The action of The Chosen unfolds in the immigrant community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, against the backdrop of World War II.
It is seen through the eyes of Reuven Malter, a boy who would appear to have much in common with Danny, for they are both brilliant, Jewish, closely tied to their fathers, and near-neighbors who live only five blocks apart. Still, they attend separate yeshivas and inhabit very different worlds. A baseball league is begun. When Danny Saunders school plays Reuven Malters, the Hasids are determined to show the apikorsim a thing or two and the competition is fierce. Dannys murderous hitting is remarkable, but when Reuven comes to pitch he does not back away. A hard ball shatters his glasses and smashes into his eye, sending him to the hospital for a week.
At his fathers insistence, Reuven permits the repentant Danny to visit him, and they become friends. Danny dazzles Reuven with demonstrations of his photographic mind, with the quantity of scholarly work he bears each day, and with the intellectual prowess of his English and Hebrew studiesqualities greatly revered in traditional Jewish culture. Dannys revelations startle Reuven; he confesses he would rather be a psychologist than accept his inherited role as spiritual leader of his fathers sect. Reuvens confessions surprise Danny; he reveals his desire to become a rabbi, though his scholar-father would prefer him to follow his talent and become a mathematician. Danny cannot understand how anyone would choose the very position he secretly wishes to reject.
At a time when conflicts are churning within him, Danny finds Reuven as an empathetic listener who is highly intelligent yet safenot a Hasid, but a Jew who follows orthodox religious traditions without rejecting the secular possibilities in the world around them. As the boys become friends, Reuven begins to learn about Hasidism. He learns that there are tzaddiks who were believed to be superhuman links between the people and God. In some sects it was believed that a leader should take upon himself the sufferings of the Jewish people.
Such a leader is Reb Saunders. His ways and his teachings are the ways of seventeenth century Hasids and it is this role that Danny is expected to fill when he becomes the tzaddik. In the long initial visits that Reuven pays to Reb Saunders congregation to be approved as fit company for Danny, Reuven observes the way Hasidic philosophy permeates his friends life. Weeks before the accident which brings the two boys together, Mr.
Malter meets Danny in the public library and begins to guide him in his search for knowledge of the world through the “forbidden books” prescribed by his father. Mr. Malter tells Reuven of Dannys brilliant mind, his insatiable appetite for learning, and the amazing speed with which he digests information. When the Germans surrender and the existence of the concentration camps becomes known for the first time, the two mens reactions are characteristic. For Mr.
Malter, overwhelming grief is followed by a determination to counter the senseless suffering of the millions who died with something meaningful: the creation of the state of Israel. While Reb Saunders suffers, Danny struggles to educate himself in the ideas of Freud and in the problems of contemporary Judaism. He combines the load of schoolwork and the study of Talmud which forms the basis of his relation to his father, with his own attempts to educate himself in his quest for identity. Reuven, too, is seen to spend many hours of his day in study. The novel begins with Danny and Reuven as high school boys and concludes with their graduation from college. Danny has decided to get out of the life that imprisons him; he will take off the clothing and shun the trappings of the Hasid, go on to graduate school, and become a psychologist.
When he has resolved to do this, Mr. Malter tells him he must prepare what he will say to his father. An arranged marriage will have to be broken, the inheritance of spiritual leadership will go to Levi, the tradition of six generations will have been broken, and Reb Saunders will have lost to the world he hates and fears the son he most treasures. Before Danny can confront his father, however, his father confronts him. Using Reuven as a foil through whom to speak to his son, Reb Saunders reveals that he knows his son will not become a rabbi.
And so Reb Saunders reveals his plan was not to train Danny to take his inherited position, but to pass along the tradition of the tzaddik. So if Danny chose to reject the old world, he would be prepared to enter the new one with a compassionate soul, not with a brilliant uncaring intellect. Reb Saunders pain is made evident at the novels conclusion. He has recognized his own limitations as Dannys teacher and has seen the Malters as a blessing: worthy guides for Danny. He also knows that the Malters integrate Danny into the America he himself is cut off from, and compassionate individuals in their own right, an essential feature in a teacher.