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Interfaith Inform: March 2, 2021
Kaufman Interfaith Institute

www.interfaithunderstanding.org

Chaim Potok
Interfaith Insight
Doug Kindschi
Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Finding reality through fiction 
I learn things about reality by reading novels that I could never understand by just reading non-fiction. I knew almost nothing about the world of Hasidic Judaism prior to reading the novels of Chaim Potok. But I also didn’t know things about myself until I read Potok. How is it that what is not factual can be so powerfully true?
Of course, I could learn about Hasidic Judaism by reading non-fiction. I could Google the topic, read Wikipedia and other presumably factual sources, but I wouldn’t get a hint about what it would be like to be a Hasidic Jew. I don’t know what might be going on8 in the mind of such a person.  I can’t even see inside the mind of people I know, colleagues I work with, and even those close to me that I live with. But fiction can take me inside the mind of the characters depicted. 
Reading Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” takes me inside the mind and thinking of an adolescent who has an incredible artistic talent that puts him in conflict with his family and conservative Orthodox community. As a young child he was drawn to art and painting prohibited by his community. While his father thinks he will outgrow it, he doesn’t, and the impulse grows even stronger.  He tells his Orthodox father that he can’t help painting.  His father responds: “only animals cannot help what they do. People have a will to direct their lives,” to which Asher replies that it is his will that makes him want to draw. I am drawn not only into the inner thoughts of this young person but also into conversations that I would never experience in my “real world.”
And yet, when I first read the Asher Lev book, I was also a young person struggling to resolve issues I had growing up in a very conservative, restrictive, fundamentalist Christian community.  I could learn through the eyes of this young Hasidic Jew in ways that helped me resolve some of my issues. I could relate to his inner thoughts as well as to the conversations he had. It was fiction, but it informed my reality and personal issues that I faced. The novel was not factual, but for me it was true.  
Potok’s first novel “The Chosen” tells the story of two young Jewish boys, one Hasidic and the other Orthodox, but more progressive. Danny Saunders’ father is the rabbi leader of a small Hasidic congregation that left Russia under his leadership to escape persecution. Reb Saunders led this small group, as had his father before him, and leadership of which his son Danny was expected to follow.
Danny, while feeling the pressure and expectation for his future, was more interested in studying psychology and understanding the workings of the mind. He became friends with another Jewish boy, Reuven Malter, who lived nearby in Brooklyn but culturally in a very different and more modern world. Reuven’s father, a professor and Torah scholar, was open to the larger world with a more liberal understanding of his faith and scripture.
The interactions of these two young men with their fathers gave me insight into my own relationship with my father, and an appreciation of how my father had encouraged my own development and exploration outside my very restrictive religious community. Again, fiction came to my aid and brought truth to my own development.  I recently read “The Chosen” again and watched the 1981 movie based on the novel.
Insight into meaning, life, and how to deal with differences can also be learned from fiction.  In a discussion with his son, Reuven’s father compares a human life span to “the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity.” But he continues, “a blink of 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. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. … A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here.”
At a much later stage in life, now many decades later, I return to this work of fiction to gain insight into what life is all about, its meaning and its truth. It informs a deeper sense of reality that the day-to-day facts of living and aging do not always reveal. 
In today’s world of conflict and polarization, the novel illumines another important lesson. Reuven becomes very upset with the way Rabbi Saunders is treating his son Danny and share this with his father. Reuven’s father defends Danny’s father even though he also disagrees with much of what he says and does. He notes that it was the faith of Jews like Reb Saunders that “kept us alive through two thousand years of violent persecution.  He disagreed with Reb Saunders, yes, but he would countenance no slander against his name or his position.  Ideas should be fought with ideas, my father said, not with blind passion.”
Can we affirm the faith of those who do not believe as we do, even as we disagree? Can we find a truth that is deeper than the details of our differing narratives?
Another powerful form of fiction in today’s world can be found in movies. Film critic Roger Ebert noted this when he wrote, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief. The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.”
Today we need the truth as well as the empathy that can be mediated through various forms of fiction. Let us be open to coming together and even learning from fiction to be better people with empathy and openness to differences as we seek a larger truth. 

Interfaith Leadership Lecture


What: “Protecting the Sacred”

Who: Allie Young, Indigenous advocate and activist

When: Tuesday, March 9, at 5 pm

Where: Online. Information and free registration at:

www.interfaithunderstanding.org

These weekly Insights are published in the Grand Rapids Press'  Religion section every Thursday.

For an archive of previous articles,
click here.