision after Danny receives his rabbinic ordination.
The first scene in Chapter 17 emphasizes Potok's theme of silence once again. However, silence now becomes more than an absence of language or, as Reuven stressed in the preceding chapter, an equivalent of death, for Danny says that "you can listen to silence and learn from it." Ironically, silence "talks." Here, Danny suggests that silence enables a person to more deeply ponder the suffering of people in the world. By remaining silent, a person can hear other people's cries for help and understanding. A person who talks about problems hears only his or her own words, but a person who is quiet hears the pleadings of others because that person ponders the "pain of the world."
Much of Chapter 17 prepares the reader — and Danny — for the climactic confrontation between Danny and his father over Danny's plans to reject his inherited rabbinic position and study to become a clinical psychologist. Mr. Malter is most concerned that Danny plan out exactly what he will tell his father. Reuven's father again refuses to tell Reuven the reasons for Reb Saunders' silence toward Danny, although he obviously has some understanding of Reb Saunders' motivations. He rhetorically questions Reuven concerning Hasids, "Why must they feel the burden of the world is only on their shoulders?" and later in the chapter directly asks Danny if Danny can hear the silence, which Danny said earlier that he can.
Reb Saunders' repeatedly asking Danny to invite Reuven over to the Saunders home suggests that Danny's father has something to discuss with Reuven: Danny. We expect Reb Saunders to speak to his son about his son's behavior and future plans through Reuven, as he did in Chapter 8 when he wanted to know what Danny was reading in the public library.
Reuven's walk to Danny's house at the beginning of Chapter 18 allows him time to reflect on the many events that have occurred since he was struck in the eye at the start of the novel. Because it is early spring, sycamore trees are budding and "green shoots of infant leaves" are appearing. Contrasted to this spring picture of rebirth are Reuven's memories of his numerous encounters with Reb Saunders. Whereas before Reuven only noted the bare walls and exposed light bulbs in Reb Saunders' synagogue, now he evaluates these features: "The stands were scarred, the walls needed paint, the naked light bulbs seemed ugly, their bare, black wires like the dead branches of a stunted tree." Here, the image of dead branches contrasts the newly budding sycamore branches mentioned earlier in the chapter. Outside, the world is alive with spring; inside Reb Saunders' house, the mood is one of death and decay. Even Reb Saunders himself personifies this decay. Reuven notes that Danny's father sits "stooped forward, bent, as though he were carrying something on his shoulders."
The climactic discussion between Reb Saunders, Danny, and Reuven is less dramatic than may be expected, for Reb Saunders is resigned to his son's decision to seek a Ph.D. in psychology. Symbolically, as though giving himself spiritual support, Reb Saunders rubs his fingers over the spine of his Talmud: "[H]is fingers caressed the Hebrew title of the tractate that was stamped into the spine of the binding." As expected, he talks to Danny through Reuven.
In his explanation of why he raised Danny in silence, Reb Saunders finally defines his own world philosophy. People are born with only a small amount of goodness in them; this goodness is comparable to a person's soul. However, when Danny was very young, he was a "mind in a body without a soul." That is, Danny intellectualized everything rather than emotionally feeling the pain and suffering of others. Danny's head ruled his heart, which Reb Saunders abhorred. Speaking of such a mind as Danny's, which is similar to Reb Saunders' own brother's, the Reb says, "It could not understand pain, it was indifferent to and impatient with suffering." Determined not to let Danny grow up without an understanding of the world's pain, Reb Saunders refused to talk to his son, except about religion. In this way, Danny would suffer and thereby learn of other people's suffering. Silence, not language, is the great teacher, for words are "cruel, words play tricks, they distort what is in the heart, they conceal the heart, the heart speaks through silence."
Reb Saunders is resigned to the fact that Danny will live in the secular world because he now knows that Danny has a soul and not only a mind. Danny was raised in silence precisely for this reason, to give him a soul, to enable him to help people who suffer. The Reb says of his son, "I have no more fear now. All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world." Danny will reconcile his religious upbringing with his living in a secular world. Symbolically, Reb Saunders can now speak his son's name because he knows that Danny hears suffering in his heart rather than only intellectualizing it in his mind.
In the novel's last scene, in which Reuven and Danny briefly discuss their futures, Danny's having shaved off his beard and cut off his earlocks symbolize his entering a new, more secular world. To Mr. Malter's question of whether or not Danny will raise his own son in silence, Danny answers ambiguously: He will raise his son in silence if he "can't find another way." His answer emphasizes the fact that Danny is not making a complete break with Hasidism; he will continue to observe Hasidic teachings and beliefs. However, he is also open to the possibility of change, which the phrase "another way" suggests. Ultimately, then, Danny rejects the "trapped" mind of his father and spiritual mentor, Reb Saunders.
kiddush a ceremonial blessing.
schnapps a liquor with high alcoholic content.
tractate a treatise or dissertation.
Passover a Jewish holiday in the spring, celebrating the Jews' exodus from slavery to freedom in ancient Egypt.