Review: The Promise by Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok was born in Brooklyn in 1929. He was raised there in an Orthodox Jewish home with strong Hasidic influences from both of his parents. “I come from that world,” Potok said of his upbringing. He graduated from Yeshiva University summa cum laude in English literature and then went on to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was ordained a conservative rabbi. He later spent a year in Israel completing his doctoral thesis, earning a Ph. D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Potok was inspired to become a writer after reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited in which Waugh represents the world of upper-class British Catholics. Potok’s novels frequently deal with the tensions between Hasidism and less restrictive ideas within Jewish culture. These tensions are represented through memorable characters in Jewish communities in Brooklyn. The novels of Chaim Potok offer us compelling insights of a people and their tradition that have been alternately villified, misunderstood, and ignored in this country.

Chaim Potok exploded onto the literary scene with his first novel in 1967 called The Chosen. This novel has sold 3 and a half million copies. It was seen as the first of its kind in America, opening up the closed, mysterious world of the Hasidim to the wider world. The Promise was written as a sequal two years later and it continues the story of Potok’s protagonists: Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders. In The Promise, the two young men are finishing their graduate studies and beginning careers in their chosen fields. Though both boys come from the same neighborhood, they are unlikely friends because of their fathers. In the complex Jewish world of The Promise, one’s identity is inextricably linked to one’s father. And, how one’s father is considered depends largely on two things: observing the commandments and how he understands the Talmud. Danny is the son of Reb Saunders, a well known and respected Hasidic rabbi, while Reuven is the son of David Malter, a  teacher at the Zechariah Frankel Seminary, the “non-Orthodox rabbinical school and teachers institute.” Ironically, it is Reuven, the son of the non-Orthodox teacher, not Danny who is studying for smicha, or Orthodox rabbinic ordination. By tradition, Danny should have followed in his father’s footsteps and assumed the role of Reb Saunders when the time came. But, Danny has rejected the Hasidic tradition, at least outwardly. He shaves his beard, cuts off his earlocks and goes to graduate school to become a psychologist. Yet, in his heart – and his beliefs – Danny remains loyal to the faith of his father. We see this in the stray tassel of Danny’s prayer shawl that slips out now and then from under his secular clothing.

Williamsburg provides the setting for this novel. It is a crumbling neighborhood in post-war Brooklyn that Reuven describes as “filled with Hasidim. From the concentration camps.” Reuven finds this influence oppressive. The book opens with his reflections on this influence.

In the years before the Second World War, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn had been inhabited by only a few Hasidic sects. By the fifth year after the war, the neighborhood seemed dark with their presence.

The darkness brought by the influx of Hasidim into Williamsburg is not just the darkness of beards and gabardines. It is the darkness, as Reuven sees it, of ignorant reactionaries. Yet, as the plot unfolds, Reuven’s prejudices are challenged to such a consequential degree that he will be forced to choose how much smicha means to him. The Talmud is described as a spark in The Promise. The question that forms the central conflict is, who is the guardian of the spark? Whole traditions, families and careers have been built upon various answers to this question. Likewise, traditions, families and careers are perched upon the brink of destruction because of differing answers to this question.

Potok weaves several poignant themes through the rich fabric of this compelling novel: ancestry, fidelity, friendship, truth, choice. Under Potok’s patient pen, these themes gradually wend their way like gentle mountain streams until they are dramatically transformed into mighty rushing torrents reshaping the terrain of his characters’ lives. Ancestry forms an intriguing theme throughout this novel. No son lives outside the shadow of his father in the world of Potok’s Williamsburg. In fact, sons are inextricably linked to their fathers the way a shadow is inseparable from the object creating it. Danny experiences this relationship in an agonizing way in Potok’s previous novel, The Chosen. In The Promise, it is Reuven and young Michael Gordon who must grapple with the legacy of their fathers. Reuven’s relationship with his father frequently seems ambivalent though, in the end, Reuven clearly sympathizes with his father. Michael Gordon is a 14 year old youth and the cousin of the girl Reuven is in love with at the opening of this novel. Like Reuven and Danny, Michael’s life is shaped dramatically by his father’s beliefs, so much so that Mr. Gordon becomes a burden young Michael cannot bear. Michael is the son of Abraham Gordon, a heretic among Orthodox Jews because of his writings. Mr. Gordon does not believe in God, but he believes firmly in the Jewish tradition. He does not believe the Torah is the revealed word of God but he observes the commandments. His life’s work is to develop a systematic method for preserving Jewish tradition and identity that is not predicated upon belief in unverifiable religious claims, such as the creation story. For this reason, Abe Gordon has been demonized in the Jewish press and put into cherem, the Hebrew term for excommunication.His son Michael is what we, in our contemporary nomenclature, would term collateral damage. It becomes painfully evident to Abraham and Ruth Gordon that they must place their son Michael in a residential treatment center, though they cannot fathom the root cause of their son’s emotional instability and recurring nose bleeds. Danny Saunders is appointed as Michael’s psychologist, the first serious case Danny has faced. When Danny becomes aware of Michael’s attachment to Reuven, he calls his old boyhood friend. Reuven is the only one Michael will talk with. Ironically, Reuven is also the only one Michael’s parents feel comfortable talking with as well and they invite him to dinner frequently, an activity of Reuven’s that Rav Kalman, Reuven’s Orthodox Talmud instructor, soon discovers and strongly discourages. Mr. Gordon often expresses his desire to have Reuven’s father come and teach at his non-Orthodox school.

The theme of choice is the most gripping aspect of this novel. It finds its clearest representation in the intensely strained relationship between Reuven, now in his last year at Hirsch Yeshiva, and his Talmud teacher Rav Kalman, an intensely Orthodox Holocaust survivor “from the sulfurous chaos of the concentration camps.” This conflict is pushed toward the irresistable need for resolution by the publication of a book David Malter, Reuven’s father, had been working on for years. Reuven and his father find the book’s publication a cause for celebration. As David Malter says to his son as they both look at the box containing the freshly printed book with the sky-blue cover, “it is only a book. But what it means to write a book.” Two problems soon arise. First, it has been discovered by Rav Kalman that Reuven was in the library of the Zechariah Frankel Seminary, the non-Orthodox school where Abraham Gordon teaches. Second, Rav Kalman objects to the method of scholarship used by David Malter – a method called text criticism. Text criticism treats the Gemora, or oral tradition of the Talmud, as a text created by human intelligence rather than revealed by God to Moses at Sinai. Thus, text criticism allows for emendations to the words of certain passages in the Gemora. Orthodox Jews, such as Rav Kalman, believe the Gemora was revealed to Moses with the Talmud at Sinai. This revelation is permanently recorded for all Jews in the Babylonian Talmud. For Orthodox Jews, the Gemora must never be treated as a text. In fact, that word – text – must never be used in reference to the Gemora. To Gentiles, this might seem like trivial theological quibbling. For the Jewish people, this distinction forms a major fault-line along which two ponderous schools of thought move against one another. The result is constant friction and tension. Pressure builds until one side or the other must give way.

The Zechariah Frankel Seminary is a non-Orthodox school that includes secular subjects along with Talmud and Hebrew. Reuven spent several evenings in the library there proofing the galleys of his father’s book. How this becomes know to Rav Kalman is never made clear. David Malter’s book will force his son to choose between smicha and telling the truth as he understands it. Standing in the breach is the irascible, chain-smoking Rav Kalman. He teaches the schiur on Chullin. A shiur is a Talmud class and Chullin is a Talmud tractate dealing with the laws regarding ritual slaughter and diet. A thorough understanding of Chullin is a requirement for Orthodox ordination.

No one knows much about Rav Kalman but stories soon begin to circulate. What is known about him is that “he had been a teacher in one of the great yeshivoth in Vilna before the Second World War and had spent two years in a German concentration camp in northern Poland.” According to the narrator, “He seemed to radiate darkness.” In another place Reuven describes him as “an angry, impatient, sarcastic teacher.” He paces constantly during the shiur, a three hour class, never sitting and smoking incessantly. In Rav Kalman’s shiur, asking for further clarificatin of a passage “was now laden with danger.” Reuven tells us Rav Kalman’s classes left him “drained, nerveless, tense.” The result of such a situation is not hard to guess. Reuven says, “I had no desire to become the target of his sarcasm. So I stopped asking questions…I suffocated.” Rav Kalman launches into tirades against everything from Hollywood to events in the school, such as a proposed course in Greek mythology that was scuttled because Rav Kalman labeled it paganism. A student was nearly expelled because Rav Kalman caught him outside without a hat. Yet, there is one disturbingly humanizing attribute of Rav Kalman that Reuven cannot seem to avoid. The index and middle fingers of his right hand are permanently bent in an unnatural way and no longer function normally. This is the result of Rav Kalman’s sufferings in the concentration camps, though no one knows what was done to him. This evidence of inhuman brutality inflicted upon this man continually draws Reuven’s notice. Reuven gradually begins to realize that the “darkness” radiated by Rav Kalman is not a darkness of ignorant zealotry, but the darkness of deep and continuing suffering. Reuven’s life-long dream of becoming a rabbi and taking a pulpit depends upon whether or not he can navigate the extraordinarily tumultuous channel between the non-Orthodox world of his father and the inflexible Orthodoxy of Rav Kalman now gaining ascendancy in America.

Potok paints a gripping and vivid picture of Rav Kalman from the point of view of the narrator. It is also in Rav Kalman that the theme of choice finds its most stark expression. Another long, cold winter descends upon Brooklyn and Reuven is finding it more difficult every day to withstand the suffocating atmosphere of Rav Kalman’s shiur. One day a shy, non-descript classmate of Reuven’s, Abe Greenfield, becomes the target of Rav Kalman’s merciless sarcasm. Abe is an excellent mathematician who earned a fellowship to MIT but chose to attend Hirsch for graduate study instead in order to earn smicha as well. He had spent the previous night preparing for a difficult math final and was unprepared that day for Talmud, a fact quickly realized by Abe’s classmates and Rav Kalman.

“‘You made a choice, yes?” Rav Kalman said coldly. “You had for yourself a choice between the Gemora and mathematics, and you chose mathematics. Yes? You understand what it is to make a choice, Greenfield? A choice tells the world what is most important to a human being…So, Greenfield, you have told us what is most important to you. Between Gemora and mathematics, you chose mathematics.'”

To Rav Kalman’s mind, Greenfield’s choice was equivalent to apostasy. It’s a false dichotomy, yet it cannot be simply rejected because it comes from a man who survived the horror of the concentration camps. Thus, although the argument is based upon a false premise, the internal logic of it has a certain authenticity.

According to Rav Kalman, a person must not be allowed to go through life not choosing. A person must be “forced to choose.” He continues screwing poor Abe Greenfield to the wall. “It is only when you are forced to choose that you know what is important to you. It is very clear, Greenfield, that the Gemora is not as important to you as mathematics.” Of course, this seems unfair. Our sympathies as readers are with poor Abe Greenfield who is being humiliated before his peers. Yet, those brutalized fingers of the rabbi survivor from the concentration camps in Poland remind us that his cold words about choice contain a wisdom bought with harsh experience. Those bent fingers of Rav Kalman remind us that he, too, was forced to choose betweenthe Gemora and something else. Yet, for him the stakes were far higher. The “something else” involved in Rav Kalman’s choice was death at the hands of the Nazis. He can only understand choice in these terms. And, though he speaks coldly, he speaks with the undeniable authority of one who made the fatal choice, and survived. This fact, however, does not quite render Rav Kalman a sympathetic figure to Reuven. Rav Kalman’s memory, filled with nightmarish images, cannot make room for nuances. The burden of Rav Kalman’s memory thus becomes a burden placed, fairly or not, upon his entire class. Reuven writhes under this burden.

 I was sick of Rav Kalman, sick of being picked on, sick of watching him pick on others, sick of the oppressive Eastern European ghetto atmosphere of his class, sick of his fanatic zeal for Torah.

There are four months to go until Reuven’s smicha examinations. He decides, “I would control myself and be very careful.”

Rav Kalman begins asking Reuven to stay after class to explain passages from his father’s book, which he is now scrutinizing. These post-shiur meetings are extremely tense for Reuven. He does not like sitting so close to Rav Kalman, on the rabbi’s side of the desk, where he sees those two misshapen fingers “drumming soundlessly on the Talmud.” Reuven is shrewd and he understands what Rav Kalman is trying to ascertain by his questioning. First, the rabbi wants to determine if Reuven believes his father understands the Gemora better than the Rishonim. This is the Hebrew term for the earliest of medieval commentators on the Talmud who are believed to be the best. Reuven responds carefully saying that his father “understands it (Gemora) differently.” At issue is knowledge of Greek. The Rishonim had difficulty with certain passages of the Talmud because they did not know Greek. Reuven’s father does. The logical conclusion, articulated by Rav Kalman, is that Reuven’s father “understands the Gemora better than the Rishonim.” Reuven does not respond to this. He knows that “in a yeshiva you never said that a contemporary scholar could understand Talmud better than the Rishonim.” These interviews go on for several days, and Reuven believes the rabbi is engaging in an honest intellectual pursuit of truth. Rav Kalman eventually comes to the crucial point. Does Reuven believe Talmud was revealed? He does. Does he believe “the oral Torah (Gemora) was also given to Moses at Sinai?” Reuven reflects, “He was putting me through a theological loyalty test.” Another component of the great choice Reuven will have to make. How answer Rav Kalman? Rav Kalman next wants to know if Reuven’s father is “an observer of the Commandments.” He is. The rabbi then asks Reuven a very pointed question that unsettles him by its unexpectedness. Rav Kalman then follows his question quite cryptically with piquant comments about self-knowledge.

“Tell me, Malter, do you know who you are? Who are you?…Know yourself, Malter. A man who does not know himself is lost. I know this. From bitter experience I know this…The Hasidim are not the only ones who guard the spark. I too have an obligation…I would like to give you smicha, Malter. But, I will not give it to you before I know where you stand.”

Then comes the inescapable link to Reuven’s father as Rav Kalman closes his comments. “Your father is a great scholar. It is a pity he uses such a method. He endangers Yiddishkeit with his method.” The choice now has been made clear to Reuven: fidelity to his father or smicha. Things become agonizingly worse when Rav Kalman publishes the first of two scathing articles in a Jewish paper lambasting not only the book by Reuven’s father, but David Malter personally. The scales fall from Reuven’s eyes and he feels used by the rabbi. He complains bitterly to his father that Rav Kalman was just using him to get information to use in his articles. Yet, his dream depends upon the blessing of this very rabbi he now hates. The choice placed upon him becomes increasingly ponderous. Reuven asks his father what he should do. David Malter tells his son, “I do not know what to tell you…You are a man, not a child, and a man must make his own choice…I cannot help you, Reuven.” The young man finds himself inescapably fixed in a defining moment. His choice will tell the world, and himself, who he is. It will define him. It will determine the course of his life from that moment onward. He tells his father emphatically, “I want smicha. But, I’m not going to lie to get it.” A heavy feeling of alienation and isolation settle over Reuven. He even resents his father a little for teaching him a non-Orthodox form of Jewish belief and scholarship. One evening he decides he needs to walk. As he walks, he begins to experience the strangeness and sorrow that comes from a tradition that has become divided against itself, fracturing along the deep fault-line of changing times and beliefs. The following passage also demonstrates Potok’s deftness as a writer. He is sparse but movingly eloquent.

“I walked for over an hour along Lee Avenue, past the shops of the Hasidim, some of which were still open. It was dark and cold and an icy wind blew along the street and sent the black city dust swirling across the sidewalks and there were many Hasidim on the street and I listened to their Hungarian Yiddish and they seemed strange to me, so far apart from me, though they were my own people and we shared the same distant origins and studied the same Torah…They were the remnants, the zealous guardians of the spark…They had changed everything merely by surviving and crossing an ocean. They had brought that spark to the broken streets of Williamsburg, and men like Rav Kalman who were not Hasidim felt swayed by their presence and believed themselves to be equally zealous guardians of the spark, and no one at Hirsch would fight them because the spark was precious, it was all that was left after the blood and the slaughter, and you dimmed it when you fought its defenders…I had not really seen it until now, but it had only been a matter of time until it all caught up to me. Now it had caught up because I had been seen in the Zechariah Frankel Seminary working on my father’s book and I was in the middle and my father could not help me and I walked the Williamsburg streets in the cold and the wind and did not know what to do.”

Throughout all of this, Reuven’s friend Danny Saunders continues to treat young Michael Gordon. Danny is not making progress with Michael and he fears for the young man’s well-being. Danny is considering a controversial therapy but he cannot talk about it. Reuven suspects something is going on and when Danny will not talk about it Reuven finally begins to crack.

“All right. Don’t talk about it. More silence. That’s what I love about you Hasidim. You either don’t talk at all or you talk too much. Sneaky Kalman and silent Saunders. Everything is falling apart. Don’t you see it falling apart? Can’t you hear it falling apart?”

Danny only hears Reuven’s shouting.But, Reuven hears much more. He hears the crumbling apart of the solid foundation of his own understanding of himself. He is left picking through the rubble trying to find something to salvage and rebuild from.

“I was in between somewhere on a tenuous and still invisible connecting span, and I did not know how to make that span tangible to myself and to the inhabitants of both those other worlds. Maybe it could not be done. Maybe Rav Kalman was right. Maybe one had to take a stand and abandon one or the other entirely. I would enter Abraham Gordon’s world if I was forced into taking a stand…But, it would be an unhappy choice. I did not think I could ever be comfortable with Abraham Gordon’s answers. I found myself envious of Danny’s solid-rootedness in his world – and discovered at that moment to my utter astonishment how angry I was at my father for his book and his method of study and the tiny, twilight, in-between life he had carved out for us. That awareness left me so frightened and shaken…”

Finally the time comes for Reuven’s smicha examinations. Prior to the examinations Rav Kalman asks Reuven to stay behind one Sunday after class and he questions him about his relationship with Abraham Gordon, Michael’s father and the man put into cherem by Orthodox Jews. Again, it remains a mystery how Rav Kalman became privy to this information. Reuven explains to Rav Kalman that he will continue to see Abraham Gordon because he does not believe the cherem holds in this case since there is a medical reason for the visits. To authenticate his position, Reuven cites the legal sanction found within Jewish lawthat allows one to disobey the order of excommunication. Rav Kalman immediately relents and says that he had heard the son of Abraham Gordon was ill. Satisfied on this point, he encourages Reuven to continue seeing young Michael Gordon and his father.

In regard to his preparations for the smicha examinations, Reuven finds a guiding light in a comment his father made in reference to Danny’s controversial therapy regimen with Michael. “When the alternative is possible disaster, a man must gamble.” Reuven decides he will gamble. Smicha examinations are given in two hour sessions over three consecutive days. The student may submit which tractates from the Talmud he would like his exams to cover. The two Talmud teachers from Hirsch are present: Rav Gershenson and Rav Kalman. The Dean is also present as an observer. Each rabbi may ask whatever question he wants on the specified tractates throughout the two hour examination. Rav Gershenson questions Reuven first and the discussion goes on for nearly an hour with Rav Kalman only smoking and “tugging on his beard,” saying nothing. Rav Gershenson is satisfied. Then, after a pause of awkward silence, Rav Kalman asks Reuven to explain a very difficult passage from Chullin. Rav Kalman presses Reuven on this passage and unfairly cites a tractate Reuven had not requested to be examined on. The Dean is about to intervene when Reuven boldly meets Rav Kalman’s challenge and begins to answer. It turns out that Reuven anticipated Rav Kalman. “It was one of the passages I had been waiting for,” he tells us. What follows is a very complicated yet intensely interesting brief on Jewish exegesis. The crucial factor here is that Reuven uses the word “text” in his response to Rav Kalman. Time seems to stop.

The Dean stopped nodding and opened his eyes very wide. Rav Gershenson did not move. The smile froze a little on his face…I emended the text. There was a long silence in the room. I could feel the silence. It was electric with sudden tension.

Reuven took his gamble. He made his choice. He defended his father’s legacy to him. An argument ensues and Rav Kalman storms out of the room to retrieve a large printed volume of the Jewish Talmud which he slams down upon the table. He then reads a passage that he believes disproves Reuven and his method of text criticism and its allowances of emendations. Reuven holds firmly to his position and defends it with further scholarship. Rav Kalman becomes subdued and goes on to question Reuven on the tractate from Sanhedrin, the one he had asked to be examined on. But, the tension soon returns as Reuven pushes his method even further. Even Rav Gershenson is no longer smiling because now Reuven is referring to a manuscript that is found outside the Talmud. The narrator explains the danger in this method. “…it meant that the Talmud did not have all the sources at its disposal upon which laws could be based.” This was another position categorically rejected by Orthodox Judaism.

Reuven had planned to work in stages throughout the three days of examinations. First, he would emend a text. Second, he would clarify a text based on a variant reading found in the Palestinian Talmud, not the Babylonian Talmud which was the favored volume. Last, he would demonstrate that texts existed that were not found in either Talmud but were used by the ancient commentators. Reuven had intended to implement the final stage on the following day of examinations. Yet, he decided at this point he would “go all the way.” When he finished, the examiners “sat there, staring at me in stonelike silence, not moving, not saying anything, just staring.” Each rabbi does have just one more question for Reuven.

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.

————————————

“We will meet again tomorrow,” the Dean said.

“No,” said Rav Kalman. “I have no more questions.” He looked at me as he spoke. “It will not be necessary to meet tomorrow.”

Rav Gershenson agrees and, thus, Reuven’s smicha examinations are concluded in one day. It appears he has gambled and lost. It will take several days more than usual before Reuven hears the decision of his examining commitee. Now that his smicha examinations are concluded, he no longer has to attend Talmud classes for the remainder of the term. He uses this time to complete his Master’s thesis. Reuven’s father has also been forced into a defining choice. Rav Kalman’s attacks have made it virtuously impossible for David Malter to continue teaching at his yeshiva because so many of his colleagues have joined with Rav Kalman. He takes a position instead at Abraham Gordon’s school, the non-Orthodox Zechariah Frankel Seminary. David Malter is not completely comfortable with Abraham Gordon’s beliefs, but he does not wish to teach where he is despised by many of his colleagues.

Danny Saunders’ gamble also pays dividends for his young patient Michael Gordon. The unusual therapy he implemented with Michael appears cruel, especially if the reader has read The Chosen prior to this novel. Not only Michael’s health, but Danny’s career is being risked with this controversial approach.

Prior to his smicha examinations Reuven is content to stew in his despisement of Rav Kalman. He thinks of the rabbi as “grotesque.” Yet, Rav Kalman cannot be so easily dismissed. Buried deep within the darkness of his long coat, thick beard and earlocks, past the writhing translucent webs of cigarette smoke rising incessantly around his dark head, there is a man who has suffered unspeakable brutality, a man who is still suffering the pain of memory, the loss of a wife and children, the loss of so many bright students that were the promise of Talmud’s longevity in the world of man. Three sympathetic views of Rav Kalman are offered to Reuven from unexpected sources. The first is Reuven’s old friend Danny. He comes to visit Rav Kalman while he is questioning Reuven about Michael Gordon after Talmud class. Danny affirms that it is necessary for Michael’s health that Reuven continue to see him. He also explains that he is going to attempt a form of therapy that is experimental. This provokes an extraordinarily strong response from Rav Kalman. He and Danny then fall into a soaring discussion of Talmudic passages that even Reuven must struggle to keep up. Reuven sees Rav Kalman come alive in a way he has never seen before. It is like old times for the rabbi, back at his yeshiva in Vilna.  Reuven explains the experience to his father that night and his father also expresses sympathy for Rav Kalman, even after his ruthless attacks against him.

“When your world is destroyed and only a remnant is saved, then whatever is seen as a threat to that remnant becomes a hated enemy. I can understand Rav Kalman. I can understand his colleagues in my yeshiva…it is different when you understand it. There is less of the – hatred.”

————————————————-

Later, I went into my room and took a book from a shelf of my bookcase and sat at my desk. It was a book about the concentration camps. I read the section that described what had gone on in Maidanek. I closed the book and put it back on the shelf and sat at my desk…thinking of Rav Kalman’s reaction to the word “experiment.”

For the first time, Reuven asks his classmates what they know about Rav Kalman. He lives in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. He never remarried after the war. It is said that “something had been done to him in Maidanek.” Finally, it is Abraham Gordon who defends Rav Kalman’s humanity against Reuven’s hatred.

“He is trying to save what is left of his world. I can’t blame him. The concentration camps destroyed a lot more than European Jewry. They destroyed man’s faith in himself. I cannot blame Rav Kalman for being suspicious of man and believing only in God.”

Potok’s novel is a moving representation of Jewish history, faith, and tradition. He creates believable and conflicted characters. Much has been written about the war and the concentration camps, but Potok is the only American writer of note who continues the story of the wounded disapora in their attempts to build new lives out of the rubble of destroyed families, beliefs and dreams. Potok is honest. He approaches the complexities of Jewish life and culture with fair scrutinity. He does not look away from the less noble aspects of the conflicts between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. He also does not offer easy answers. Potok’s characters must grapple with these problems, often as though stumbling in the dark. Perhaps it is Potok himself echoed in the voice of David Malter when he tells Reuven, “I do not know what to tell you.” The conflicts are intense. The divisions are deep. But, deeper still is the shared heritage and rich tradition of a people who have contributed much to the beliefs and mores of western civilization. By observing the struggles of Jewish people to find unity in diversity, we observe reverberations of these struggles within the wider landscape of the human heart. That is because, ultimately, Potok’s characters are authentically human. The desire for truth and tradition is the driving force behind the characters in The Promise. That is something in which every human heart finds peace.

Advertisements