The Promise by Chaim Potok enjoys wide popular acclaim from both Jewish and non-Jewish readers. The book was the eighth best selling novel of 1969. This book centers on the conflict between the religious life and the life of the imagination, but it is certain that this book is not bought--much less remembered--for the quality of its author's metaphysical speculations. A better clue to his popularity of The Promise lies perhaps in the fortuitous coinciding of timing and a talent in the genre, howsoever meager, which is capable of rising to an occasion it has suddenly come upon. That occasion is the rediscovery, in the culture at large and among his Jewish characters in particular, of "ethnic consciousness," and Potok has put this rising awareness to profitable use, spinning out tales that he knows so well of unassimilated "people of the book" to the delight of the many assimilated Jews who read him.
An ordained rabbi with a doctorate in philosophy, Chaim Potok has an unusual background for a novelist--a potential liability that he converted into an asset. While most contemporary American novelists avoid explicit engagement with ideas, Potok makes ideas come alive in the experience of his characters. The characters, their intellectual conflicts and their resolution are at the heart of his fiction. Each of Potok's characters in The Promise provide their own territory to be explored which makes this work of fiction more worthwhile and that much more appeasing to the reader.
The intelligent and mysterious Danny Saunders draws the reader into The Promise's prequel, The Chosen. The title is a reflection of the traditional Jewish conception of the chosen people but also applies specifically to Danny. He has been chosen to succeed his father as leader of the Hasidim; yet his soul reaches beyond narrow Orthodoxy to a world of secular learning. For Danny, there is a kind of resolution in The Promise. As Reuvan observes, Danny had been so deeply rooted in Hasidism, had his soul so deeply knit with that of his father during those years of silence and pain that he could embrace the views of others (such as Freud and Darwin) and yet retain his rootedness.
Reuvan is challenged by the new secular learning and by his own father's textual studies in the Talmud. His Orthodox world will never be the same. Reuvan seems always to be fighting: the sectarianism of the Hasidim, the anti-Zionists, and the teachers who reject textual criticism. In The Promise, Reuvan is unable to bring his two worlds together. He refuses to accept the insights of Professor Gordon and deny the faith, but he will not adopt his teachers' methods of Talmud study and commit intellectual suicide. He will again do battle with Rav Kalman, but next time it will be on an equal footing, as a rabbi from within the school.
Rav Kalman is an angry and impatient man, passionately criticizing what passes for Judaism in the United States. He is portrayed sympathetically: He asks forgiveness of a student whom he has embarrassed, and he is concerned about Michael Gordon's health, though he writes the severest critiques of Abraham Gordon's works. He is a man whose life tradition is being threatened, and he strikes back pointedly, sarcastically.
Events in The Promise swirl around young Michael Gordon. He sees in Reuvan an ally. If both have been branded traitors to Orthodoxy, at least both can take solace in each other. Michael is a symbolic lighting rod to which the contradictory forces inside Reuvan and Danny are drawn.
Perhaps the universal issue of fathers and sons demonstrate the real love in the novel. If Reb Saunders' tearful explanation of why Danny was reared in silence is not wholly plausible, there is a bond of love between this father and his son that is almost palpable. In The Promise, Danny finds himself wanting to live up to the freedom given him by his father. Danny is fearful of making a mistake and so violating his father's blessing.
The novel itself could as easily, if not originally, have been called Fathers and Sons. For it is as much about the old split between the fathers and their offsprings as it is about the conflicts between religious views and personalities. The sons have been molded by the fathers, though in the case of Danny that influence is a negative one. For Reb Saunders is a fanatic, or at least has those propensities; he represents the archetypal, God-intoxicated Hassid. And it is he who has caused Danny to grow into a tense, coldly introverted personality. Reuven's father, on the other hand, is the tolerant (albeit religious) humanist, opposed both in mind and in heart to the cold scholasticism of the Saunderses.
In addition, interest in the genre of the novel contributed to its popularity. Potok's novel was considered a psychological realism. The theme of the novel is man making his own meaning. While a life span is as nothing in the universe, what a man does with that brief moment is something indeed. That is the "key" to the sympathetic portrayal of those who strive to uphold the Hasidic and Orthodox traditions. Their strength, their rage have counted for something on the stage of history--have made it possible for the Jews to have a history at all. Meaning comes less in heroic choices than in the choices of ordinary life, about one's history and tradition, about faith and love. It is in those who have chosen to make their own meaning that the promise is realized. Yet for Chaim Potok, the creation of meaning is ex nihilo; it comes as a life is able to encompass its past as well as its present.
Potok is troubled by the growing influence of the right-wing Orthodoxy upon American Jewish life. The book presents a clear and compelling view of orthodox Jewish life in America following the war years. It broadens the reader's understanding of the wide spectrum of Judaism, which ranges from the most conservative to the liberal. It is invaluable in providing all readers, particularly young ones, with social, political, and religious history.
CHAIM POTOK'S BACKGROUND
Potok's Judaic background has provided him with a wealth of material for his novel that in turn contributed to The Promise's popularity. Because of his Jewish heritage, Potok is frequently called an American Jewish writer. Although he understands the need for such labels, he prefers to be described as "an American writer writing about a small and particular American world," he says in an essay in Studies in American Jewish Literature. Quoting James Joyce, he explains to Millie Ball in the Times Picayune: 'in the particular is contained the universal.' When you write about one person or set of people you know, if you dig deeply enough, you will ultimately uncover basic humanity. Readers admire this familiarization; they can trust what has been written.
Yes, maybe more appealing than the book itself to readers is its place in the author's development. Potok once seemed to be the writer for whom the American Jewish community had been waiting--an educated Jew who knew Jewish life from the inside and could give it authentic representation. As against the second-generation sons and daughters who inhabited most American Jewish fiction, figures estranged from the culture of their parents, with attitudes ranging from indifference to contempt, he presented a generation still raised in traditional homes and only tentatively facing the challenges of the Enlightenment.
Potok's novel, The Promise, enjoys wide popular acclaim from both Jewish and non-Jewish readers, perhaps because his individual characters and their situation represent the universal. The questions which are asked and the conflicts which are portrayed are not solely Jewish phenomena--they apply to anyone whose culture suddenly collides with other systems which are fundamentally different, and therefore threatening to one's own view. With the war just ending, the book's content expressed through the genre captured the audience's attention. The challenge which meets the reader on the pages of Potok's writings, the implicit plea for openness, flexibility, acceptance, and the courage to find one's own synthesis in spite of all social opposition and cross-cultural blindness, rings true to any reader; it stretches far beyond the specifically Jewish setting, that his background provided him, of the novel to touch the broad pool of shared human experience.
Charles Moritz, ed., Current Biography Yearbook 1983, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1998.
Hackett, Alice Payne. 80 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1975. 1976. New York: Bowker.
Leviant, Curt. "Review of 'The Promise'." Saturday Review 38 (20 September 1969): 37-38.
Studies in American Jewish Literature, number 4, 1985.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans), February 25, 1973.