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Posts Tagged ‘higher criticism’

This story of a friendship between two young Jewish men in mid-twentieth century New York tells history from the heart of one who was there.  Through layers of progression the novel delves from the senses we ignore to the delight of noticing what we see and hear to the mental realm, the subconscious realm, and on into the sphere of emotion, where compassion sits.  There is sound and there is silence, sight and blindness, confusion and understanding.  And following all of these around is the emotional reaction and the questions of why. 

Reuven, the main character, is the son of a Talmud professor and columnist, a conservative practicing Jew, who is pioneering the field of higher criticism into Jewish studies.  This high school student, who spends half his day studying Talmud (commentaries on the Jewish Scripture), another few hours with regular schoolwork, and the rest playing baseball, meets Danny, a boy his age from the neighborhood over who is also a practicing Jew, whose father is a Tzaddik rabbi in the Hassidic sect.  One of the non-fiction highlights of the book is the glimpse at the origin and history of that denomination with its distinctive customs, dress, and attitude. 

Philosophically speaking, my favorite part was the contrast between the two fathers as they respond to the Holocaust and to the Zionist push for a Jewish homeland.  The columnist says the death of millions of his people will be meaningless if the survivors don’t learn, change, and act.  He is tired of waiting for the Messiah, and so says that Jews must take matters into their own hands, to build a Jewish homeland now!  But the Hassidic rabbi believes that the sacrifice of millions of Jews, faithfully waiting for their Messiah, will be in vain if the remnant gives up now and tries to do things without God. 

I see more biblical backing in the position of the Hassid.  Israel was continually rebuked for growing impatient and doing things their own way (Abraham and Saul come to mind).  But this relies on promises, on clearly revealed truth from a proven God.  Which brings me to the question of dogma.  The Hassidic congregation believes whatever their rabbi tells them, as if he were god to them.  They believe in fate, that because Danny is the son of the rabbi, he will take his place.  But they also put a huge emphasis on personal responsibility.  In any case, their beliefs are dogmatic, unquestioned submission to tradition and the rule of the rabbi.  The son has been trained to accept things rather uncritically, with a stubborn loyalty.  So when he begins to read Freud, there is no filter of context or criticism like his friend would have.  Reuven’s higher criticism relies heavily on logic, but it can breed doubt as skepticism rules the interpretation of every book, idea, or even every person.  It almost elbows out faith, and elevates the individual. 

In the end, The Chosen shows how relationship transcends these conflicts.  The rabbi’s moving care for his people and his son takes a huge personal toll on him.  Two boys survive high school and college through their improbable friendship.  Despite their differences they show mutual respect and interest.  They learn to be grateful for what they have, and to learn from others.  As the professor father predicted, they experienced how hard it can be to invest in the lives of others. 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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