Thursday, May 23, 2013


Whoever recommended that I read The Promise by Chaim Potok, thank you. Once I began reading the novel, I could hardly put it down.   A major theme in the story is the age-old conflict between fundamentalists, who read the Talmud literally, and those who engage in critical reading of the sacred texts - a conflict which continues throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity until the present day.   The people who adhere strictly to a literal reading of the sacred texts, Jewish and Christian, do so in the face of contradictory passages that appear impossible to reconcile.   Other passages in the text don't really make sense unless one assumes the possibility of a mistake in copying a manuscript and explores different wording that make the passage understandable.

The story unfolds through the voice of the narrator, Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jew, who is very much a part of the narrative.  The principal characters - Reuven's father, David, a well-known teacher in a Jewish school, Danny Saunders, Reuven's good friend, a Hasidic Jew who chooses to study psychology rather than follow in the footsteps of his father and become a rabbi, Michael Gordon, a troubled adolescent, and Reuven's nemisis, his Talmud teacher, Jacob Kalman, a survivor of the Nazi death camps - are well drawn and believable and come to life in the course of the novel.  The fine writing throughout drew me into the story made me care about what happens to the characters.

The book was written in 1969, and I wonder whether the Freudian-influenced extreme type of treatment of the very ill young Michael would be used today.  If the experiment suggested by Danny and undertaken with the approval and supervision of Michael's psychiatrist as a last resort, does not work, the two believe the young man will very likely be institutionalized for the rest of his life.  Of course, today many more drugs are available to treat mental illness than back then, so perhaps this sort of treatment would no longer be acceptable.

Religious fundamentalists seem to paint themselves into a corner without a way out, except by pretzel-like reasoning that makes no more sense to me than the original contradictions or mistakes.  I understand that the texts are sacred to them, as they are to me, but humans were created with the ability to reason, and why would God expect us not to use the gifts?  With certain Jews and Christians, it seems that to allow that passages in the Bible may not be literally true or that the Scriptures may contain mistakes in transcription would result in the collapse of their entire faith edifice.

Abraham Gordon, father of the mentally ill Michael, a Jewish scholar, who no longer believes in a personal God, but who continues to observe the rituals of the Orthodox tradition:
"Of course, that's the problem,"he said to me once.  "How can we teach others to regard the tradition critically and with love?  I grew up loving it, and then learned to look at it critically.  That's everyone's problem today.  How to love and respect what you are being taught to dissect." 
One great benefit from reading the book is that I came away with the reminder that no one is "other" and that no matter how deep and broad the disagreements, our opponents are human, like us, and deserving of respect because of our common humanity and, if we are people of faith, because we are all of us God's creation and beloved of God.  In that sense, the novel was life-giving in a way that was completely unexpected.  I heartily recommend the book.


  1. I read this when it was first published. After reading your account I think I need to read it once again. Wonderful book!

    1. whiteycat, I read The Chosen years ago and thought highly of it, and I can't think why I never followed through to read more of Potok. Next on my list is My Name is Asher Lev.

  2. Funny, I was thinking about "My Name is Asher Lev," the only Potok novel I've read, just the other day.

    As to this fascinating quote:

    That's everyone's problem today. How to love and respect what you are being taught to dissect."

    Might I suggest the problem is not dissection, but not letting love make an idol of what you are being taught to love and respect.

    One of the best parts of my Hebrew Scriptural studies was recognizing how many times Israel argued with God, and had legitimate reasons (which is not to say God was wrong) to do so. "Israel," after all, means "struggle with God," not "loves and respects God and puts God apart from that which can be 'dissected.'"

    It's that "Thou shalt have no other gods" part that always trips us up.

    1. I second that. I always have found my faith deepened and enlivened by "dissection" - study and understanding. When I realized that I wasn't here for some magical purpose, but because matter and energy and emotion came together in a way that produced me, that filled me with the greatest wonder and sense of gratitude and responsibility. When I study the scriptures and traditions and see how they came into being, I am liberated by that, to interpret and discern, and wonder at the marvelous conspiracy of coincidence that allowed so much to survive. That wonder, too, is not diminished at the non-canon that has survived. Not worshipping the texts or traditions, I don't have to despise what is outside them.

    2. Might I suggest the problem is not dissection, but not letting love make an idol of what you are being taught to love and respect.

      People who love the sacred texts and read them critically are not usually the ones who love them to the point of idolatry.

      One reason I find the Psalms satisfying is that they show we can be angry and shake our fists at God, even if our difficulties are not God's doing. God can take it.

      As a Christian, I like best the brief caution against idolatry: "The Word of God is a person, not a book."

    3. Not worshipping the texts or traditions, I don't have to despise what is outside them.

      Amen to that, Mark.

  3. I'm with whiteycat. I think I'd like to read all three of these books again. It's been years, and I still remember how much I loved them. I can't count all the NYT "bestsellers" I've read in the meanwhile that don't hold a candle to Potok's novels. On a completely different wavelength, have you read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany? It may be my favorite novel ever.

    1. Oh, and Potok's In the Beginning also is very good. Your post made me snoop out what else Potok has written since the time years ago when he was so dominant on my radar. I'm thinking about picking up two of his books I managed to miss: The Gift of Asher Lev (I didn't realize there was a sequel to My Name is Asher Lev) and Davita's Harp.

    2. Prairie Soul, I don't think I've read A Prayer for Owen Meany, but when I read the synopsis, parts of the story sounded very familiar, especially the first half. I wonder if sections of the book were published serially in a magazine. Anyway, I'll put the book on my list.

      Once I start reading an author whose works I like a lot, I tend to continue. I don't know why I didn't read more of Potok after The Chosen, because I've never forgotten the novel.

  4. I saw (and enjoyed) the movie 30 years ago (teen dream Robby Benson as Danny Saunders). But in reading your synopsis of the book, I think the movie left out quite a few of the sub-plots.

    1. JCF, I'm always wary of seeing movies of books which I enjoyed. So often, they just do not measure up.

  5. It's an excellent book. My personal favourite among Potok's novels is 'The Book of Lights'.

    Slight caveat though - 'The Promise isn't about 'fundamentalists who read the Hebrew Scriptures literally' - the readings in question in the book are of the Talmud. not the Scriptures. If I remember correctly (and it's many years since I read the book), at the end one of Reuven Malter's professors asks him if he will use the same method (textual reconstruction) on the Scriptures, and he says "I don't know".

    I first read 'The Chosen' and 'The Promise' back in the 1980s. Before then, the only thing I knew about Judaism was the Old Testament and I assumed modern Judaism was like the OT. Potok taught me that it wasn't. I think the thing that resonates so much with modern Christians is that he describes Jewish people trying to live out their faith as a minority grouping in a world that is mainly indifferent to them, against the background of modern scholarship ('The Chosen', 'The Promise'), art ('My Name is Asher Lev'), and science ('The Book of Lights').

    There was a very interesting interview with Potok in the evangelical magazine 'Christianity Today' back in the 1980s. I particularly remember him saying "I'm not offended when Christians try to share their faith in Christ with me. I know their faith tells them to do that". It was a fascinating interview and I wish I still had it.

  6. Tim, you are correct that it was critical reading of the Talmud that was the subject of the disagreements between Reuven and Rav Kalman.

    Rav Kalman opened his eyes. "Malter," he said quietly, "You will teach Gemora this way to others?"
    "Yes," I said.
    He closed his eyes again.
    "You use this method on the Five Books of Moses too?" Rav Gershenson asked softly.
    "No," I said.
    "And on the rest of the Tanach? On the Prophets and the Writings?
    I did not answer.

    I confess I had difficulty keeping up with the terminology.

    1. I've found a copy of the 1978 'Christianity Today' article I was talking about.

      Here it is.

    2. Thanks, Tim. I'll read the article tomorrow.


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