A Way of Seeing: Chaim Potok and Tradition

by John H. Timmerman

John H. Timmerman is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 16, 1984, p. 515. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


By freely engaging life, tradition grows stronger, gaining muscle through hard experience. Not rejecting ones own tradition, but being rejected by it is the greater pain. Where does the seeker go then? If tradition is sometimes a bed of misunderstanding and hatred, and the world a maze of ready but insufficient answers, is he or she left to walk a precarious tightrope buffeted by forces beyond his or her control?

During the past decade Chaim Potok has emerged not only as a pre-eminent American author, but also as one whose books are avidly and widely read. Why has this Jewish author whose books are openly religious in theme and tenor achieved such uncommon public success? Why does he appeal to this age, saturated as it is with the expressive realism that oozes from books, films and television? In a sense Potok addresses those very questions, for the central theme of all of his books has been the enduring and changing religious tradition of a people, and how that tradition shapes the present moment and is shaped by it. As a result, Potok’s books leap beyond narrow categories and become universally appealing. His protagonists, always young men of pronounced individual convictions, carry on a warfare with their tradition and, to varying degrees, find their own place and nature in relation to it. Thus, these are the stories of all humankind living in the ongoing matrix of religious, ethnic and cultural beliefs.

In public lectures Potok has often directly addressed people’s conflicts with their traditions. These conflicts, the central issue of his fiction, are formulated by the author as providing three possibilities for interaction. A person can totally reject his or her tradition, but this, in Potok’s estimation, is reprehensible. Second, he or she may wholly capitulate to tradition and be subsumed by it, an alternative perhaps worse than the first, since it both locks the rest of life out and locks the life of the tradition in. Untouched by any fresh idea, unruffled by any change, such a life constitutes a prison of unmitigated spiritual and artistic sterility. The third alternative, and the healthiest one in Potok’s estimation, is the presence of some tension between the individual and tradition, a willingness to question and be questioned. Such spiritual flexibility allows both to grow. At the conclusion of his history of the Jewish people, Wanderings (Knopf, 1978), Potok states:

In some future time, eyes will gaze upon us as we have gazed in his book upon worlds of the past. They will say of us either that we used our new freedom . . . to vanish as a people, or that we took advantage of the secret opportunity concealed within the persistent but hidden trauma we are now experiencing -- a Jewry and Judaism decisively changed by its confrontation with modern paganism -- to reeducate ourselves, rebuild our core from the treasure of our past, fuse it with the best in secularism, and create a new philosophy, a new literature, a new world of Jewish art, a new community, and take seriously the meaning of the word emancipation -- a release from the authority of the father in order to become adults in our own right.

The question that the young protagonists of his novels begin to ask of their fathers is, “Can we trust our tradition sufficiently to grow with it, or must we only guard it jealously as a precious memory?”

This issue, which David Stern suggests is “the dilemma of modern Judaism itself” (“Two Worlds,” Commentary [October 1972], p. 102), focuses squarely on how the law for living is conceived within the tradition. If the law is an end in itself, as Reb Saunders of The Chosen believes, then clearly there is no room for individual vision. It also then necessarily follows that the law is a static codification of rules, perhaps empty of spiritual vigor. Locked in place at one time, it makes all future time conform to itself. Individual actions must bend backward to achieve this conformity. But the law does not have to be conceived in this manner -- and should not be.

Torah is an untranslatable word; as such, it means many things. Isaac C. Rottenberg points Out that

Torah means ‘teaching,’ ‘instruction,’ and ‘guidance,’ but none of these words alone nor all of them together exhaust its meaning, because in the last analysis ‘Torah’ refers to God’s own gracious and righteous presence. Laws, statutes, and precepts are part of Torah, but they are not its essence. Torah must be primarily understood in dynamic terms, not as a set of legal rules [“Law and Sin in Judaism and Christianity,” the Reformed Journal (November 1979), p. 12].

The last sentence particularly is of striking importance. Torah is a means for ordering life, not for dictating life. Halacha, precepts leading to the way of a sanctified life, is not a set of rules, but a dynamic, living guide for life. The precepts are not carved in stone, but etched on the spirit -- which may respond to, be stimulated by, and receive guidance from them. Because the law is not an end in itself, but a teleological guide to right action, people must be allowed considerable freedom in their exercise of it. The temptation is to use the law to circumscribe life. Rottenberg points out that “Judaism is deeply aware of the yetzer hara, the evil urge which operates within the human heart and makes our lives the scene of a continual moral struggle’’ (p. 14). Precisely because they clearly recognize the problem of evil, people may try to use the law as a means to avoid moral struggle, rather than to engage in that struggle, with its attendant risks. In My Name Is Asher Lev (Fawcett, 1972), Potok depicts such a situation in the parents’ fear that Asher Lev’s artistic vision may come from the sitra achra -- the Other Side.

We might put the situation a bit differently. People who are aware of the very real presence of the sitra achra, which threatens to destroy the tradition, might believe that they must shut their eyes to such a threat. They might feel compelled to shun even the conception of such a threat, lest a chink be found in tradition’s armor that, once admitting a corrosive freedom, would eat away at its very supports, eventually bringing about the collapse of the entire structure. A person may try to save a house that seems in danger of falling by shielding it in an armor of steel. But one may also feel the strength of the tradition so powerfully that one opens wide one’s vision to life. By freely engaging life, this alternative suggests, tradition grows stronger, gaining muscle through hard experience.

Such is the clear option in two of Potok’s best-known novels, The Chosen (Fawcett, 1967) and My Name Is Asher Lev, both stories about young Jews coming to a point of decision about their tradition and their individual lives.

Potok has structured both books around the central metaphor of the human eye, or human seeing. Those who use tradition as a means of seclusion from the world are repeatedly described as having narrowing eyes, blank eyes or shut eyes. But those who use it as a base from which to engage the world hold their eyes wide open.

In The Chosen, the metaphor rises out of the initial action of the book, a lively and competitive baseball game in which Danny Saunders raps a line drive that strikes Reuven Malter in the eye. Temporarily blinded by the blow -- and waking up for the first time to a recognition of himself and his tradition -- Reuven recovers in a hospital ward peopled with tragic representatives of life: the nearly blind ex-boxer who has been pummeled brutally and chatters incessantly, and the small boy who stares ceaselessly with blind eyes. This ward of readjusted vision is also the threshold for Reuven’s refocusing vision of life: “I lay there a long time, thinking about my eyes.” The image of the eye is developed steadily throughout the book, and eventually becomes clearly associated with the conflict between the individual and the tradition. “What’s inside us is the greatest mystery of all,” says Danny at one point. That exploration of oneself is perhaps life’s ultimate adventure. The novel suggests two ways to go about it, one quick and superficial, the other hard and deep. Reuven’s reflection on the two ways to study Torah strikes a forceful analogy:

Rabbinic literature can be studied in two different ways, in two directions, one might say. It can be studied quantitatively or qualitatively -- or, as my father once put it, horizontally or vertically. The former involves covering as much material as possible, without attempting to wrest from it all its implications and intricacies; the latter involves confining oneself to one single area until it is exhaustively covered, and then going on to new material. . . The ideal, of course, was to be able to do both [p. 155].

For Potok, a person needs to be deeply rooted in tradition, while also attempting the broad view of life. Always the individual person is the vital link between the bedrock of tradition and the flow of life. “‘I learned a long time ago, Reuven,”’ says Mr. Malter, “‘that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something”’ (p. 204).

Finally, it is people who fulfill the law, not the law that fulfills people. People forge and effect a tradition as much as they are forged by it. The argument of Potok’s fiction is for that freedom within the tradition that allows people to hold their eyes open.

In Asher Lev, this tension becomes more stark in the compelling drama of a young artist exploring both his gift and his relation to his tradition. The book is even more deliberately structured by the eye metaphor than is The Chosen. Many of the novel’s characters almost seem to be acting on a stage, in full dramatic posture, with the author providing calculated stage directions. As on the stage, much of what is left unsaid is conveyed by mannerism -- here particularly, eye mannerisms. Asher Lev’s mother fears her son’s gift, recognizing its potential for endangering their tradition. Her eyes are consequently detailed in alternating images of great fear and abject resignation. Early in the book Asher notes that “I saw a flicker of light in her eyes,” but when the subject of painting is brought up “the dead look returned to her eyes.” When she becomes ill and Asher promises to draw a pretty picture for her, ‘‘Her eyes fluttered faintly but remained closed” (p. 24).

The father, whose occupation and proccupation are to bring others into the tradition, to cement the body of believers, reacts with vitriolic anger to Asher’s flirting with the sitra achra (he readily identifies Asher’s painting as such). Repeatedly his eyes are described as “dark,” “tired,” “narrowing” and “squinting.”

In contrast, as an artist Asher Lev discovers his vision always opening. It is important to note that he considers himself “an orthodox Jew” (p. 9). He stands not in open rebellion against, but as a troubled seeker of, his place within a tradition. He manifests most clearly and dramatically what we also find in Potok’s other young heroes, Reuven Malter and David Lurie.

In the novel’s early scenes, Asher Lev frequently stands by the window of his parents’ apartment, looking toward the street below. This prison symbolism is embellished in Lev’s controversial painting “Brooklyn Crucifixion. In the picture, Lev’s mother is tied to the venetian blinds of the apartment window, her arms outstretched in an anguished crucifix. The window functions metaphorically as the threshold between tradition and the larger world. While Asher persists in looking outward, his mother and father are careful to keep the venetian blinds drawn. These blinds are frequently askew, often awkwardly knotted up so that the outside world and inner tradition persist in tortured meeting. Finally, the mother is a slave to the blinds, tied there by the father’s austere legalism. In the painting the father looks at the crucified mother, but he does not release her. The three, mother, father and son, portray varying degrees of dealing with tradition as it is metaphorically represented by the window: the father solidly within, the mother caught by the mesh of blinds and the son persistently peering outward.

Lev’s outward-looking vision is not simply an impudent rebellion. He cannot help the way he sees. His artistic drive and vision persist in breaking through, as he comes, with terror, to understand:

That was the night I began to realize something was happening to my eyes. I looked at my father and saw lines and planes I had never seen before. I could feel with my eyes. . . .I felt myself flooded with the shapes and textures of the world around me. I closed my eyes. But I could still see that way inside my head. I was seeing with another pair of eyes that had suddenly come awake [pp. 105-106].

To try to kill that vision, he realizes, would be to kill himself. In an anguished scene of self-analysis he takes his stand within, but against, a tradition of static law. Compelled finally to complete the crucifixion painting, Lev recognizes that

it would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave a future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work. I would not be the whore to my own existence. Can you understand that? I would not be the whore to my own existence [p. 312].

But even in so saying, he remains within the tradition. He is “an observant Jew.” Thus, while standing against the static, legalistic elements of his tradition, he seeks to find his place within its dynamic impulses.

Figuring significantly in that process is the crusty old painter, Jacob Kahn, who tutors Lev in the realities of the larger world. At once tender and harsh, arrogant and loving, of keen vision and tormented spirit, Kahn is a strange guide to the spiritually wandering youth. It is important to note, however, that Kahn has been appointed to his heuristic task by the rabbi and has, therefore, received the blessing of the spiritual leader of the faith. The sum of Kahn’s teaching may be encapsulated in a quotation from a book, The Art of the Spirit, which, ironically, is given to Lev by his mother after she hears that he is being tutored by Kahn:

Every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘‘universal” without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere [p. 195].

Jacob Kahn succeeds where other characters fail: he points out clearly the risks involved in this other world that lies beyond the window of Lev’s tradition -- and the risks are genuine. The strength of tradition resides in the security it provides. Indeed, to refocus for a moment on the concept of halacha, the reason for any codification of law is to attempt a structured certitude within that law. To live halacha properly in the dynamic flux of existence is an act of risk and of considerable daring. As Asher Lev discovers, and as Jacob Kahn well knows, it can be a life of anguish. So it is that he immediately counsels Lev to return to his tradition

 “Jacob,” the woman said softly. “You are frightening the boy.”

“It is my intention to frighten him out of his wits. I want him to go back to Brooklyn and remain a nice Jewish boy. What does he need this for, Anna?”

“What did you need it for, Jacob?”

“I know what I went through,” he said [p. 204].

Kahn would spare the boy the pain of the exposed life, of the questioning spirit assaulted by the world’s answers. If one persists in asking the right questions, however, and if one possesses the steely courage to sort through the world’s answers, this crucible of tension refines and strengthens. Moreover, as a pilgrim in the outside world, the seeker may learn better the place that is his last refuge, his art.

Not all the torment arises from the world outside tradition. In fact, this world is so large that it offers a different kind of security: anonymity, a kind of rootlessness in the faceless crowd. It offers security, moreover, from those within the tradition who would gladly reject the troubled seeker. A note is slipped into Asher Lev’s Gemara one day:

Asher Lev

Won’t go to Heav;

To hell he’ll go

Far down below.


This is perhaps the greater pain: not rejecting one’s tradition, but being rejected by it. Where does the seeker go then? If tradition is sometimes a bed of misunderstanding and hatred, and the world a maze of ready but insufficient answers, is he or she left to walk a precarious tightrope buffeted by forces beyond his or her control?

In a sense, Potok’s answer is Yes. But one can learn, through experience and effort, to walk that tightrope with confidence. The tormented young protagonists of Potok’s novels will never be at ease. The discovery of their individuality is their important task, however -- their life-consuming task. After Lev’s first summer in Provincetown with Jacob Kahn, he tells his father: “That’s what art is, Papa. It’s a person’s private vision expressed in aesthetic forms” (p. 288). It is a language that few understand, and its vocabulary is ill suited to neat answers which will still the ire of tradition or lay straight the world’s maze. It is a private vision that rises from and through the individual, to be expressed in forms constituting the only real language a person can know. For Potok, the solution to the problem of our relationship to tradition seems to lie in precisely this kind of willful person who does not attempt to destroy his or her tradition or to embrace the world wholly, but who builds some bridge, however flimsy, between the two. If this reconciler’s language is imperfect and imprecise at first, perhaps we can grow to understand it as we study its vocabulary. Lev discovers his place in the dynamic flux of his heritage, and learns that he is called to work his own unique mitzvot -- deeds that fulfill God’s will. The tension with tradition is not thereby erased, but it is, perhaps, resolved.

People, Lev learns, must by themselves resolve the tension between tradition and the outside world. Compelled, after the exhibit of the crucifixion paintings, to live outside his tradition by his rabbi’s orders, Lev seeks solace in the realization that “we must give a balance to the universe.” As he leaves home, his parents watch from the living room window. One imagines the hand raised to the cord of the venetian blinds.