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Issue #23 (July 1983)
All Chaim Potok novels pulse with fascination for ever so many highly intelligent people who have lived through similar heartache in youth and even adult life. In all Potok novels, the hero is a genius in conflict with other brilliant intellects, or, more [quoteright]typically, he is a generally solitary genius alienated from family, school, and society. The agony always related to his religious faith or his questioning or loss thereof.
Analysis of Potok begins not with In the Beginning but with The Chosen which Potok brought out in 1967 before Beginning in 1975. The movies had Chosen last year, a highly acclaimed production with superb performances by Rod Steiger, Maximilian Schell, and Robbie Benton. Surely the happiest and most popularizable of Potok's novels, Chosen elects to present us with all geniuses for main characters. Danny, the "chosen," does have a sister and mother as minor characters, but it never occurred to Potok in his first novel to portray a female genius or even important character (charactress?).
In the sequel in 1969, Promise Danny, the devout Hasidic son of a tzaddik (Hasidic sect chief rabbi), became a psychiatrist without giving up his religion. The book centered on the treatment of yet a fifth (male again) Jewish genius, this one schizophrenic. This Michael's problem was that he was from an anti-religious household. It turned out that Freudian probing uncovered his "guilt" which he could never admit to anyone, least of all himself. One wonders whether cure could come from anyone learning that he hates his father for causing him to be an outcast from his community because the father was so hated for attacking traditional beliefs.
The Promise complements its genius studies by introducing two women geniuses, Michael's mother and (poetic license) his girl-friend. This Rachel falls for the pure, shy Danny. Can female intellectuals confirm whether brilliant women raised free from religion are subject to the same weakness as men to fall in love with innocence and religiousness in a mate?
My Name is Asher Lev (1972) is the portrait of the artistic genius as a young man. No doubt it was Potok's biggest Best Seller because it was not strictly religious in theme so much as all his other novels. In contrast, In the Beginning (1975) delved back in spades to an agonized religious upbringing of a child frightened of his own intellect.
Potok's latest, The Book of Lights warms few hearts, but generates less heat than light. A book of less general appeal could hardly be imagined. Potok has now grown older, and Lights is his first novel about an adult isolated intellectual. Yet Lights fails utterly to evoke empathy with Gershon Loran from even this similarly isolated, alienated intellectual. In and of itself, Lights is out.
The Book rates better as the fourth of five Potok novels sharing a continuous religious or antireligious thread. The Chosen questioned the ultra-orthodoxy of Hasidism as so devoutly expecting a supernatural Messiah that it doubted or denounced an Israeli state as blasphemous. The Promise rejected the inerrancy of the Talmud and applied critical analysis to it. Potok also suggested that the scholar-hero would have to apply the same criticism to the Tanach (Old Testament). In In the Beginning the scholar-hero denigrated the Talmud and scorned Judaism for ignoring the Tanach. He ridiculed the Jewish schools and colleges for poring over the Talmud, which are merely commentaries on the first five books of the Tanach. Here again, the scholar wound up agonized by doubts that even this Old Testament could survive Higher Criticism, which he felt compelled to study to defend the Bible against the German atheists, who were usually antiSemites. (Even to learn, read, or speak German was considered a sin in his household long before World War II.)
Even the Book Lights is fascinating by this analysis. Once again Potok downgraded the Talmud. Gershon's Talmud professor, surprisingly, led him to realize that the Talmud implied that superior wisdom was to be found in the Zohar (also known as the Kabbala or Book of Lights). Paradoxically, the Zohar is beloved by the Hasidic Jews, so The Chosen may not have been antiHasidic, but the reverse. Eventually a rabbi, Gershon stumbled across a Zohar passage which should be translated, "'He is not,' referring to the Holy King who had gone aloft and was not in her midst." Then at the very last five words of the Book, Potok makes it quite clear to the perceptive reader that he believes that if Judaism means anything at all, it points to Christianity-"... Jacob Keter's Jerusalem garden, waiting."
Potok has reached the point of no return in his series. Whether he has known all along whither he was leading his readers, whether he has been probing uncertainly; by now he must know whether he is entirely anti-religious on one extreme or just anti-Talmudic on the other. We are left in suspense whither his next book-forthrightly Christian, atheist, Hasid, some combination of Judaism and Christianity (like his predecessor, Sholem Asch, who only after another 20 years officially converted to Catholicism) --or will he continue to conceal his intentions?