Tag: religious differences

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (biography)

“It is one of the curiosities of history that the most remarkable novel about Jews and Judaism, predicting the establishment of the Jewish state, should have been written in 1876 by a non-Jew—a Victorian woman and a formidable intellectual, who is generally regarded as one of the greatest of English novelists. And it is still more curious that Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel, should have been dismissed, by many of her admirers at the time and by some critics since, as something of an anomaly, an inexplicable and unfortunate turn in her life and work. . . .

“Why did this Victorian novelist, born a Christian and an early convert to agnosticism, write a book so respectful of Judaism and so prescient about Zionism? And why at a time when there were no pogroms or persecutions to provoke her? What was the general conception of the “Jewish question,” and how did Eliot reinterpret that “question,” for her time as well as ours?”


I learned about this book last year after I re-read Daniel Deronda and was preparing to write a blog post about it, available here. George Eliot’s prescience about Zionism fascinates me, and I was eager to learn more about her path to writing a novel that is as unusual as it is powerful. Himmelfarb does a superb job giving historical context to George Eliot’s work and showing how “her vision of Judaism and a Jewish state was all the more remarkable precisely because it was disinterested, because, unlike Deronda . . . , she was not Jewish and had no personal stake in it. It was still more remarkable because she came to it from a large philosophical perspective and from an intimate knowledge of the most sophisticated critics of Judaism. She knew everything her opponents (and some of her friends) might say in refutation of her views, having once shared some of them. Her conversion, not to Judaism but to a respect for religion in general and Judaism in particular, was all the more notable because it involved a repudiation of some of the most powerful ideologies of her time: the belligerent irreligion and anti-Judaism of the Young Hegelians, the attenuated, syncretistic religion of the Positivists, and the secular humanism of enlightened, ‘advanced’ liberals.” (The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, Epilogue)

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot helped me appreciate Daniel Deronda even more than I already did, and I thought it was a work of genius before I read Himmelfarb’s book. I believe that Eliot’s vision transcends the Jewish drive to unite and establish a national homeland in Palestine because it explores the spiritual bonds of family and heritage in a way that has universal application. Deronda’s story certainly resonates with me, a Mormon woman who, by Himmelfarb’s definition, is as “disinterested” in Judaism as George Eliot was. Himmelfarb explores the reasons George Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda from a historical and biographical perspective. I would like to make an observation on how George Eliot was able to write a book with with such an expansive vision of Zion from a spiritual perspective. Continue reading

Ingathering

Ingathering

Ingathering

Ingathering; The Complete People Stories, by Zenna Henderson (science fiction)

“Zenna Henderson is best remembered for her stories of the People which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the early 50s to the middle 70s. The People escaped the destruction of their home planet and crashed on Earth in the Southwest just before the turn of the century. Fully human in appearance, they possessed many extraordinary powers. Henderson’s People stories tell of their struggles to fit in and to live their lives as ordinary people, unmolested by fearful and ignorant neighbors. The People are ‘us at our best, as we hope to be, and where (with work and with luck) we may be in some future.'”


I wish I had read the People stories by Zenna Henderson when I was a teenager. I would have loved them! As an adult, I appreciate these stories and like them. A glimpse of Zion came easily to me as I read Ingathering, because the People and their community embody the idea and qualities of Zion. Some of the religious themes in this book are subtle, but many are so obvious that I question whether stories like these by another author could be published as genre science fiction today. Many readers of classic science fiction already love these stories, and I believe they would be accessible to readers of religious fiction who don’t normally read science fiction and fantasy.

In this quotation from “Deluge” on page 274, a teenage daughter of the People is upset because her family will be leaving the Home on a different ship from the family of the boy she loves. The boy and girl are afraid they will be separated forever. The girl asks her grandmother:

“We only want a chance. Is that too much to ask? Why should this happen, now, to us?”

“Who are we,” I asked sternly, “to presume to ask why of the Power? For all our lives we have been taking happiness and comfort and delight and never asking why, but now that sorrow and separation, pain and discomfort are coming to us from the same Power, we are crying why. We have taken unthinkingly all that has been given to us unasked, but now that we must take sorrow for a while, you want to refuse to take, like silly babies whose milk is cold!”

I caught a wave of desolation and lostness from the two and hurried on. “But don’t think the Power has forgotten you. You are as completely enwrapped now as you ever were. Can’t you trust your love—or your possible love—to the Power that suggested love to you in the first place? I promise you, I promise you, that no matter where you go, together or apart if the Power leaves you life, you will find love. And even if it turns out that you do not find it together, you’ll never forget these first magical steps you have taken together towards your own true loves.”

Little do these teenagers know that they will experience sorrow, separation, pain, and discomfort in ways they could never have imagined. As I try to think of a sentence or two that would provide a modern application to this quotation, I can’t come up with anything that doesn’t sound trite, so I’ll let Zenna Henderson’s statement stand on its own. That one of her deceptively simple stories could make such a profound observation that would, in the hands of any other author, sound like a platitude, is a credit to her genius.

Villette

Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (British classic)

Villette

Villette

“With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster, and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor, Paul Emmanuel. Charlotte Brontë’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.”


I read Villette by Charlotte Brontë for the first time about twenty years ago. During that first reading, I became caught up in the raw emotion and love story of this great work. I thought it was a very stark novel, and I said as much when one of the members of my book group told the rest of us in the autumn of 2014 that she had recently finished reading it. She disagreed with my opinion and declared that it was a happy book. Of course, this disagreement fascinated the other members of the group, and we put it on our list for 2015. I just finished re-reading it and still think it is stark and that it ends in tragedy. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was the only one out of the five in attendance at our meeting who felt that way. We had a spirited discussion about the matter, and I couldn’t persuade them to my point of view, and they couldn’t persuade me to theirs. Continue reading

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot (British classic)

“Crushed by a loveless marriage to the cruel and arrogant Grandcourt, Gwendolen Harleth seeks salvation in the deeply spiritual and altruistic Daniel Deronda. But Deronda, profoundly affected by the discovery of his Jewish ancestry, is ultimately too committed to his own cultural awakening to save Gwendolen from despair.”


Daniel Deronda is one of several books on my list that was written to give readers a vision of Zion as a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine. (For others, see the Evangelical historical novels by Bodie and Brock Thoene.) One of the things unique about this particular novel is that George Eliot published it to promote Zionism before the term Zionism even existed. Here is an example of what I mean from the character Mordecai, who becomes Daniel’s mentor:

What is needed is the leaven—what is needed is the seed of fire. The heritage of Israel is beating in the pulses of millions; it lives in their veins as a power without understanding, like the morning exultation of herds; it is the inborn half of memory, moving as in a dream among writings on the walls, which it sees dimly but cannot divide into speech. Let the torch of visible community be lit! Let the reason of Israel disclose itself in a great outward deed, and let there be another great migration, another choosing of Israel to be a nationality whose members may still stretch to the ends of the earth, even as the sons of England and Germany, whom enterprise carries afar, but who still have a national hearth and a tribunal of national opinion. (Part 6, Chapter 42)

Continue reading

Arranged

Cicala Filmworks 2007

“ARRANGED centers on the friendship between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Muslim woman who meet as first-year teachers at a public school in Brooklyn. Over the course of the year they learn they share much in common—not least of which is that they are both going through the process of arranged marriages.”


Arranged

Arranged

I watched this film for the first time about a year ago and liked it so much that I recently watched it again. Because it’s such an unusual, obscure film that helped me envision Zion, I thought I’d comment on it. Nasira and Rochel were more familiar than foreign to me for a couple of reasons. I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C. that is as religiously, philosophically, and ethnically diverse as the area depicted in the film. The friendship between Rochel and Nasira could have taken place in my community. The challenges they faced could have happened here too, and while I can’t imagine a principal at one of my children’s schools challenging devout women in the vigorous way the one in the film did Nasira and Rochel, the principal’s mindset is prevalent in my community and contributes to a culture that can be hostile to religious ideas and practices that aren’t politically correct. Continue reading

What About Doctrinal Differences?

As I begin this quest to capture and share glimpses of Zion from the fiction I read, a few of you may wonder whether you should read some of these books that may promote religious or social ideas you don’t agree with. A few of you may be troubled by the fact that I’m recommending books that don’t agree on many points with the tenets of my own church, which, in the effort of full disclosure, is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of you may think that I’m glossing over the very real doctrinal differences between religions to present a view of life that has no basis in reality. Some of you may be looking for tools to help you better evaluate the religious content you encounter in your own reading. For all of these reasons, I want to address the issue of doctrinal differences up front and get it out of the way. Continue reading

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