The Chosen – Shunyamurti Movie Night Essay

Updated: Apr 7, 2018

On Saturday nights, the Sat Yoga Ashram turns into the Sat Yoga Cinémathèque, perhaps the greatest art house cinema this side of Holy Wood. From Tarkovsky to Kubrick, from Bresson to Malick to Jodorowsky, from Hollywood to postmodern classics, the sangha gathers to explore the spiritual journey of ego dissolution and soul liberation through the lens of film. For each film, Shunyamurti offers an exquisite teaching to guide the experience in a way that will provide the deepest and most thoughtful reflections and post-movie discussions. We hope these poetic treasures will inspire you to find the sacred journey and intelligence that is hidden in the films we feature.

Tonight we are going to screen a film adaptation of a novel by Chaim Potok, entitled The Chosen. It is a coming-of-age story of two boys in Brooklyn during the Second World War. One boy, Reuven, is a modern orthodox Jew. The other, Danny, is an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jew, the son of the sect’s tzaddik. They live in two different culture worlds, even though both study the Talmud and say the same prayers.

The film gets the Hasidic clothing right, and the sidelocks and beards. But there the psycho-cultural realism ends. The tzaddik is depicted as a shrill, one-dimensional, somewhat sadistic leader lacking in authentic wisdom. There is little mention of the Kabbalah. The rebbe’s teachings are idiotic. Danny is depicted as a culturally and intellectually deprived genius, who secretly goes to the public library to discover Freud and other modern secular thinkers. But in reality, Danny would have had many things to say back to Freud, he would not have simply absorbed what he read without being able to call upon the esoteric Jewish wisdom he would have been learning in his Hasidic studies to critique the propositions of psychoanalysis. 

The film portrays Danny’s decision to attend a secular university to study psychology as some radical move that threatens his place in his Hasidic lineage and that is close to heresy. But many Hasidic men have studied in secular schools and fields. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, for example, had an engineering degree from the Sorbonne. So Danny’s decision is not nearly as controversial as the film plays it to be. Nor is his having a Jewish friend outside the sect.

Barry Miller as Reuven and Robby Benson as Danny

The main conflict erupts when Reuven’s father is revealed as a Zionist, and Danny’s father comes across as a hysterical anti-Zionist, who, however, drops his antagonism to Zionism once the UN vote makes Israel a reality. That, too, would not likely have happened.

But despite these failings, the film sincerely portrays a friendship that overcomes egoic and social obstacles and shows how two boys navigate the irrational world they have inherited to become men—self-reinventing, independently thinking, and decisively acting, real men.

Reuven has to face the unavailability of a desirable young Hasidic woman, while he tempts Danny with the availability of erotic experience in the secular world, ranging from the examination of the female nude in an art museum to the graphic sexuality of a Hollywood film to the reality of desirous females in a promiscuous culture with few limits on the pursuit of sensual gratification.

This ability to separate from their families’ limited values and horizons to create their own destinies, to accept each other in their differences, and to value those differences rather than try to convert the other to another way of life—but at the same time to introduce each other to what each is missing in his own lifestyle—brings challenges and growth, the recognition of limits and the need to make choices that involve sacrifice—and finally to separate without sadness, but with deep feeling that cannot be described with any clichés.

The film makes up for its flaws with its profound faithfulness to the young men’s own faithfulness to Truth, and their refusal to settle for comfort or conventionality. At the same time, it portrays two fathers who likewise try to live their lives as truthfully and as generously and egolessly as possible, while struggling with the impossible task of providing the symbolic guidance their sons will need to face a rapidly changing world, which only the signifier of Jewishness enables them to make sense of. The film also depicts the stunted social roles of women and their forced separation from the intellectual milieu that the men are allowed to explore. By conveniently making Reuven’s father a widower, the film avoided confronting the similar tensions of women in the more secular social world of orthodox non-Hasidic Jews.

The Chosen succeeds in portraying the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood in a time in which the patriarchy, and its concept of manhood, is on the brink of collapse. It is a time that will soon reveal the naivete of idealistic Zionists, as well as of orthodox psychoanalysts. One gets the sense that these two men will be able to cope with those tectonic shifts as well.

I hope the film holds your interest and provokes lively discussion of its themes. It did succeed in portraying a bit of the flavor of that period of my own life in which I, like Reuven, peered into the world of the Brooklyn Hasidim.

Namaste, Shunyamurti


Sat Kabbalah, Yoga and the Messianic Age ~ In Conversation with Shunyamurti

In this interview, recorded in 2016 in anticipation of the Kabbalah: Tradition of Ecstasy retreat, Shunyamurti discuss the role of Kabbalah today, as well as speaking to some of the topics and themes that relate to this essay as well as the film.

“Kabbalah is one of those threads of esoteric wisdom that is congruent with all the other secret traditions. Each thread is essential to understand in its relation to the others if we are to perceive the Great Tapestry of cosmic manifestation in its totality and merge with the ineffable mind of God. The accurate understanding of the deep knowledge carried by Kabbalah enables one to be fully aligned with the Supreme Will and not only live in perfect peace in this period of massively accelerating transformation, but function as a catalyst for the emergence of the world to come.” ~ Shunyamurti
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