Thoughts on Chaim Potok’s The Promise (by Bethany)

Once, when I was having some experiences that I wanted to talk over with a therapist, I spoke to several practitioners on the phone and chose the one who responded to the details of my situation by saying “Holy shit!” All the others gave me some version of the old therapeutic standby: “Well, I can see you have some strong feelings about this. Would you like to come in and talk about them?”

I didn’t know what I was looking for until I found it, but once I did, the answer was obvious: I wanted a therapist who had managed not to sacrifice his own humanity in order to do his job. “Holy shit” was the only reasonable response to the situation I was living through at the time; trust me, you would say the same thing if I told you the story. To his more sterile and mechanized colleagues who spouted platitudes about my strong feelings, I should have asked, “Were you just listening to me?”

One of my favorite novels, J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, deals with this question as well, when Zooey Glass tries to explain to his mother, Bessie, that his sister Franny is going through a spiritual crisis and would probably not be well served by a typical psychiatrist: “For a psychoanalyst to be any good with Franny at all, he’d have to be a pretty peculiar type… He’d have to believe that it was through the grace of God that he’d been inspired to study psychoanalysis in the first place. He’d have to believe that it was through the grace of God that he wasn’t run over by a goddam truck before he ever even got his license to practice. He’d have to believe that it’s through the grace of God that he has the native intelligence to be able to help his goddam patients at all… If she got somebody terribly Freudian, or terribly eclectic, or just terribly run-of-the-mill – somebody who didn’t even have any crazy, mysterious gratitude and intelligence – she’d come out of analysis in even worse shape than [her older brother, who committed suicide] did” (109-10). These lines appeared, fully formed and unbidden, in my head any number of times during my reread of another old favorite, Chaim Potok’s The Promise. This novel, the sequel to Potok’s The Chosen, picks up where his earlier novel left off as best friends Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders pursue graduate studies – Reuven with the goal of being ordained as a rabbi and Danny with the goal of becoming a psychologist. At the end of The Chosen, Danny makes the difficult decision to decline his community’s expectation that he will follow in his father’s footsteps as the community’s rabbi – a position that is usually passed automatically from father to son in this traditional Hasidic community.

The Promise is a novel about the challenge of becoming a useful, competent professional without compromising one’s unique humanity. To some readers, the fierce disputes among the Jewish scholars in this novel may seem unbearably arcane and inaccessible – but I would ask those readers to consider their own academic or professional fields. Aren’t there details and subtle matters of tradition or theory on which devotees of any field will stake their relationships, reputations, and careers? For God’s sake – I almost lost a great friendship once because we couldn’t stop arguing over the correct pronunciation of “Zooey.” True story. I would also argue that a person’s passion for these minutiae within his field is part of what makes him worthy of respect as a professional.

One of the central characters in The Promise is fifteen year-old Michael Gordon, the son of a well-known Jewish academic who has recently been excommunicated by the Orthodox community for his unconventional ideas. Michael has been hospitalized for violent, uncontrolled, and dangerous behavior, and his parents have requested that he be treated by Danny Saunders, whom they know by reputation and also through their niece’s friendship with Reuven Malter.

Michael is angry – and, of course, so is the entire Jewish world in this novel, which is set in the wake of World War II. While the heart of this novel is located in the intimate interactions between Reuven, Danny, Michael, and the characters that make up their respective families, the novel’s backdrop is the grand reshuffling that took place after the war, when Holocaust survivors relocated to Israel, the United States, and elsewhere, and people everywhere struggled to come to terms with the consequences of Hitler’s attempted extermination of the Jews. A key antagonist in the novel is Reuven’s professor Rav Kalman, whose signature is a required part of Reuven’s rabbinical ordination and who threatens to withhold this signature is Reuven does not conform to his ultra-Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. While Michael’s anger is initially directed everywhere, through therapy he and Danny begin to realize that it is primarily directed at the scholars who routinely attack his father for his own liberal interpretation of Jewish scriptures.

In his poem “Gerontion,” T.S. Eliot asks, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” On some level, each of the characters in this novel are asking this question of God, of the universe, and of their fellow humans. Some find that the answer leads them to burrow deeper into Orthodoxy; others find that it leads them to question tradition.

As a psychologist treating Michael Gordon and a man attempting to hold on to as much as possible of his Hasidic roots while also building his reputation in the secular world of psychology, Danny Saunders finds that it is his own unique upbringing that provides the key to helping Michael. Recognizing that Danny’s superior intelligence might lead him to question tradition, his father sought to accelerate his son’s spiritual maturity by raising him “in silence,” in hope that early experience of isolation and suffering would give Danny the wisdom and compassion of an old man while he is still young – and for the most part, he succeeds. For Danny, the “knowledge” that seems to pre-empt forgiveness is his internal sense of how silence and isolation can prompt growth. He ends up conducting an experiment to see whether a period of isolation and solitude will prompt Michael to end his resistance to regular talk therapy. While Danny’s decision to break with tradition wounds his father, he finds that his isolated childhood becomes the key that makes it possible for him to be not just a good psychologist but a great one.

Reuven’s challenge in this novel takes the form of divided loyalties. His father publishes a controversial book that proposes new strategies for the interpretation of Jewish law, strategies that are harshly criticized by many faculty members at Reuven’s university and eventually cause his father to resign under pressure from his own teaching job. Reuven is told that he must renounce his own allegiance to his father’s methods in order to be ordained. At the same time, he is developing a relationship with Michael Gordon’s father, a scholar whose methods are even more liberal and controversial than Reuven’s fathers.

Like The Chosen, this novel is about the father-son relationship in its many forms, including the academic “father-son” relationship between mentors and students, the somewhat paternalistic relationship between psychologists and their patients, and – ultimately – the relationship between God and man. More specifically, this novel is about the incredibly delicate process of renunciation that is part of the experience of growing up. Danny, Reuven, Michael, and even, to some degree, the father figures in the novel like David Malter and Rav Kalman are pushed to chisel away at the traditions they have inherited in order to find places for themselves in a world that suits their own humanity. Maturation is a process that requires not just a willingness to discard the sources of authority and tradition but also the much subtler and more difficult willingness to sculpt these raw materials into a slightly altered tradition that can provide structure and meaning in an ever-evolving world.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Chaim Potok, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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