I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen for the first time when I was in high school. I liked the book very much and identified particularly with the character of Reuven, especially in his condemnatory attitude toward the parenting practices utilized by the father of his friend Danny. These practices are revealed throughout the book and, without giving away too much of the story, they are characterized mainly by almost total silence between the father and son. From an early age, Danny finds that his father refuses to answer questions and never speaks to his son directly in any way. The only meaningful verbal exchanges between the two happen in public as part of the sabbath service that Danny’s father performs as the leader of his ultra-conservative Jewish congregation. Near the end of the book, during what is, for me, perhaps one of the best monologues ever written in modern fiction, Danny’s father tells Reuven the reason that he has been raising his son in near-total silence.
But Reuven does not accept the reason, and as a 17 year old high school student, neither did I. It is easy to label the father as an extremist and a victim of misguided priorities that are clearly out of step with even the 1940s(!) society in which the story is set. In essence, I thought then (in 1982) that this father sacrificed any relationship he might have had with his son, and subjected his son to the equivalent of mental and emotional abuse for reasons that are at best insufficient and at worst, criminal. After all, we criminalize the behavior of those who refuse medical treatment to their children for religious reasons. Is this so different? Both result in harm to the child that can only be justified if you accept that the religious priorities of the parent are real and more important than the child’s immediate physical, mental or emotional well-being.
As some might expect, however, I found that reading the story again now, when I am the parent of adolescent children, made a difference in how I felt about Danny’s father. I find myself more sympathetic toward his efforts now. I understand his desire to place the health of his child’s soul above that of his body or his mind. I still think it’s wrong to raise a child in silence, but I am now more inclined to judge Danny’s father by his intent. I have an appreciation now of the difficulty of passing on to a child, the love of something beyond the physical, mental or emotional needs he or she may have, and help them connect with their spiritual selves, and gain an understanding of and a relationship with that other spirit that we refer to as the Holy Spirit.
As parents, sometimes we despair of teaching our children anything, especially when it comes to something as intangible as faith. My own children sometimes seem mystified by the need to fast, unmotivated to attend church, and bored by the scriptures. If we truly believed (as Danny’s father surely does) that, by raising our children in silence, we would have a better (or perhaps the only) chance to impart a measure of faith or spiritual knowledge to our children, would we do it? I’m not sure I could, no matter what the circumstances, but if we put the question that way, and after experiencing my own frail attempts at parenting, I’m much more able now to understand those who wish to try.