There’s a scene in Chaim Potok’s The Promise in which Danny Saunders, studying for his Doctorate, takes his fingers to the side of his face and tugs on the now imaginary earlocks that were once there. They are one part of his Hasidic upbringing that he chose to leave behind as he studies Psychology instead of taking his father’s place as leader of his community. Continuing from Potok’s The Chosen, Danny seamlessly moves between his Old World Hasidism and his new intellectual and professional pursuits. It’s not that he hasn’t had his share of struggles and conflicts but he now appears comfortable in both of his worlds.
Reuven Malter, on the other hand, has conflicts within his own world as he studies for his rabbinical ordination. In his Talmud class, he uses more modern methods of interpretation as opposed to the traditional ones much to the dismay of some of his teachers. Reuven’s conflict is wonderfully expressed in this sarcastic rant characteristically listened to by Danny in a supportive and gentle manner:
“We are at war, friend. Didn’t you know we are at war?”
Danny said nothing.
“The enemy surrounds us. The evil forces of secularism are everywhere. Look under the bed before you say the Kriat Shma at night. Look under the bed before you pray the Shacharit Service in the morning. And while you’re at it check the books on your desk and look in your typewriter and close the window because they come in with the wind. Did you know they come in with the wind?”
“All right,” Danny said quietly.
“The hell it’s all right. We become like dead branches and last year’s leaves and what the hell good are we for ourselves and the world in a mental ghetto. The hell it’s all right.”
To have a friend to whom one can truly express their frustrations is presented as a huge blessing by Potok and I think it’s what continues to fascinate me with Danny and Reuven. Their friendship stays strong.
While a rabinnical ordination may not usually be intense drama, Potok brilliantly lets the tension mount between Reuven and his teachers to the point that his oral examination becomes a nail-biter for the reader.
How disagreements over tradition can cause hurt and pain both endured and inflicted becomes a major theme for Danny and Reuven and the friends they make as they continue their spiritual and intellectual journeys.