The Chosen explores the friendship between Jewish Reuven Malter and Hasidic (Jewish Orthodox) Danny Saunders. In Brooklyn during World War II, Danny hits Reuven in the face with a baseball, giving him a concussion. Reuven undergoes an operation to remove a piece of glass from his eye. In the hospital, he meets former boxer Tony Savo and Billy Merrit, a young boy blinded in a car accident. Danny visits Reuven and confides that his father expects him to become a rabbi, though he wants to be a psychologist. He also explains that his father disapproves of apikorsim (Jews who are not extremely orthodox) such as Reuven. Reuven’s father, David Malter, urges Reuven to become friends with Danny because the Talmud (the book of Jewish holy law) says the two things one should acquire in life are a teacher and a close friend. When Danny calls again, the boys talk about religion and reading. Danny regularly visits the library to read books recommended to him by an old man who turns out to be Reuven’s father. Danny explains that his father is a tzaddik (a Jewish spiritual leader), and that after his father dies he will be obliged to become tzaddik, too, for “if the son doesn’t take the father’s place, the dynasty falls apart.” Danny comments on the irony of being forced to become a rabbi while Reuven freely chooses the same fate. Reuven’s eye is healing, and his father arrives at the hospital that afternoon to take him home in time for Shabbat (sabbath).
When Reuven returns home, everything seems sharper and clearer to him, as if he were seeing the world around him for the first time. Rav Malter narrates a brief history of Hasidism so Reuven can understand Danny’s background. Reb Saunders, Danny’s father, is a great Talmudist and a great tzaddik, with a reputation for brilliance and compassion. Danny reminds Reuven’s father of a brilliant scholar who rebelled against the traditions of Hasidism. Danny’s grandfather was a well-known Hasidic rabbi in Russia. Danny’s father inherited the position of tzaddik, and led his Jewish community from Russia to America after World War I. Reuven meets Reb Saunders at his synagogue, and after he notes a mistake in Reb Saunders’ gematriya (the Jewish theory that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet corresponds with a number), Reb Saunders gives his approval to the boys’ friendship. Danny and Reuven both plan to attend the Samson Raphael Hirsch Seminary before becoming ordained rabbis.
Reuven meets Danny at the library after school. After becoming disturbed by reading negative views about Hasidism, Danny begins studying Sigmund Freud’s books. Rav Malter worries about Reb Saunders’ reaction to Danny’s reading but realizes that Reb Saunders cannot stop it. Reuven visits Danny on Shabbat afternoon, and they review the Talmud with Reb Saunders. When Danny leaves the room, Reb Saunders demands that Reuven tell him about Danny’s reading. He then asks Reuven to promise that he and his father will be a good influence on Danny. Danny mentions that he and his father “don’t talk anymore, except when we study Talmud…. My father believes in silence. When I was ten or eleven years old, I complained to him about something, and he told me to close my mouth and look into my soul. He told me to stop running to him every time I had a problem.”
Reuven’s eye heals, and he studies for his final exams. When he calls the Merrit household, he learns that Billy Merrit’s operation was unsuccessful, and he is severely depressed by the news. Danny and Reuven spend the summer talking, studying Talmud, and following the war news. Danny becomes increasingly disturbed by his study of Freud. When school begins, they meet only on Shabbat afternoons. In April, President Roosevelt dies and the country mourns. When the war in Europe ends in May, everyone is horrified by news of the German concentration camps. While Reb Saun ders believes they were the will of God, Rav Malter refuses to accept this viewpoint. Rav Malter suffers a heart attack, and until he recovers Reuven lives with Danny’s family. Reb Saunders speaks to Danny only during their arguments over Talmud.
Reuven’s father insists that Palestine must become the Jewish homeland, an idea with which Reb Saunders violently disagrees. Danny comments that his father is suffering for the six million Jews who died. Though he doesn’t understand the silence, Danny admires, respects, and trusts his father. However, he feels trapped by the expectation he must become tzaddik so as not to break the dynasty. The war ends in August, and in September Danny and Reuven enter Hirsch College. Both are older and slightly more mature. Reuven has started shaving, and Danny is wearing eyeglasses.
Danny becomes upset when he discovers he must study experimental psychology rather than psychoanalysis in college. After talking with his psychology professor, he learns Professor Appleman objects more to Freud’s methodology than his conclusions. Rav Malter becomes increasingly involved with Zionist activities. Zionism is prevalent at the college, and tensions build between the Hasidim (followers of Hasidism) and the Revisionists (who support the Irgun, or Palestinian terrorists). Reuven joins a religious Zionist youth group. Danny joins none of the groups but sympathizes with the Zionists.
After Rav Malter’s speech at a Zionist rally, Reb Saunders excommunicates the Malters from the Saunders family. Reuven’s school work deteriorates because of his anger towards Reb Saunders.
“For the rest of that semester, Danny and I ate in the same lunchroom, attended the same classes, studied in the same school synagogue, and often rode in the same trolley car-and never said a single word to each other. Our eyes met frequently, but our lips exchanged nothing. I lost all direct contact with him. It was an agony to sit in the same class with him, to pass him in the hallway, to see him in a trolley, to come in and out of the school building with him and not to say a word. I grew to hate Reb Saunders with a venomous passion that frightened me at times, and I consoled myself with wild fantasies of what I would do to him if he ever fell into my hands.”
The United Nations votes to create a Jewish state. As violence between Arabs and Jews escalates in Israel, the anti-Zionist tensions in school cease. Reuven’s father suffers a second heart attack. Reuven studies Talmud using the scientific method and explains a particularly difficult passage in class. Later, he explains his theory to Talmud teacher Rav Gershenson, who reveres his explanation but asks Reuven never to use this heretical method during class.
Rav Malter recovers, and Reuven and Danny, forbidden to talk to one another, communicate with their eyes, nods, and hand gestures. The college students become reconciled to Israel after a graduate is killed in the fighting around Jerusalem. A year later, Reb Saunders allows the boys to resume their friendship. Danny and Reuven dominate their Talmud class. Danny tells Reuven he plans to obtain a doctorate in clinical psychology and will tell his father on the day he receives his smicha (rabbinic ordination).
The last year of college begins. Danny realizes that “you can listen to silence and learn from it … sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it.” When Danny’s brother Levi becomes ill, Danny panics. Reuven believes Danny’s fears relate to his worries about destroying the dynasty if he doesn’t become tzaddik. But Levi recovers. Danny applies to Harvard, Berkeley, and Columbia for graduate study. Reb Saunders repeatedly asks Reuven to visit, and Rav Malter insists that he go.
Reuven visits Danny’s home on the first day of Passover (the Festival of Freedom). Reb Saunders has aged. When Reuven announces his plan to become a rabbi, Reb Saunders says he knows of Danny’s plans and explains his long silence. He considered Danny’s brilliance a curse because it overwhelmed his soul and eliminated the compassion he would need as tzaddik. He comments, “I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life …. In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying.” He accepts Danny’s decision to become a psychologist because Danny now has the soul of a tzaddik. He then speaks Danny’s name, and adds: “Today my Daniel is free.” The tzaddikate is inherited by Levi. Reuven and Danny graduate summa cum laude from college. Danny and his father now speak to each other. When Rav Malter asks him whether he will raise his son in silence, Danny answers yes-if he cannot find another way.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Chaim Potok, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998