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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2011
Number 74
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

A Novelist's View of Nineteenth Century Judaism

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot by Gertrude Himmelfarb. New York: Encounter Books
A Review Essay by Matthew Schwartz

One of my pleasanter memories of high school is a beloved ninth grade teacher who recommended George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss as part of a (voluntary) summer reading list. That and Silas Marner and Middlemarch are unquestionably among the greatest of the English novels. Another Eliot novel, Daniel Deronda, receives less attention and draws fewer readers, perhaps both because of its 900 page girth and its somewhat out of the way topic ? a Jewish young man in 19th century England.

Why would George Eliot, nee Mary Ann Evans, have become interested not only in Jews and Judaism but in the founding of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel twenty years before Theodor Herzl appeared? In The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb offers a scholarly response to this question. A respected scholar in modern European intellectual and social history with a special focus on Victorian England, Professor Himmelfarb published the first of her many books in 1948. This latest book is founded in the wisdom of experience and of sure knowledge and treats what could be a difficult topic with an inspired elegance of simplicity and clarity.

George Eliot came out of an English Protestant background that would hardly seem to have drawn her to an interest in Judaism. Yet, unlike many novelists, Eliot was a serious scholar. She collected knowledge from wide and intensive readings as well as personal observation. She mastered a number of languages and kept notebooks of excerpts from many sources including Jewish: Bible, Talmud, medieval commentaries and modern wissenschaft. She had translated writers like Spinoza and Ludwig Feuerbach and also Daniel Strauss’s German language biography of Jesus.

Daniel Deronda, published near the end of her life, was not a response to current events but a portrayal of a man discovering himself as a Jew. The novel was an act of self-discovery for Eliot herself ? a spiritual journey into the world of Judaism. Born into a Low Church Anglican family, Eliot turned to Evangelicalism and later to agnosticism or possibly atheism. She did not practice Judaism, but she studied it seriously, as she studied many things.

The novel faced much opposition. Some critics wanted to republish it with the Jewish material deleted. Daniel Deronda’s interest in Jewish settlement in Palestine would arouse the ire, a century later, of Edward Said. Eliot’s interest in Deronda is even more remarkable given the open anti-Semitism expressed by many of Europe’s leading intellectuals ? Voltaire, Proudhon, Kant, Fichte, Marx, Thomas Arnold and others. The French consul in Syria had publicly and aggressively supported the ritual murder charge in the infamous Damascus affair of 1840. Professor Himmelfarb’s chapter on the Jewish question in Germany, France and England is informative and attentive both to small details and to larger trends.

Beyond her extensive readings, Eliot visited Jewish sites and synagogues in Prague, Leghorn, Amsterdam and other places, and some of what she saw is reflected, with great accuracy, in her subsequent writings. Meeting Emanuel Deutsch was a decisive moment for George Eliot. Deutsch worked in the library of the British Museum, where, knowledgeable in both Hebrew and Hellenic writings, he stirred Eliot’s scholarly interests, particularly in Talmud, and provided her with both tutoring and books. In Deutsch’s early death, Eliot lost a good friend, and she may have planned the Deronda character or perhaps the Mordecai Cohen character as a sort of memorial to Deutsch.

By 1872, when George Eliot began working on Daniel Deronda, she was ready to portray Judaism in its uniqueness and also as of a whole with the culture and history of mankind. For in her view, young Daniel embodies the wholeness of Judaism.

The character, Daniel Deronda, first becomes exposed to Jews when he rescues Mirah, a Jewish girl from drowning. He then helps her on a quest to find her mother and brother from whom she had been separated as a child. Eventually, Daniel learns that he is himself of Jewish origin, and he has a poignant meeting with his own mother where he learns that he is not only of Jewish birth but a scion of the distinguished Al-Charisi family. He becomes imbued with the ideal of restoring to his people a political existence in the land of their forefathers.

George Eliot’s journey through Judaism did not end with Daniel Deronda. Two years later, she published a book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, in which the last essay was entitled “The Modern Hep! Hep!” Hep Hep, an acronym for Hierosolyma est perdita, had been the cry of the Crusaders attacking Jews and more recently of German anti-Semitic rioters in 1819. Eliot brought Judaism and Zionism as well out of the past and into “the national identity that Eliot attributed to all great peoples” (p. 100). Jewish History, she wrote, had become exceptional in its long exile. Kindness, tenderness, love, domestic life and other virtues had withstood centuries of persecution and oppression. Oppression breeds certain vices, but these were a condition of Jewish survival. Eliot rejected Spinoza’s criticism of Judaism ?“Baruch Spinoza had not a faithful Jewish heart, though he sucked the life of intellect at the breast of Jewish tradition.” Still, Spinoza “saw not why Israel should not be again a chosen nation” (p. 103). Theophrastus Such restated in essay form Eliot’s main views on Judaism and was in a sense her final bequest to the Jews and to the world. Her life ended a year and a half later, in December, 1880. George Eliot doubted that people would like the Jewish element of Daniel Deronda, and this often proved true. In letters, she criticized Christian prejudices toward Jews and English arrogance toward Eastern peoples. Jewish reviewers praised the book and Theodor Herzl credited Daniel Deronda with helping inspire his call for a Jewish state. Perhaps most significant, Eliot as a clear thinker and observer of humanity presented Judaism not largely in relation to the world but to the Jews themselves. In a time when Western peoples seem very unsure of their own identities and unable to relate to their own innate greatness, this is an important concept. Thus Gertrude Himmelfarb’s excellent treatment of George Eliot’s Jewish odyssey.

Let us present an added slant. George Eliot’s greatness as a novelist was achieved not by advertising but in large measure by hard work. She visited sites that she would use in novels, including synagogues in preparing for Daniel Deronda. She learned Hebrew and even taught some to her “husband” George Lewes so that on one occasion while visiting Switzerland they were able to hide their conversation from the hotel staff by conversing in Hebrew. A reader familiar with rabbinic literature will surely be impressed by the number of rabbinic expressions George Eliot used in Daniel Deronda, and she does so as appropriately as any Talmudic scholar. Lewes wrote of her in a letter that she had done so much research, she must know more than many rabbis. The novel’s description of the Friday evening meal in the Cohen home is moving in its deep sense of Sabbath feeling.

Daniel himself is presented as a very Jewish character. Think of how his circumstances compare to some of the heroes of the Greek mythology and Classic theater. Like Oedipus, he was rejected at birth by parents, and like Narcissus he could not know his own identity. Yet, Daniel grows up to be a young man of unusual compassion and high intelligence. He feels a strong sense of right and wrong and seeks and uses well opportunities to do good to others. Learning his identity, that he is born Jewish and not of the English gentry as he believed, does not destroy him, as Oedipus and Narcissus implode when they learn who they are. The knowledge instead helps Daniel to do more toward fulfilling his own being. In life and not in tragic death like the Greek heroes, Daniel moves toward fulfillment. Nor is he disengaged from people as were the Greek heroes. Gwendolen, Hans, Mirah and Ezra all find him eminently human and trustworthy, a man who can support and guide them when they are failing and who can help them toward fulfilling who they are even as he fulfills himself.

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 170 pages of George Eliot’s Jewish Odyssey and Ms. Eliot’s 900 pages of Daniel Deronda are both well worth the reading.

Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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