Commentary Magazine

George Eliot's Rabbi

In 1848 a twenty-nine-year-old English-woman named Mary Ann Evans, infuriated by the idea of “race fellowship” among Jews, which she thought she detected in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Coningsby, 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, Mary Ann Evans could even ruminate 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 cities—Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa—had a street named after George Eliot, the pseudonym by which Mary Ann Evans had later become famous as a novelist, and under which she had come to express a view of the Jewish people that was the very antithesis of “Voltaire’s vituperation.”

In 19th-century England, Mary Ann Evans’s originally disparaging and spiteful view of Jewish civilization and Jews was hardly unusual. The historian and statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his April 1830 address to the House of Commons on the second reading of the (unsuccessful) bill for the Removal of Jewish Disabilities, reminded those of his colleagues who disputed the Jews’ legal right to political participation that “three hundred years ago they had no legal right to the teeth in their heads.” Parliamentarians who found Macaulay’s allusion too cryptic could have been enlightened by the political philosopher Thomas Carlyle. He was reported by his friend J.A. Froude to have remarked, while standing in front of Rothschild’s house at Hyde Park corner:

I do not mean that I want King John back again, but if you ask me which mode of treating these people to have been the nearest to the will of the Almighty about them—to build them palaces like that, or to take the pincers to them, I declare for the pincers.

Then, says Froude, Carlyle imagined himself to be King John, with Rothschild on the bench before him:

Now, Sir, the State requires some of these millions you have heaped together with your financing work. “You won’t? Very well”—and the speaker gave a twist with his wrist—“Now will you?”—and then another twist, till the millions were yielded.

In 1833, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who usually prided himself on the ability to reconcile apparently discordant qualities, could find no relation between the Jew of the Hebrew Bible and the Jew of modern England:

The two images farthest removed from each other which can be comprehended under one term, are, I think, Isaiah—“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth!”—and Levi of Holywell Street—“Old Clothes”—both of them Jews, you’ll observe.

Coleridge was the spiritual father of the Liberal or Broad Church movement, led in early Victorian England by Dr. Thomas Arnold of Rugby. In Arnold’s view, Jews had no right to full citizenship or to the privileges attendant upon it, such as entry to the universities. England, he argued, was the land of Englishmen, not of “lodgers” who had claims to nothing more than honorary citizenship. “‘Religion,’ in the king’s mouth,” Arnold insisted, “can mean only Christianity.” He was infuriated by the notion of a Jew serving as one of the governors of the Christ’s Hospital School, and in 1838 resigned his position on London University’s board of examiners rather than countenance the admission of Jews to a university whose “nonsectarianism” had, ironically, been a scandal to High Church writers like John Henry Newman (later to become a Roman Catholic cardinal).

In that very year Charles Dickens completed publication of Oliver Twist, in which the atavistic potentialities of the debate on the Jewish question were fully realized. Carlyle might hark back to the days of King John, but Dickens, in the figure of Fagin, dredged up—in the midst of a “modern” novel, replete with knowing sociological allusions to slums and criminals’ habits and jargon—nearly every anti-Semitic nightmare of Christendom: “the Jew” (this with hammering insistence) as Satanic reptile, Judas, Christ-killer, thief, corrupter of children, sexual pervert. (About the only thing Dickens left out of his portrait was the belief, widely and tenaciously held by Christian theologians into the 17th century, that Jewish males menstruated.) That Dickens could do this without, apparently, harboring any malicious intention toward Jews shows the depth of subterranean feeling that might lurk beneath debates in parliament or the universities over the place of real, living Jews in modern society.

Some even expressed doubts as to whether these Jews were truly alive, or merely akin to the fossils of which Victorian geologists were writing. Newman was fond of quoting the complacent declaration of the Church Father Origen that “in the fullness of time, Judaism came to naught”; and he wrote a poem called “Judaism” to express his view that the Jews, even if physically alive, were spiritually dead: “O Piteous race! Fearful to look upon,/Once standing in high place, Heaven’s eldest son/O aged blind Unvenerable.” In Loss and Gain, his autobiographical novel of 1848, Newman heaped scorn on Jews who aspired to rebuild Jerusalem as a cabal of mercenary and ridiculous speculators.

Matthew Arnold, the disciple both of Newman and of Newman’s old rival in the Church of England, his father Thomas Arnold, had a richer appreciation both of Jewish history and Jewish theology than either of his masters. He placed a high value upon the religious experience of the people Israel as the unique source of righteousness, but deplored their “insignificance in everything else—this petty, unsuccessful, unamiable people, without politics, without science, without art, without charm.”



Gradually, in the course of the Victorian period, English Jews achieved a level of legal tolerance, emancipation, and integration that far exceeded what their cousins on the continent had. But the imperious, condescending view of Jewish culture, the haughty contempt for what Carlyle called “Hebrew old clothes” and for the inner, spiritual life of Jews, continued to infect the “instructed” classes. How, then, did Mary Ann Evans, almost alone among her contemporaries, surmount it?

Although her essays for the Westminster Review that touch on religion, and especially on the preachers of her own family’s evangelical persuasion, had been acrid in their irony, she no sooner began to write fiction (her first such work, Scenes of Clerical Life, appeared in 1857) than she ceased to speak contemptuously of any religious faith. In 1859 she wrote:

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 ten years ago, I now feel myself too ignorant, and too limited in moral sensibility, to speak of with confident disapprobation.

Not the least important 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 (Alter Friedhof) 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.1

But the real turning point in George Eliot’s attitude toward “everything specifically Jewish” came in 1866, when she met Emanuel Deutsch. Her evangelical background and her translations of D.F. Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (“The Life of Jesus”) and Spinoza’s Ethics had inevitably involved her in Jewish history and thought, yet had done little to dislodge her from the view that “to say ‘Jewish philosopher’ seems almost like saying a round square.” Deutsch, profoundly immersed in the most “specifically Jewish” thing in the world, the Talmud, was a revelation to her.

Born at Neisse in Prussian Silesia in 1829, Deutsch studied at the gymnasium for two years, but then came under the tutelage of an uncle in Mislowitz who was a rabbi and a talmudic scholar. After becoming bar-mitzvah, he resumed his gymnasium studies, and then proceeded to the University of Berlin, where he devoted himself chiefly to theology while continuing his talmudic studies. He was a living embodiment of Matthew Arnold’s ideal union of Hebraism and Hellenism. “As I grew up,” Deutsch recalled in a memoir of 1872,

Homer and Virgil stood side by side on my boyish bookshelf with the Mishnah and the Midrash. . . . Before I was inured in the Akademe of Plato and his friends, it was deemed well to steep my soul for a time absolutely in that ocean called the Talmud . . . and . . . I learnt to contrast the fierce lightnings that shook the rafters of Sura and Pumbeditha with the mild, serene, ironically smiling lips of Socrates.

In Berlin, Deutsch mastered the English language and its literature; and in 1855 he moved to England and became an assistant in the library department of the British Museum. Over the next eighteen years, he published hundreds of articles on a large variety of Oriental and Semitic subjects, ranging from the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Moabite Stone to Islam and Judeo-Arabic metaphysics. His ultimate ambition, however, was to produce a treatise on the Talmud.

In October 1867 Deutsch 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. The British Museum was pestered with inquiries about Deutsch; the Viceroy of Egypt invited him to the opening of the Suez Canal; flattering invitations reached him to visit America and deliver lectures; one of the Royal Princesses was delighted to secure the first manuscript page of the article; Matthew Arnold proudly reported to his good friend Lady de Rothschild that “I met Mr. Deutsch the other day, and had a long talk with him about Hebraism and Hellenism.” He was even invited to dine with the Prime Minister.



But all the acclaim led, so it seemed, to nothing. Some of the very people who heaped praise upon Deutsch for an essay that carefully explained the true nature of the Sabbath, of the Pharisees, of the talmudic subversion of the lex talionis, of the abundant mercifulness of the God of Jonah, could speak of the Jewish Sabbath as a day of grim austerity emulated by English Puritanism, of the Pharisees as a sect of literalist, narrow-minded hypocrites, of “the Jewish belief in an eye for an eye,” and of the “Jewish God” as a vengeful tyrant superseded by the Christian God of Love. Matthew Arnold may have truly enjoyed talking with Deutsch about his Talmud article in August 1868, but the joy did not keep him, just a few weeks later, from writing disparagingly of all post-biblical Jewish existence in his preface to Culture and Anarchy.

Most galling to Deutsch was the refusal of the British Museum itself to grant institutional recognition to his labors by forming a Semitic department. A document signed by the Dean of Westminster, Lord Strangford, Lane Layard, George Rawlinson, and other prominent men of learning, petitioning parliament to establish a post for Deutsch as keeper of Semitic antiquities at the British Museum, was quietly shelved.

Yet Deutsch’s labors did have one lasting effect, and that was on George Eliot’s writing about Jews and Zionism. Indeed, it was she who urged him to ignore both the attacks and celebrations provoked by what she called his “glorious article.” Work steadily, she advises him in December 1867, “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.

Deutsch’s knowledge of Amharic and its cognate languages brought an invitation to accompany the British Army to Abyssinia, where, it was thought, valuable manuscripts and other antiquities might be discovered. He declined the proposal, but it made him think seriously enough about travel in the East to respond with alacrity to a British Museum commission that would enable him to visit the Holy Land in spring 1869. “The East: all my wild yearnings fulfilled at last!” A friend described how Deutsch “was himself astonished at the emotion that choked him when he found himself among his own people at the Wailing place in Jerusalem, and he could seldom speak of it without tears.” At the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street on May 29, 1869, he began by speaking of the past, of “the touching sight of the faces, with their thousand years of woe written in them, that lean against the Wailing place on the walls of Jerusalem.” But he concluded by speaking of the future, insisting that the destiny of “the once proscribed and detested Jews . . . is not yet fulfilled.”

Within days of his return, Eliot and Lewes were eager to hear for themselves of his reactions to Palestine. “Thrice welcome! Keep next Sunday for us. . . . We shall not be satisfied with a small allowance of talk.” In fact, since Deutsch now began to dine with the Leweses once a week, they received a very ample allowance, whose contents we can best construe in the character of Mordecai in Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda.

Not long after his return from Palestine, Deutsch began to suffer terribly from the cancer that would kill him in 1873 after three years which, in the words of a friend, “consisted of nothing but a series of medical and surgical appliances, some of inconceivable horror.” Eliot, 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, felt personally called to keep Deutsch from suicide during these years. Speaking to him as “a fellow Houyhnhnm who is bearing the yoke with you,” she tells her “dear Rabbi” that “I have been ailing and in the Slough of Despond too,” and even intimates that she herself might once in her life 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. . . .”

Deutsch did not put an end to himself; but neither did he live to know real joy or satisfaction:

I have certain words in my possession which have been given me that they might be said to others, few or many. . . . I know also that I shall not find peace or rest until I have said my whole say, and yet I cannot do it. . . . For a long time now I have been frozen in every way. . . . As I work on with my metaphysical Talmud-developments, and see how wasted all that grace, and keenness, and catholicity of the minority has been on the majority . . . I feel what many a braver, stouter heart has felt: the futility of sacrifice.

As he declined rapidly from cancer, his friends collected money to fulfill his desire for a second trip to the Holy Land. But by the time he reached Egypt, he sensed that “all this is the last flicker!” On his deathbed, Deutsch was overwhelmed by the tragic irony of his life: “A whole flood of thoughts old and new . . . storm in upon me with every breath.” Yet the tomb-world of Egypt reminded him that no man, and he least of all, can stop the decay of his body. He died in Alexandria on May 12, 1873, and was buried in the city’s Jewish cemetery.



George Eliot heard the news as she was planning Daniel Deronda. She, who had urged Deutsch to view his work under the aspect of eternity, now took upon herself the obligation to prolong his existence in the Jewish, more specifically Zionist, ambience of the novel. Her friend George Grove, the musicologist and founder of the Palestine Exploration Fund, thought he saw Deutsch in the figure of Mirah: “You must have thought of our dear Deutsch when you conceived her character. . . . My memory welled up.” But it is far more likely that Eliot endowed Deutsch with a life beyond life in the fictional character of Mirah’s brother, Mordecai,

a man steeped in poverty and obscurity, weakened by disease, consciously within the shadow of advancing death, but living an intense life in an invisible past and future, careless of his personal lot, except for its possibly making some obstruction to a conceived good which he never shared except as a brief inward vision.

Eliot’s identification with Deutsch was intensified by the hostile reaction of Victorian intellectual circles to precisely those parts of Deronda that reflected his influence. She wrote to the American novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe:

As to the Jewish element in Deronda, I expected from first to last in writing it that it would create much stronger resistance and even repulsion than it has actually met with. But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians toward Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to. . . . Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? . . . I find men educated at Rugby supposing that Christ spoke Greek. To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us . . . lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion. . . . It is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity, which is still the average mark of our culture.

Ultimately, however, it was Deutsch’s hope and not his despair that was transmitted to the future by Eliot. We see its reflection in Daniel Deronda and in “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!,” a contentious essay against English liberals keen to promote every nationalism except the Jewish one. Eager to celebrate the dignity of populations of which they have never seen a single specimen, English liberals, she alleges, “sneer at the notion of a renovated national dignity for the Jews,” and impatiently desire (just as Mary Ann Evans once did) the “complete fusion” of the Jews with the people among whom they are dispersed. Deutsch’s hope found more private expression in Eliot’s notebooks, filled not only with her laborious notes on such grammatical technicalities as piel and pual, hiphil and huphal that she took after each Hebrew lesson with Deutsch, but with such visionary musings as the following: “Mother singing Hebrew prayers & texts over her sleeping infant. How a language may sleep, & wake again!”

The most illustrious reawakener of that “sleeping” language, Eliezer ben-Yehuda, the Lithuanian-born father of modern colloquial Hebrew, describes in his autobiographical memoirs how his “mad” dream of Jewish national revival made him a pariah among his fellow university students in late-19th-century Russia:

But one day [in 1878] one of them told me of a character in an English novel, who had the very same dream. After I read the novel, Daniel Deronda, in a Russian translation, several times [!], I decided to leave the University of Dynaburg for Paris, where I would learn all that was necessary for my work in Eretz Yisrael.

Deutsch had concluded his essay on the Talmud with a little anthology of its most telling proverbs, culminating with an adage that “solemnly, as a warning and as a comfort . . . strikes on our ear: ‘And it is not incumbent upon thee to complete the work.’” Dying in Egypt and, like many another Victorian, beckoning toward a promised land that it would not be his to enter, Deutsch would have been justified in finding comfort in that talmudic consolation; one hopes that he did.


1 She repeated this description of the synagogue, with slight variation, in her short story, “The Lifted Veil.”

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