I remember reading The Chosen as a teen and I was hooked. I then went on to The Promise, the sequel and pretty much every other book by Chaim Potok. But The Chosen was the best. I was thoroughly engaged by this tale of a Judaism that was not like the Judaism I knew in my house. It was closer to the Judaism in my grandmother’s house. Looking for more tales of Jewish New York, I remember reading Call it Sleep and Marjorie Morningstar.
The other day I noticed that we had three copies of The Chosen. I suspect that each of us brought one to the relationship and I’m not sure where the other one came from. I usually reread it every few years and this summer seemed like the appropriate time. As with any good text, I always notice something new and I was barely past the first few pages before I was struck by something I hadn’t really considered before.
For those who are unfamiliar with the book, it is the story of friendship of Danny Saunders, the son of the Rebbe of a Hasidic movement (Schneerson?) and Reuven Malter, the son of an academic and a writer of articles on the Talmud and such with a clear viewpoint on Jewish thought. Perhaps he would write for Commentary or Tikkun. They are what I would call mainstream Orthodox. Danny represents the Jew who brought his home in Europe to America and kept it just the way it was. Reuven represents the Jew who has made America his home. They meet when their yeshivot play each other in a baseball game with all the tension of the World Series or a knife fight. Why did they leave their studies to play baseball? In the midst of WWII, there was a need for the Jews to prove they were physically fit Americans. As I was reading this, we were celebrating the American women winning the Women’s World Cup. Although I know of no Jews on the team, this was a bit like a new world in sports. This was a national celebration of women’s achievements in sports and it was gratifying to see these women finally be celebrated like the men, at least parade-wise. They’ll have to do more work for the pay equity. As a women’s basketball fan, I’m hopeful that there will be fan spillover to the WNBA. Just yesterday, there were over 18,000 fans in the Garden for a NY Liberty game.
Back to the story…The game has begun and clearly it is war. Danny Saunders hits a ball directly at the pitcher and almost creams him. He lands on the base that Reuven is covering and the following occurs:
“You always hit like that to the pitcher?” I [Reuven] asked
He smiled faintly. “You’re Reuven Malter,” he said in perfect English . . .
“Your father is David Malter, the one who writes articles on the Talmud?”
“I told my team we’re going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon.” He said flatly, without a trace of expression in his voice.
I was stunned when I read this. I’m sure I’ve read this line many times, but I didn’t grasp its meaning. Danny calls Reuven an apikoros? As the Reuven says a few pages later, speaking of his father:
“What annoyed him was their fanatic sense of righteousness, their absolute certainty that they and they alone had God’s ear, and every other Jew was wrong, totally wrong, a sinner, a hypocrite, and apikoros, and doomed therefore, to burn in hell.”
I never really understood their conflict. In my teen’s mind, they were both Orthodox. Now with my more nuanced mind, I still think, they are both Orthodox. What is the problem? Their Jewish practice is not so different. But of course, Potok nails it with his words about their “fanatic sense of righteousness” and “every other Jew was wrong.” As a child of the Reform Movement, I didn’t understand this on my first reading, and I don’t understand it now.
Perhaps the reason that this book, first published in 1967, has endured is that this theme is ageless. Unfortunately the pitting of one Jew against another is not new. It is said that the reason the Temple in Jerusalem fell was “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred of one Jew for another. With Tisha B’Av, the day when we remember the destruction of the Temple, so close, we hear that Religious Services Minister David Azoulay said that Reform Jews could not be considered Jews. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that comments like this have been made by Israeli government officials. Just when we hoped that the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) in Israel were starting to gain a sliver of equal footing with the Orthodox movements, this is the official stance from the Netanyahu government.
I wish I had some brilliant insight into how this situation can change. How can we truly have a Jewish State that is welcoming to all Jews, and not just some? My only solace is that after Danny hits the ball directly at Reuven’s head, they become friends. After Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, there was hope that things would change. And they have. But now the gains in religious diversity seem to have turned back to losses. There is not much we Americans can do except talk with our dollars. I believe we need to target our Israel donations to liberal causes. Money is the only power we have, and while for most of us it is limited, together, it can be a force for change.
This Tisha B’Av, as you remember the destruction of the Temple, make donations that count. Here are just a few of the places that I suggest: Israel Religious Action Center, Women of the Wall, The Conservative Yeshiva, the Lone Soldier program.