in Book Reviews

In Defence of Difference, In Defence of Tradition: The Promise by “Chaim Potok”

The PromiseThe Promise by Chaim Potok
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with the previous book in the Reuven Malther series (The Chosen), I found I couldn’t put The Promise down.

Reuven Malther is a walking paradox: he uses a controversial method of Torah study common to non-believing Jewish scholars, but at the same time he is pursuing a smicha* under Rav Kalman, an Orthodox Rabbi who harshly criticises anyone who deviates from his literalistic reading of the Torah.

I couldn’t understand why Reuven chose to pursue smicha under such an old-fashioned and belligerent rabbi – indeed, Reuven was tormented throughout the book by an inner conflict between his way to understand Torah and Rav Kalman’s rigid approach. Even when Rav Kalman brought shame onto Reuven’s father, and used Reuven as a pawn to do so, Reuven still pushed on, determined to get smicha from Rav Kalman – why?

Early on in the book, Reuven befriends Abraham Gordon, a non-believing liberal teacher of Judaism, who doesn’t believe in the revelation at Sinai, and indeed teeters towards atheism at times, although he continues to observe Jewish laws and traditions. Gordon sees that Reuven is a brilliant scholar, and wants to make Reuven his student. But in spite of himself, Reuven turns Gordon down and continues to pursue smicha under Rav Kalman – why?

Why did Reuven put himself through all of that stress and turmoil?

I think on a subconscious level Reuven deeply understood the importance of tradition. He knew that he needed to understand Rav Kalman in order to become a great rabbi – somebody who could defend Judaism through all the storms that would likely come its way during his lifetime. He understood that only the person who is deeply rooted in tradition can weather the storms of a world that is constantly in flux – only this way could he trust himself that when he seeks to bring about change, it is honest change that seeks to serve the tradition, rather than to demolish it (“progress for progress’s sake”).

When we give up on tradition, we lose our sense of identity. Because no (wo)man is an island – each of us is the descendant of history and the forebear of the future. When I live as though I am an island, I throw myself at the mercy of the currents of this time, this culture; tradition, then, is the anchor which steadies my ship in the storm.

Here I must confess that I have often been the person who seeks to demolish tradition without having taken the time to understand its value. Indeed, my review of The Chosen was partially fuelled by this destructive desire. I am therefore grateful to Reuven for showing me a different way to observe my faith – choosing to take the middle path, however arduous it may be.

When I look back at the review I wrote for The Chosen, I know that I would write a different review, were I to write it again today. At the time I wrote the review, I perceived a conflict within Unificationism: is Unificationism a religion unto itself, or is it an approach to a particular faith? But maybe the perceived external conflict was a projection of an internal conflict that I was experiencing – perhaps I was not at peace within myself.

I now believe there need be no conflict; Unificationism can be both a religion and an approach to a particular faith. Perhaps this is the case for all religions: a Jew can both take pride in his/her own faith and be inspired and influenced by sufism, for example. Because when we extend a hand to that which is other to ourselves, we are enlarged, and our faith becomes more profound. We hear the voice of God in other tongues.

Just as no man is an island, then no religion is an island. Whether its adherents acknowledge it or not, each religion influences and helps shape other religions. Each religion is the product of history, and the forebear of the future. When we neglect this truth, we neglect our roots, and our faith cannot stand the test of time. But the greater loss is that we miss the opportunity to experience the beauty and wisdom that emerges from all these diverse expressions of faith.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l passed away last November. He was a person who spent a lifetime defending the beauty and dignity of “otherness”. I recently discovered that he shared a deep and long-standing friendship with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. I have watched many recordings of their public appearances together and have been moved as I witnessed the affection they had for one other. It is profound that these religious leaders, who by all accounts ought to have been at odds with one another, forged such close bonds, and found that their shared humanity and love for the Creator transcended any doctrinal differences they might have had; and where differences arose, they found only dignity, as Rabbi Sacks so beautifully described in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference.

Although Rabbi Sacks has passed on from this life, his memory will forever be a blessing, because he left behind a legacy that will continue to inspire for many generations. May we all become a little more like Rabbi Sacks.

To return to The Promise, I must say that I am once again in awe of Potok. The Promise is a brilliant book. Here I have barely scratched the surface of one of its themes; I will return to it when I’ve gained some more life experience and am more open to understanding it from other angles.

* Ordination as a rabbi

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