Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The book’s webpage at Encounter Books. Below is Edward Alexander’s review of said book in Society March 2010, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp. 167–169. And yes, Gertrude is 96 not out!


“How,” asks Himmelfarb, “did the translator of Strauss, Feuerbach, and Spinoza come to write so sympathetic a novel about Judaism and so prophetic a vision of Zionism?”

The tale of George Eliot’s Jewish “odyssey” has been told before, and for the very good reason that it is an astonishing one. In 1848, when she was already 29, had discarded the ardent Evangelicalism of her youth, translated D. F. Strauss’s subversive Das Leben Jesu, and begun to move in Radical circles, she unleashed her fury at the idea of “race fellowship” that she thought she detected in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Coningsby. She told a friend that she was “almost ready to echo Voltaire’s vituperation. I bow to the supremacy of Hebrew poetry, but much of their early mythology and almost all their history, is utterly revolting. Their stock has produced a Moses and a Jesus but Moses was impregnated with Egyptian philosophy, and Jesus is venerated and adored by us only for that wherein he transcended or resisted Judaism … Everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade.” This being so, she could even speculate about how “Extermination…seems to be the law for inferior races,” including “even the Hebrew caucasian.” Exactly one hundred years later, when the state of Israel was established, each of its three major cities—Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, and Haifa—had a street named after “George Eliot,” the pseudonym which Mary Ann Evans had taken on in 1857 when she embarked on a career as a novelist that would culminate in Middlemarch (1871–72) and take a daring final turn (in 1876) with Daniel Deronda. “How,” asks Himmelfarb, “did the translator of Strauss, Feuerbach, and Spinoza come to write so sympathetic a novel about Judaism and so prophetic a vision of Zionism?” How did the woman who had speculated (without regret) about the “extermination” of the Jewish people become the author of a Zionist classic that Ruth Wisse has called “the imaginative equivalent of the Balfour Declaration,” which in 1917 gave the British government’s formal recognition of a historical Jewish claim to Palestine?

Never has this story been told with the fullness of documentation, wealth of historical and intellectual background, and—not least—the sense of political urgency that Gertrude Himmelfarb brings to the task in her latest book. Probably the last in a line of great American scholars of the Victorian age—Lionel Trilling, Walter E. Houghton, A. Dwight Culler—who brilliantly integrated the disciplines of history and literature in writing about a body of literature in which history and imagination exist in close proximity (to this day historians rely on Middlemarch for the most reliable picture that exists of England at the time of the first Reform Bill.) These scholars—and none more so than Himmelfarb—even came to embody what might be called Victorian values—especially hard work and conscience.

George Eliot’s transformation from Judeophobe to Judeophile seems to have begun when she began to write fiction, starting with Scenes of Clerical Life in 1857. Before that her essays for the Westminster Review that touch on religion, especially on the preachers of her own family’s Evangelical persuasion, had been acrid in their irony. But now, she observed in 1859, “I have no longer any antagonism toward any faith in which human sorrow and human longing for purity have expressed themselves … Many things that I should have argued against 10 years ago, I now feel myself too ignorant, and too limited in moral sensibility, to speak of with confident disapprobation.” Not the least of these things was the Jews. In 1858 she and her beloved G. H. Lewes, traveling in Europe, found that “the most interesting things” in Prague were the Jewish burial ground and the old (Altneu) synagogue. The multitude of quaint tombs in the cemetery struck her as the existential realization of Jewish history, “the fragments of a great building … shaken by an earthquake.” But ruins were not the whole story: “We saw a lovely dark-eyed Jewish child here, which we were glad to kiss in all its dirt. Then came the somber old synagogue, with its smoked groins, and lamp forever burning. An intelligent Jew was our cicerone, and read us some Hebrew out of the precious old book of the law.”

But the crucial turning point in George Eliot’s attitude toward “everything specifically Jewish” came in 1866, when she met Emanuel Deutsch. Her translations of Strauss and even of Spinoza’s Ethics had done little to dislodge her from the view that “to say ‘Jewish philosopher’ seems almost like saying a round square.” But Deutsch, immersed in the most “specifically Jewish” thing in the world, the Talmud, was a revelation to her. In October 1867 this refugee from Prussia leaped into fame with a lengthy general article on the Talmud in the Quarterly Review. Since it recounted the Talmud’s history of persecution and censorship in Christendom, it was widely attacked. But, perhaps because of its sweet-tempered insistence on the brotherhood of Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity, it was also generously celebrated. Its most enduring effect, however, was on Eliot’s writings about Jews and Zionism. She urged him to ignore both the attacks and the celebrations, and to work “without reference to any temporary chit-chat…the noise of admiration is always half of it contemptible in its quality, and the spite, the head-shaking, the depreciation…are the muddier reflux of muddy waters.” For this sage counsel, Deutsch reciprocated with weekly Hebrew lessons for the gloomy sibyl of English fiction.

When he returned from a visit to Jerusalem he spoke to public gatherings about how the destiny of “the once proscribed and detested Jews…is not yet fulfilled.” Eliot and Lewes were eager to hear more, and the contents of what they heard are encapsulated in the character of Mordecai, the mentor of Daniel Deronda in the novel.

The spiritual affinity between the novelist and her “rabbi” cannot be overestimated. Guided by her profound sense that it is not the utilitarian pursuit of happiness but the idea of a community of suffering that provides the basis of ethical doctrine, she felt personally called to keep Deutsch from suicide when he was stricken by the Dantesque horrors of cancer. Speaking to him as “a fellow Houyhnhnm who is bearing the yoke with you,” she confessed that “I have been ailing and in the Slough of Despond too,” and even intimates that she herself might once have contemplated self-destruction: “Remember, it has happened to many to be glad they did not commit suicide, though they once ran for the final leap.” (The drowning motif is crucial in unifying Daniel Deronda: the Jewish Mirah is saved from drowning by Deronda, and Gwendolen Harleth, the book’s female protagonist, is “saved” by the drowning of her husband Grandcourt, Eliot’s classic portrait of the English aristocrat in his most inhuman and sadistic form.)

Complicating the question of Eliot’s transformation from Judeophobe to Judeophile is the question of her timing. Did she begin “reading up” on Judaism even before finishing Middlemarch and then set to work on a novel about the Jewish question in 1874 simply because of Deutsch, who died in 1873 ? Himmelfarb stresses that the Jewish question was of no great public concern in England at this time; there is no indication that Eliot thought of the idealistic, wise, and (relentlessly) virtuous Daniel Deronda as a foil to Dickens’ arch-villain Fagin; in any case, Dickens had himself already tried to atone for Fagin with the saintly character Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65).“Nor,” observes Himmelfarb, “were there any public events to provoke her—nothing like a Damascus Affair…or a Dreyfus Affair …or the pogroms in Russia in 1881….There was not even the political issue of Jewish citizenship to focus attention upon Jews; that had been settled long before with the Jewish emancipation bill of 1858.” Nevertheless, Eliot chose as the central fable of her last novel the transformation of a young Protestant English gentleman apparently of good upper-class birth searching for a noble vocation into a Jew who finds that vocation in the reestablishment of a Jewish polity, a national center, in Palestine.

Himmelfarb also does not find in George Eliot’s own fiction any precedent or foreshadowing of her final novel’s all-consuming interest in Jewish nationhood, and yet there is one—and it comes at the very beginning of Middlemarch, in the famous St. Theresa Prelude that frames the story of Dorothea Brooke in the novel that follows: “Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea…” Here Eliot alludes to the fact that Spain’s national identity was forged in an ostensibly religious struggle against Muslim Arabs, by whom Theresa and her brother expect to be martyred.

The passage is one of many in Eliot’s work that illustrate what was meant by those of her contemporaries who called her “the first great godless writer of fiction that has appeared in England.” Godless she might have become after formally abandoning Evangelical Christianity, but she was constantly searching for substitutes for belief that would give moral weight and idealism to existence. Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch, has no such heroic ideal to shape her life; but Daniel Deronda will link religion and “a national idea” in Zionism. The England of 1830 affords a young woman of spiritual yearning like Dorothea no such epic life, “no coherent social faith and order” as Theresa found for herself in the reform of a religious order; and nobody in Middlemarch has a heart that beats to “a national idea.”

What then, apart from her friendship with Deutsch, drew Eliot, in the period between Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, to see in the Jews a symbol of the search for moral ideals and therefore to immerse herself in the study of Jewish history, Jewish customs, Jewish religion?

What has drawn Himmelfarb herself to this novel is the fact that it was not fear of pogroms or resentment of social prejudice or antisemitism of any kind that defined Eliot’s subject, but the sense of Jewish nationality. the need for “an organic centre,” that inspires Daniel’s spiritual mentor Mordecai and eventually Daniel himself. That is to say, both the novel and Himmelfarb reject the infamous thesis of Sartre (and others before and after him) that it was antisemitism that produced both Jewish consciousness and Jewish nationhood. Eliot’s “Jewish question was not the relation of Jews to the Gentile world, but the relation of Jews to themselves, …the beliefs and traditions that were their history and their legacy….This Jewish question was predicated upon… the creed of a nation that could find its fulfillment only in a polity and a state.”

Although Irving Howe pronounced Daniel Deronda “the most penetrating scrutiny in nineteenth-century English fiction, perhaps in all English fiction, of human beings caught up in a web of inhuman relations,” and several ill-conceived attempts have been made to purge the novel of its “Jewish half,” the storm of controversy that has surrounded the book from its publication up until this day has centered on its apologia for Zionism. In dealing with the central “argument” of the novel itself, Himmelfarb follows Eliot’s lead in giving some of the best speeches to the anti-Jews and anti-Zionists. “What Eliot wrote, and what offended others, was a novel that was also an apologia…for a Judaism that was virtually unknown to non-Jews … and for a Jewish state that seemed even more bizarre, to Jews as well as non-Jews. An apologia, however impassioned, requires a serious confrontation with a worthy antagonist.” And so it is that, both in Mordecai’s debates at the Philosophers’ club with Gentile and Jewish opponents of his program for Jewish national revival, and in Daniel’s meeting with his long-absent mother, a ferocious Jewish antisemite of the feminist sort, the antagonists of Judaism and of Jewish peoplehood are endowed with considerable rhetorical power. If Mordecai lays the basis for the Eichmann trial when he predicts that, with the establishment of “a new Jewish polity…the outraged Jew shall have a defence in the court of nations, as the outraged Englishman or American….” then Mordecai’s liberal, progressive antagonists who depict Judaism as a superannuated fossil foreshadow the polemics of Arnold Toynbee and his acolytes; and Daniel’s mother foreshadows countless twentieth-century feminists (especially Jewish ones) when she excoriates Judaism as a vast machine for the oppression of women. This was her reason for repudiating her own Judaism and also giving away her own son to save both of them from that awful faith and the fate it might entail. (She is, nevertheless, the person who gives Daniel the information, necessary to fulfill his destiny, that he is himself a Jew. As the very first lengthy study of the novel pointed out in 1877, it seems odd that Daniel never discovered this by looking down.)

Himmelfarb’s critical tact in dealing with the novel’s adversaries of Jewish nationhood does not make her, any more than they made the novelist herself, a disinterested observer of the debate. She makes it clear that she has written this book precisely in order to throw back the current assault, led by “progressives,” especially literary ones, on the very existence of the state of Israel. Whereas George Eliot anticipated that the establishment of a Jewish polity would be one of the few redeeming events of modern times, her critics, who have (since 1948) moved from attacking the “Jewish parts” of the novel to excoriating the “Zionist” parts, believe that Israel is the devil’s own experiment station, responsible for every evil on the globe with the (possible) exception of swine flu. And nearly all of them hold to the view that Israel was established because of the Holocaust and western bad conscience about this culminating event of centuries of antisemitism.

Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Zionism existed long before the Holocaust, and Israel came into being in spite, not because. of an onslaught that destroyed Eastern-European Jewry, the most Zionistically-inclined Jews in the world, who would have contributed far more to the state as live immigrants than as dead martyrs used to prick the feeble conscience of the West. Himmelfarb has taken up the cudgels for Daniel Deronda because it argues that “it was Judaism, the religion and the people, that created the Jew. And it was Judaism that created the Jewish state.”

Himmelfarb’s book turns out to be even more “timely” than she could have imagined when she wrote it. In his June 2009 Cairo speech to “the Muslim world,” President Obama went out of his way to perpetuate the fiction (music to ears that deny all Jewish rights to any part of Palestine) that “the inspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history,” by which he meant “an unprecedented Holocaust.” Daniel Deronda proves otherwise.