The Promise: A Novel by Chaim Potok (New York: Anchor Books, 1969. 384 pp)

Chaim Potok was born in Buffalo, New York in 1929. Potok became a rabbi after studying at Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He later received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Potok is known for his best-selling novel, The Chosen. He died in 2002.

*Spoiler Alert: This Book Is a Sequel*

The Threat of Change

The threat of the new ostensibly dominates the thoughts of many conservatives. At a basic level, the conservative line suggests no need for change. Things work well the way they are. What’s the use in transforming?

When religion emerges in such debates, the eternal soul is at stake. Is it really that absurd to realize wars have been fought over such disputes?

In other fields, new thoughts and innovations bring life, joy, and human flourishing. Surely, not many are complaining about the life saving advances made in medicine?

So where’s the line between appreciating tradition and innovating for a what we believe is a better tomorrow?

In many ways, these questions function as the core motif of Chaim Potok’s The Promise.

Picking Up Where We’ve Left Off

A sequel to Potok’s acclaimed novel, The Chosen, The Promise continues the narrative around the life of Rueven Malter and his best friend, Danny Saunders.

Set in the 1950s, The Promise finds Rueven and Danny growing up and attending university. Rueven, an Orthodox Jew, studies in seminary hoping to become a rabbi. Likewise, Danny works toward a degree in psychology, a left turn for someone from the Hasidic tradition.

Tradition

The tension between modern innovation and adhering to tradition manifests itself in Rueven’s relationship with his final-year Talmud teacher, Rav Kalman, a holocaust survivor who holds aggressively to a traditional view of Judaism.

Kalman’s defense of tradition leaves many wounded and battered in his wake:

“I had never in my life come across a man who was so zealous a guardian of Torah that he did not care whom or how he destroyed in its defense. I had never thought Torah could create so grotesque a human being” (259).

Innovation

Rueven, on the other hand, has developed an affinity for textual criticism—in fact, his father is writing a book on the topic—and, in particular, he is drawn to the ideas of Abraham Gordon, an excommunicated Jew who writes on secularizing Judaism and adhering to traditions without holding to belief.

“This was a position which my father and I found impossible to maintain. There were too many variant readings too many obvious scribal errors, too many emendations and substitutions of texts even within the Talmud itself for us to believe that test was frozen. We saw the Talmud as containing almost a thousand years of ideas and traditions that had been in flux; we saw the text of the Talmud as fluid, alive, like a body of rushing water with many tributaries leading into it and from it” (329).

In fact, the Gordon family reciprocates appreciation to Rueven for the relationship he’s developed with their troubled son, Michael.

When Rav Kalman begins to understand Rueven’s connections to the Gordons and  to modern scholarly techniques, he threatens to withhold smicha, an ordination for rabbinic teaching.

Sitting in the Tension

This tension between ancient and modern dazzles the reader. Potok aims at the heart of the issue almost every child encounters as she steps into adulthood. We learn the value of criticism but we don’t necessarily learn how to balance the difficulty between engaging in critical thought while simultaneously maintaining a love or appreciation for the idea itself.

Truthfully, the realm of ideas causes intense discord between those with differing idealogies. Potok defines the obstreperous parts in all of us when he notes:

 “That’s what life was all about, the way we cheat and hurt each other and still try to live together somehow” (268).

People change; ideas alter us in ways we may never truly know. Because of these facts, we have a tendency to bring pain to those around us. And yet we live; and even more, try to live well.

The Promise is a brilliant book well worth anyone’s time. If you have yet to read Potok, start with The Chosen and immediately move to this book; it’s required reading.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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