Reading Chaim Potok to Understand Mormonism

This is the first of a series of guest posts by our friend John Dehlin.

How could I teach my son the way I was taught by my father, and not drive him away from Torah? Because this is America, Reuven. This is not Europe. It is an open world here. Here there are libraries and books and schools. Here there are great universities that do not concern themselves with how many Jewish students they have. I did not want to drive my son away from God, but I did not want him to grow up a mind without a soul. I knew already when he was a boy that I could not prevent his mind from going to the world for knowledge. I knew in my heart that it might prevent him from taking my place. But I had to prevent it from driving him away completely from the Master of the Universe. And I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life. — Reb Saunders, The Chosen

I am truly honored to be invited as a guest poster here on BCC.

Over the past several months I have been pratically consumed by Jewish author Chaim Potok (The Chosen, The Promise, Davita’s Harp, My Name is Asher Lev) — and have been profoundly struck by how much we, as Mormons, could learn from 19th and 20th century Judaism. In so many ways — the Jewish struggle chronicled in these books make the “Mormon modernity” questions seem almost cliche (in the best of ways, I might add). More significantly (for me, at least) — these books have caused me to feel more committed to the church than I have in 20 years. No kidding. I’m even singing in the
choir again.

I see the series of books as a parallel (in many ways) to what has been going on over the past 40 years within Mormonism. The Chosen (along w/ the others) deals with issues like: historicity of scripture, science and academia clashing w/ traditional beliefs, the marginalization and even excommunication of intellectuals, the beauty of ritual, the perils of unbridled intellectuality and liberalism to the soul, the importance of orthodoxy to the vitality of a religious movement, apologetics, family, community, etc., etc., etc. I can’t think of a better book as a platform to discuss Mormonism in the 21st century. These books (for me) walk a very moderate line between approving of submission to an authoritative orthodoxy and encouraging individualistic adaptation of tradition…exploring the good and bad of both ends of the spectrum.

So move over, Oprah! It’s time for the inaugural BCC Book Club. Here are
the steps I’d like to propose:

We’ll give you all a week to dust off, purchase, borrow, or check out “The
Chosen.” Each week we’ll cover a few chapters here on the blog (via a blog post).
After each post/discussion has run its course, we’ll hold a follow-up conference call/discussion with a few interested, headset-owning, Skype-savvy souls (posted as podcasts?)

Anyone game?

Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    Game. That’s a very good book.

    Oh, and hi, John!

  2. Sounds virtuous, lovely, and of good report to me.

  3. John, I’m glad you were only “practically consumed” and not completely so you’re still around to hang out with us :) And I’m glad to have a nudge to reread these books!

  4. I’m a huge fan of The Chosen and The Promise. I keep vaguely planning a post about negotiating faith orthodoxy and scholarship with them, but you beat me to it. Probably because I’m lazy ;)

    I’d guess I relate to them a bit differently though.

  5. Singing in the choir … the ultimate sacrifice. I guess I’ll trudge off to find a copy of The Chosen. I’d hate to be outread by a bunch of BCCers.

  6. MikeInWeHo says:

    This is a wonderful idea. I’m in.
    Interestingly, I read My Name is Asher Lev in high school and it touched me at some deep level. I remember it very clearly. It was not long after that I met the missionaries and wound up joining the Church.

  7. I’ve never read these, but this book club sounds pretty interesting.

  8. If only this post had come out before my article for the next Irreantum went to press . . . .

  9. Liz, maybe we’ll poach your article, too–thanks for the link!

  10. I’m in, although I’m a ringer — I taught it to grade nine a few years ago.

  11. John–

    I can still remember rereading The Chosen in college. Outside the scriptures, I don’t know if any thing I’ve read has resonated with me as deeply as the passage near the end where Rev. Saunders explains to his son why he needed to teach him the value of silence and how he needed to develop he kind of soul that would allow him to bear others’ burdens–riveting moral stuff, to be sure! His mini-sermon reminded me of Mosiah 3-5.

  12. I’m not a pro, ty, but I think it’s “Reb”, as in Rebbe, not Rev., as in Reverend.

  13. Can newcomers join in?

  14. NO!!

  15. I think you’re right: typo, sorry bout that.

  16. John, using BCC for this sort of thing is inappropriate. See here.

  17. I am going to read it and audit the posted discussion no matter what anyone says! ;-)

  18. Were you not in that Freshman Colloquium, John? I wasn’t, either, but I started reading Chaim Potok when all my dorm-mates who were read (I think it was) Asher Lev.

  19. 1-4 and anyone else interested: Thanks ya’ll! Can’t wait to review w/ you!!!! I think this book will be meaningful to many of you.

    5. :) Thanks, Dave.

    13. Of course!!! Newcomers totally welcome!

    16. ???? Not sure how to respond. No context.

    18. I was in a BYU colloquium in 1990. “Shaping the Modern Mind” w/ Drs. Ted Lyon, Clayton White and Lynn England. We read “My name is Asher Lev” and I loved it.

    Thanks to all! Let’s get reading and thinking!!!

  20. I was just joshing in 16.

  21. I’m in!

  22. 20. gst — Sorry I missed it! I’m kinda new to the broader ‘nacle/BCC. :)

  23. I’m in, it has been about 10 years since I read “The Chosen”, and then “Asher Lev” shortly thereafter. Enjoyed them both, and will reread with a new perspective.

  24. gst, BCC should not be used for joshing. See here.

  25. I’m definitely in.
    If you can find it (it’s long out of print), I also heartily recommend the movie version of “The Chosen” (although not as a Cliff-notes version of the book.) :-)
    Quite faithful to the spirit of the book, and an absolutely stunning performance by Rod Steiger as Reb Saunders. One of my top-ten favorites.

  26. I’m in. I recently read My Name is Asher Lev through another book club. It is one of my favorite books.

  27. Dave in #25- I’ve seen it several times. It cuts out the majority of what I find most relevant in the book, namely, the internal struggles for defining his own faith and “orthodoxy”. It turns it into a cutural exploration of two different Judaic sects instead.

    I showed it to my Institute class. It engendered some discussion, but not as much as the book would have.

  28. I’m in John…Just finished the 3rd chapter last night and hoping to finish off the next few whilst doing my studies tonight.

    I am up for the Skype convo too. I am enjoying it so far.

  29. John,
    This is a great idea.
    I’m hoping to read the Promise for my friend’s book group. I love Potok (although I can’t quite get through Davita’s Harp . . . don’t know why).
    Thanks!

  30. I’m in. I read The Chosen back in high school, but I don’t remember anything about it. I’ll be interested to reread it from the perspective John is talking about here.

  31. Jennifer in GA says:

    I read this back in high school, and it’s one of the few “required reading” books I’ve hung onto for the past 13 years. It’s very, very good.

  32. I checked out my copy today from the HBLL at BYU. I look forward to the discussion.

  33. Rameumptom says:

    My name is Asher Lev continues to be one of my favorite books. I’ll see if our local library has a copy of the Chosen to read (it’s been almost 30 years since the last time I read it).

    I do agree that Potok’s stories are very real to the Mormon realm. How do we fit Mormonism into a world of traditional Christians and materialistic humanists? It is akin to Asher Lev’s mother trying to hold onto both her traditional Hasidic husband and secular artist son at the same time.

  34. I am looking forward to reading “The Chosen” again with a few more years wisdom behind me. (Don’t miss some of Chaim Potok’s later books especially “Old Men at Midnight”

  35. OK, I’m in, too. This sounds like fun. Good idea.

  36. My husband named our son Asher after I read My Name is Asher Lev. The parallels between Judaism and Mormonism are striking.

  37. What a great idea! I’m off to find the book.

  38. Sounds like a good idea. I’m in.

  39. Count me in. I love Chaim Potok. We read The Chosen and The Promise for our book club last year, but like all classics, it’s always great to read it again! Will the book club info, chapter, discussion all be here on BCC?

  40. I’m a huge Potok fan. Asher Lev is my favorite. The Chosen is right on up there, though. I saw the parallels to Mormonism as well. I feel as though I’m Jewish when I read Potok, as though being Mormon is just a slightly different form of Judaism, which I suppose in a way it is. The tension between the demands of orthodoxy, with all the spiritual gifts it brings, and the demands of modern conscience, with the higher vision, the justice, the sense of rightness to which one can remain true, is exactly the same tension I feel in the Mormon church. How do we balance these things? Must we choose between them?

    I’ll be reading with interest everyone’s comments on the book. Chaim Potok is able to convey a sense of holiness, of the sacredness of life and everything better than any other novelist I’ve ever read. I love his books.

  41. Anyone else remember Chaim Potok’s visit to BYU? I’m trying to remember when that was — maybe 25 years ago? Standing room only.

  42. Re: “New to the broader ‘nacle.” Two smileys in two comments? Obviously…

  43. I’m in! It’s been a couple years since I’m read The Chosen. I’m sure I’ll have different insights this go around.

  44. I think that this is a fabulous idea. And I hope people really do the reading; the Internet seems to be a place where people are willing to commit but lack follow through.

    Tatiana and I have had some experience with that in another setting — although she and I ended up having some great conversations anyway.

    Of course, this being BCC, I’m sure it will be a smashing success.

    Two notes of caution:

    1. I’m not expert on this, but as I understand it, one should thoroughly explore and interrogate Potok’s notions and portrayals of Jewish Orthodoxy. I’d be careful making pronouncements about that community and then try to map them to the LDS community.

    2. Potok has become a bit of a fetish for Mormon literary types. I totally understand the appeal — I have a bit of a crush on him myself — but I don’t think we should assume that his authorial persona and/or any of his works should be the paramount exemplars for Mormon artists.

    Wow. I’m such a downer.

    Also:

    I very much look forward to reading Liz’s essay in the next issue of Irreatum — that was definitely one of the works that leapt out of Table of Contents at me when the e-mail from the AML arrived a couple of weeks ago.

  45. 39 — “Will the book club info, chapter, discussion all be here on BCC?”

    Yes…but we might do some skype audio discussions as well, for those interested.

  46. So I say to my wife, “Have you ever heard of a book called The Chosen?” Turns out, not only is it one of her top 10 favorite books, but it’s in the basement. I guess I’m in.

  47. Justmeherenow says:

    Considering….

  48. The Maeser building. Ted Lyon.

    Verklempt.

  49. Chino,

    Were you in my class?

  50. John Mansfield says:

    “Anyone else remember Chaim Potok’s visit to BYU?”–Ardis

    No, but I do remember his semester as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins in 1994. His public lecture in a large classroom, for those not enrolled in the writing seminars, was a wonderful evening. Core-core collision is the principal concept that I remember. About two years ago, I read The Chosen to my sons—so they’d understand why I don’t talk with them. More seriously, it is quite a father and son story with scarcely a female in sight.

  51. John -

    All I ever did of note in the Maeser building was to TA for Ralph Hancock as an undergrad (on the off-chance that Ralph’s name rings any bells).

    Otherwise, no … rest assured that any “Shaping [of the] the Modern Mind” was happening well before you arrived on the scene.

  52. One too many thes .. oh well.

  53. Anyone else remember Chaim Potok’s visit to BYU? I’m trying to remember when that was — maybe 25 years ago? Standing room only.

    December 1982 (fn. 44)?

  54. So do we get our first reading assignment next week or can we have it now?

    I am excited to do this – can you tell?

  55. Because of a current project I’m trying to finish up, I won’t be able to read along with you, but I read The Chosen many years ago and will follow your discussion with interest.
    Another favorite Potok book of mine is I Am the Clay, which is marketed to young adults, but has some very adult themes.

  56. John – great to see you here at BCC. Don’t want to start a threadjack here….but what happened to all your content at Mormon Stories (all the podcasts, etc.)? Can I find it somewhere else? I saw your link to staylds.com, but I didn’t see all the old content there. I also emailed you a while ago (I think at mormonstories@gmail.com) but just got an auto response.

    I’ve told many people about your podcasts but now don’t know where to direct them. Please help!!

  57. I’ve read The Chosen a couple of times. I look forward to the discussions.

  58. It’s the second book to read for TJEd (oops! did I just say that?)

  59. Potok is a hero. I have a picture of him in my office to this day. When I was in the MBA program at BYU I read all of his books after being assigned Asher Lev for an OB class. I wrote him a letter about two weeks before he died, I didn’t realize he was close to death. I like to think that he got a chance to read it and would have written back if he had of lived long enough. I would love to see an author emerge in the LDS community who can tackle these types of complex issues in a way that would be faith promoting as these books were for me.

  60. OK. I need everyone’s opinion.

    Do we do this as a 3 part thing? 1 book each time?

    Or do we do it a chapter at a time? 2 chapters?

    Let me know how thin or deeply ya’ll think we should dive.

    I’m game for anything, but don’t want to start a mutiny.

    My proposal — 3 chapters at a time over 6 total posts?

  61. Awesome idea. I’m in.

  62. Anyone else remember Chaim Potok’s visit to BYU? I’m trying to remember when that was — maybe 25 years ago? Standing room only.

    December 1982 (fn. 44)?

    I was in Grenoble as a missionary then, so he must have visited twice.

    John, you’re the boss. Much as I like mutinies, I suspect we’ll all go along with however you feel like organizing it. My books are dusted off and ready to go.

  63. I’ll be in on this too. I’m excited to hear your perspectives.

  64. My book is finally in at the library. Did we agree on 3 chapters for the reading assignment? When will the discussion commence?

  65. Look for a post hopefully tomorrow.

    Chapters 1-3 are the first assignments — though the first post will be more general.

    If any of ya’ll want to take part in a group phone discussion about the book, please email me at: mormonstories@gmail.com and let me know days/times this week when you can talk.

    Can’t wait!

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