books, Chaim Potok

The Promise

I finished this morning The Promise, sequel to The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. I also began it last night as well. I pulled an all nighter, reading through the novel in one sitting – I haven’t done that in years. Call it a problem, after all my sleep schedule is rather screwy now, but it was delightful. Kinda like eating the forbidden chocolate cake, for those who love that kind of sweet (I’m not actually a big sugar fan, believe it or not, but I think the analogy is apt).

Anyways, the sequel lived up to its older sibling. It seemed to embody what a sequel is supposed to be: the continuation of the story that doesn’t even give the reader pause. Some themes were revisited in varying amounts, others were new, but it was the same growing people.

I’m also a fan of The Chosen and The Promise for the academic life. The protagonist does theology, but it isn’t Christian theology, and yet because of the link between Judaism and Christianity, they feel some what like kin. I love the familiarity and the difference.

But more than that, I’m tremendously attracted to the lessons for academics, most specifically towards the lesson on empathy. This is not some run-of-the-mill “we saw a car wreck and feel sad,” or even, “look at this economically depressed group of people and see how they survive in solidarity,” but rather, this is empathy on a divine scale that transcends what some call empathy (which is really pity for ones they perceive as less fortunate) to a true revolution in one’s being and how they relate to those relationally closest, as well as those far.

Danny at the end of The Chosen leaves his environment with an extremely sensitive heart – a tzaddick’s heart for the world – and in The Promise we see this academic who takes in the mentally distressed boy and, at the same time, comes to marry the boy’s cousin because she sees and experiences the depth of a tzaddick’s heart – a heart that breaks for everyone, those both near and far. Danny’s heart is proven to be a tzaddick’s heart by the close people around him – those are the true judges of the state of someone’s heart – as Reuven says near the end, Danny would never hurt you, unless its for your good. Not his good.

I think I’ll read this book again, much like I return to The Chosen over and over again. Its nearly, if not actually, scripture.

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3 thoughts on “The Promise

  1. Okay, so now I’ve just finished the Promise, and I’ve remembered why it struck me so the second time I read it. A theme that runs throughout almost all of Potok’s writings, even more so in the Asher Lev books, but also here: How do we straddle two opposed cultures and maintain sanity? This is especially acute when trying to maintain fidelity to a religious community while living in a secular world.
    What I remembered about my former reading of The Promise is that, at the time, I was teaching at Multnomah and being a student at PSU. I think because of this The Promise resonated with my experience. I think, at this point, the mediating of Asher Lev may strike closer to home. In any case, what I find disturbing (existential angst) is that while I can read about this mediating between two cultures, and to some extent practice it, I have no words that adequately describe the process. With respect to the church / culture question, my experiences suggest that the traditional explanations of this relationship (Neibuhr and his interlocutors) seem too thin. I am also uncertain whether a description of this relationship that was sufficiently thick could still be applied generally. That is to say, if we could explain the process of mediating between – say Multnomah and PSU – in a way that was thick enough to account for the complexity experience, could that explanation in it’s detail still have explanatory power for other church/culture situations?
    Perhaps here is a demonstration of the power of narratives to shed light beyond the scope of the text’s horizons.

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