The Promise (Potok novel)
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|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|12 August 1969|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|ISBN||1-199-82130-6 (hardback edition)|
|Preceded by||The Chosen|
The Promise is a novel written by Chaim Potok, published in 1969. It is a sequel to his previous novel The Chosen. Set in 1950s New York, it continues the saga of the two friends, Reuven Malter, a Modern Orthodox Jew studying to become a rabbi, and Danny Saunders, a genius Hasidic Jew who has broken with his sect's tradition by refusing to take his father's place as tzaddik in order to become a psychologist. The theme of the conflict between traditional and modern Orthodox Judaism that runs throughout The Chosen is expanded here against the backdrop of the changes that have taken place in Reuven and Danny's world in the period of time between the two novels: following World War II, European survivors of the Holocaust have come to America, rebuilding their shattered lives and often making their fiercely traditionalist religious viewpoint felt among their people.
The Promise starts a few months after The Chosen left off, with Danny having just started his masters in psychology and Reuven having started Rabbinical school. Reuven's teacher is a fanatically religious holocaust survivor who violently disapproves of Reuven's father's secular method of Talmudic study. The novel begins in the summer of 1950 when Reuven is dating a college student named Rachel Gordon. Rachel and Reuven take Rachel's cousin, Michael Gordon, to a carnival, where Michael has a mental breakdown over a carnival game. In the coming days, Michael's father Abraham Gordon, a secular rabbi and teacher of Jewish texts, informs Reuven that Michael has a history of mental illness and that he will probably live in a treatment house with psychological oversight.
Back at school, Reuven and his fellow classmates continue to listen to the tirades of their teacher, Rav Kalman, and one day, he directs one of his tirades at the school where Reuven's father works. He later tells Reuven that he is not allowed to enter the Zechariah Frankel Seminary (the school that Abraham Gordon runs) because Rueven was seen there in order to look over ancient texts for his father's book on the Talmud. During this time Reuven and Rachel grow apart and Michael is sent to live in the treatment center that Danny is doing his residency in.
Eventually, it surfaces that Danny and Rachel are dating. Meanwhile, the book that Reuven's father wrote is published which further infuriates Rav Kalman (who writes an extensive article criticizing the book's method of Talmud study), and creates tension at the school where Reuven's father works, as the school is becoming increasingly religious.
As a result of Michael's worsening condition, Danny comes up with an idea for an experiment; to completely isolate Michael in a room with no contact with the outside world. Abraham and Ruth (Michael's mother) Gordon agree to Danny's experiment and it begins much to Michael's chagrin.
As Reuven's rabbinic ordination (smicha) examinations approach, Rav Kalman tells Reuven that he is not to use his father's non-traditional method of Talmud study. At the same time, word leaks out that there will be a new department in the university that will teach Talmud in a secular manner, which infuriates Rav Kalman. Reuven's father informs Reuven that he has been offered a position in the planned rabbinics department.
As the months pass, Michael still will not talk, which sends panic through the Gordon family, Rachel, Reuven, and Danny (whose career hinges on the experiment). Eventually, Reuven takes his smicha examinations. Reuven uses his father's method of changing the text of the Talmud in order to clarify more complicated passages. This surprises even the dean and more progressive Rav Gershenson (who was Reuven's teacher in The Chosen), yet the two men are impressed with Reuven's knowledge and creativity. On the other hand, Rav Kalman is left angered and annoyed.
After months of confinement, Michael finally talks. He reveals that his anger and other problems stem from the fact that his father is an outspoken secular rabbi and he attended an orthodox school, which made him feel alienated and uncomfortable.He embraces his parents and begins therapy with Danny.
In the end, Rav Kalman gives Reuven his Smicha. He also states that Reuven has more respect than any other student he has ever had. As a compromise, Reuven's father's offer for a teaching post in the rabbinics department is revoked, yet Reuven is given a post in the department, where he will be allowed to use his/his father's method. Reuven's father ends up accepting a post at the Zechariah Frankel Seminary. Rachel and Danny are married as they have been in love for months, and at the wedding, Danny tells Reuven that he will be writing his doctoral dissertation on his experiment with Michael. The novel ends where it begins: in Peekskill, New York, where the Gordon family is happy and Reuven is excited to begin teaching.
Themes and analysis
The central theme of the novel is Reuven's conflict between the traditional teachings of men like Rav Kalman and Rabbi Saunders (Danny's father who is an ultra Orthdox rabbi, plays a very large role in The Chosen but a very minor role in The Promise), and modern approaches endorsed by men like his father and Abraham Gordon. In the end, Reuven makes his choice to take from both schools of thought and find a balance. He chooses to embrace modernity by using his father's method on the Talmud, the prophets, and writings section of the Bible, but not on the Pentateuch. In doing this, he embraces his intelligence, but also the promise he made to his Jewish faith. It is also interesting to note that Reuven attends the Sampson Rafael Hirsch college and seminary, and Sampson Rafael Hirsch was the intellectual founder of the Modern Orthodox movement. The other major school in the novel is the Zechariah Frankel Seminary, and Zechariah Frankel was the intellectual founder of the modern conservative movement. And the leader of the school is Abraham Gordon, whose name is very similar to that of Abraham Geiger, the intellectual founder of the modern reform movement. This is certainly intentional, as the book is centered around the struggle between the different denominations. Reuven is being torn between the orthodox teachings of Rav Kalman, and the conservative/reform teachings of his father/rabbi Gordon. As stated before Reuven chooses a balance, but it cannot be overlooked that Reuven leans towards the conservative side of the religious spectrum.