The Triumph Of Mordecai

By Frederick Tupper

[The Nation; March 14, 1918]

On the walls of an American historical seminary, which has played its part in the moulding of two leaders of the Administration, now at Washington, are printed Freeman's famous words: "History is past politics. Politics is present history." A true saying! But our own age has enlarged this to include: "Past history is present politics." Each, morning paper is no longer a penny-glimmer, flickering for an instant, but the lurid reflection of fiery facts and forces which have set the world aflame during the centuries, and which are now blazing with redoubled fierceness. Each new hour seems an epitome of all that men have ever wrought and wrecked. All the influences that have gone to the making or the marring of our body politic—individualism, nationalism, internationalism—strut together upon the stage of the moment, so full of sound and fury that one is deafened by the clamor. All the mediæval manifestations of savagery—invasions of Huns, descents of "blonde beasts" upon defenceless towns and coasts, slaughters of Christians by Turks, massacres of Jews by Christians—confront us in our daily columns. Old unhappy things are no longer "far-off," but painfully near. Hence the bookman in this war time soon discovers, when ranging through his shelves, that any volume close to the life of its own day seems now so vitally linked with the life of ours that he brings to this reading, a truer perspective, a deeper understanding than in all earlier encounters. Old and cherished pages offer thus a hundred fresh adventures, undreamed of four years ago. Under the stress of the present, we are coming to recognize that the utterance to which like war passions and peace yearnings have stirred: long-dead bosoms is often both more timely and more permanent than the stammering expression of our too partial judgment; and we accord to the time-hallowed heart-cry a sympathetic response, emotional leagues above the indifference or hostility of its first hearers. How could ears have been deaf a hundred years ago, when Shelley, in lines that thrill us mightily at this moment, pointed an accusing finger at "the wretch on yonder throne, commanding the bloody fray to rise," backed by the bravoes who support his rule, glutted with groans and blood, sullenly numbering o'er the myriads of the slain and the wailing tribes of human kind, revealing by his every word and deed the monstrous evils of such kingship; against this despot, humanity, rising in a Promethean might that brooks no reconciliation with the Evil Principle, and winning the world back to that light of life which is love, after primal power has driven the royal murderer from his seat amid breaking sceptres and tiaras, swords and chains, and crumbling tomes of reasoned wrong? Why did men rail sixty years ago at Tennyson because in "Maud"—its Crimean War part a fitting utterance of America in her present heroic mood—he extolled a land that loses for a little her lust of gold and her love of a peace that was full of wrongs and shames, when a war arises in defence of the right, and because he chanted the glory of the manhood of those who can say in that great hour: "We have proved we have hearts in a cause, we are noble still"? Why did our thinking folk of a half-century since give little heed to the prophetic soul of Walt Whitman forecasting so many of the world-pangs and world-triumphs of the present in those rapt visions which men just now are eagerly reading and quoting in the public prints? And wherefore such curt dismissal from the "chorus of irresponsible reviewers" forty years syne, when George Eliot championed in "Daniel Deronda" Jewish hopes of Zion, seemingly shadowy then, but close to gleaming realization in these tremendous days of ours, which see all dreams both good and bad come true?

Dux femina, facti. As Lincoln said to Mrs. Stowe: "So, this is the little woman who made this great war." George Eliot's creation, Mordecai, who tottered upon the scene in "Daniel Deronda" a full score of years before the first gathering of Zionists at Basle (1897), had little honor in his brief hour. A consumptive Jewish workman in thread-bare apparel, he seems, with his choking cough, his yellow face, his skeleton hands, to invite from all men pitying regard rather than reverent attention. Indeed, his hearers "take his thoughts without attaching more consequences to them than the Flemings to the ethereal chimes ringing above their market-places." Among the Jews of his circle, his prophecy of the revival of the national centre of Judaism, and of the restoration of the race to Palestine, awakens only dissent and contradiction. The chief smilers at his pregnant words are his own people. To all but his one convert, the high-bred Deronda, who dons his mantle and assumes his mission, Mordecai appears the leader of a forlorn hope, the mouthpiece of an expiring tradition.

So the Victorian critics certainly deemed him. To the Edinburgh reviewer, "the hectic figure of Mordecai, the visionary prophet Jew, is as much an absolute failure as anything produced by the hand of genius can be. His consumptive vehemence has but one or two gleams of interest, Deronda's romantic sentimental departure for the East to reorganize the Jewish nation is but a little subdued out of the heights of ridicule." In the opinion of the Saturday, "'Daniel Deronda' is devoted to the whimsical object of glorifying real or imaginary Jewish aspirations…. The purpose of the story is chimerical and absurd." To Leslie Stephen, also, "the scheme of the restoration of the Jewish nationality seems chimerical." And Henry James makes his young spokesman in the Atlantic say: "I don't understand more than half of Mordecai's rhapsodies, and I don't perceive exactly what practical steps could be taken. I rather suspect, that the Jews in general take themselves much less seriously than that." Though Dicey, in the Nation (October 12, 1876), praises "the skill with which George Eliot has labored to enlist the reader's sympathy," yet he feels that "the immense tour de force ends in failure. The pain of Gwendolen's parting from Deronda touches the feelings of a hundred readers for one who is moved by Mordecai's dreams of a new return of his race to Jerusalem." Everywhere—or almost everywhere, for Dowden, Jacobs, and Lanier read the Mordecai chapters with something of our present understanding—we find this defect of sympathy. Some denounce the prophet's ideas as "vague and mystical." Others brutally proclaim Mordecai a bore, and ask loudly: "What rational person can care for the return of the Jews to Palestine?" Even an admiring Jewish commentator like Rabbi Philipson, in his suggestive book of the late eighties, "The Jew in English Fiction," declares that "the mission of Mordecai is unreal and impossible enough. Most of these schemes of a repossession of Palestine and a new Judea are set forth by Christian writers. They conceive this to be the yet unfulfilled mission of the Jews, if they have any. Rarely does a Jew himself in all seriousness, advocate such a plan." This is the opposite pole of the much more recent opinion voiced by Lucien Wolf, a Jew but no Zionist, in his "Britannica" article on "Zionism" (1910), that "the publication of 'Daniel Deronda' gave to the Jewish nationalist spirit the strongest stimulus it had experienced since the appearance of Sabbatai Zevi two hundred years before." An overstatement, perhaps; and yet we know at least this, that in the very year of the book's printing the novelist, was deeply gratified to learn, from both English and American Jews, of its elevating influence on the minds of some among their people.

George Eliot's first famous disciple, whom she did not live to know, was one of whom she would have had even larger reason to be proud than Mordecai of the admirable Deronda. Aroused by the anti-Semitism sweeping over Continental Europe in the late seventies and early eighties, and resounding in the dying ears of George Eliot, to whom Jew-baiting shouts of "Hep! Hep! Hep!" were always harrowing (see "Theophrastus Such"), an ardent young poetess, at once American and Jewess, now lifted Ezra's banner. Emma Lazarus, singing both the wrongs and the dreams of her people in lyrics that they often now repeat, is the spiritual child of the authoress, of "Daniel Deronda." She dedicates, her "Dance to Death," a mediaeval analogue of modern Judenhetze, "to the memory of George Eliot, who did most among the artists of our day towards elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish nationality." And shortly afterwards, in an article on "The Jewish Problem" (the Century, February, 1883), Miss Lazarus testifies that "the idea formulated by George Eliot, the idea of restoring a political nationality to the Jewish people, has already sunk into the minds of many Jewish enthusiasts, and it germinates with miraculous rapidity." "Could the prophetess have lived but till to-day," so writes her reverent follower, "she would have been herself astonished at the flame enkindled by her seed of fire, and the practical shape which the movement projected by her in poetic vision is beginning to assume." Thus thirty-five years ago, long before Zionism found in Herzl an energizing captain of its soul, Jerusalem's trumpet awakened the sleepers.

I recall, after twenty years, my shock of surprise upon learning from friends at Lucerne that my chance companion of a week's joyous roving through the Black Forest and near the Falls of the Rhine was a famous rabbi, popular among both Jews and Gentiles in a great American city. "My dear fellow," I exclaimed, "here I have been with you on the road for many days without guessing that you were a Jew." "My dear fellow," he answered with that twinkle of the eye which was a part of his charm, "here I have been with you for just as many days without even suspecting that you were a Christian." To-day one may travel far along the road to Jerusalem, "beglamoured by the shining Tower of David," and, in the babel of tongues of millenarians, missioners, and Zionists, of assimilationists and restorationists, find no little difficulty in distinguishing Jewish opinion from Christian. Mordecai's doctrine, which, despite its root in Hebrew tradition, was scouted a generation ago by certain learned Jews as a foolishness" of the Gentiles, and which was justified by certain learned Christians as a poetical motive in a work of art, merely demanding imaginative credence, has become, in the score of years since Theodor Herzl dreamed a like dream, the sound gospel of the orthodox. Of late, many have sung the songs of Zion. Congresses and conventions have made the restoration their sole theme; dozens of boos and hundreds of articles in cyclopædias and magazines, among them the very magazines that once made light of Mordecai's prophecy, have dealt approvingly with many phases of the return to Jerusalem. Very recently discussion and action have received a fresh impulse from Mr. Balfour's letter of last November pledging the support of the British Government to "the abolishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Since Dr. H. M. Kallen's admirable summary in the columns of the Nation (November 29, 1917) of "The Issues of the War and the Jewish Position," how the world has wagged apace! Jerusalem and Jericho are now in the hands of magnanimous modern crusaders, far kinder to Hebrew hopes and aims than their murderous mediaeval prototypes to Hebrew lives. Jewish ministers, the Orthodox Rabbis, assembled in New York, have called "in the name of the Jewish tradition, history, and aspiration upon orthodox Jewry to join the ranks of the American Zionist organization and further joyfully with all their might the practical work needed to accomplish the restoration of Israel and Palestine." Jewish laymen, met in Baltimore under the leadership of such men as Straus and Brandeis, have begun the raising of a fund of a hundred millions to attest their love of Jerusalem. Jewish collegians, gathered at the quinquennial meeting of the Menorah, have devoted their councils to the theme of the development of Judaism in the old homeland. Jewish commissions from America, Britain, Russia, Spain will soon meet in Palestine to complete plans for the establishment on the Mount of Olives of a great university, "a noble house of learning, a sanctuary of the Jewish passion for spiritual values, for intellectual truths." And Jewish youngsters from the East Side, the first detachment of a battalion of American Zionists, is just now faring forth, in the spirit of the Maccabeans, to fight under Allenby for Judea. Amid all this stir, we meet, now and then, passing mention of "Daniel Deronda;" yet no one has essayed an analysis of Mordecai's prophecy in this time of its approaching fulfilment. May I somewhat hardily attempt in small space such an examination without making any claim to be what Henry James called in his latest time "a very Derondist of Derondists," and without giving the fellow-wanderer of my youth, should his kindly eye light upon this, any reason for "suspecting that I am a Christian"?

The stone of political nationality, which the builders once refused with irreverent scorn, promises soon to become, in a very real sense, the headstone of the corner. And, if we may not blame the Victorian critics for the absence of the foresight which perceives that the aspiration of one generation is the code of the next, we have every reason to quarrel with their lack of the backward-looking glance, which straightway reveals the strength of the tradition vividly incarnate in George Eliot's Mordecai. His very names suggest the rock from which he is hewn: Ezra, going up from Babylon and giving to the exiled Jews a wall in Judah and Jerusalem, and Mordecai, seeking the wealth of his people and speaking peace to all his seed. And his rhapsodies have the authentic ring of the older prophecies of Israel, those heart-lifting visions in which Isaiah and Ezekiel point the way to a Zion awakened and a Jerusalem restored. He has caught, too, something of the fire of that later herald of a new Jerusalem, Jehuda Halevi, of Spain, who had flashed across George Eliot's fancy in the days of "The Spanish Gypsy." The unimaginative Western mind, which is often so dazed "by the rapturous symbolism of Oriental revelations that it overlooks the fine reasonableness of the tendencies and traditions that they betoken, characteristically fails to follow, in the blinding light of Mordecai's imagery, the absolutely straight road of his logic. He is, as he asserts, a rational Jew, and he stakes his all upon the soundest of political arguments, which men can no longer afford to ignore, for it is now the plea of the world's conscience, reinforced by the roar of cannon—the polity of unified nationality. This can become for the Jew a reality, he insists, only through the revival of the organic centre of the race—a consummation from which the world will gain as Israel gains. And just here some evilly marching morrows give a pitifully ironical emphasis to Mordecai's apt argument from example: "There will be a community in the van of the East, which carries the culture and the sympathies of every great nation in its bosom; there will be a land set for a halting place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East, as Belgium is for the West." To us what seeming mockery! And yet, though the convulsive horror of our time seems to shake even the rock of ages, yesterday's ideal loses naught by its apparently undue deference (strange blunder for a visionary!) to yesterday's established fact. Every wound of Belgium has a voice echoing Mordecai's appeal for the fostering protection of the cherished freedom of small nations. And when he, alone and unregarded, proclaims the only means by which such nationality may strongly live—the possession of hearth and home—there are notes in his message which are heard to-day in the tones of a million champions of a good and holy cause. The prophecy, once hailed as absurd and chimerical, is now a popular programme.

The artist with eyes in his forehead must shadow forth other forms than that which embodies his constructive ideal. Hence George Eliot gives a free tongue to the opposition. Other Jews besides Mordecai, familiar types all, gather in the smoky little parlor of the "Hand and Banner": Miller, in whom the Israelitish strain runs very thin; Pash, in outward seeming the triple-baked Jew, but without the Jewish heart in his breast, and Gideon, mouthpiece of the rapidly decreasing number who now bear the name of "assimilationists." As one of those who deem belief in Israel's national regeneration merely a pious dogma without relation to life and action, Gideon would "clear the liturgy of all such notions as a literal fulfilment of the prophecies about restoration." Take away from the religion of the Jew this and other "strict interpretations and useless rites," so he would argue, and you sweep away the chief barriers that separate him from the Gentile. To him the passing of the Jew signifies as little as the passing of Judaism. For all he cares, his children may mate with Christians, and his children's children melt gradually into the surrounding population. Through the old maxim, "A man's country is where he's well off," he rudely parts company with the historic consciousness, the spiritual aspirations and ideals of his race. Will not amalgamation of culture follow merging of blood? To Gideon and to Pash, the Jew who cannot merge with the Gentile, though he will, Mordecai makes the proud answer that "a fresh-made garment of citizenship cannot weave itself straightway into the flesh and change the slow deposit of eighteen centuries." There is small danger in his implication, for a host of Zionists have lately demonstrated by every word and deed that devoted allegiance to countries of recent adoption is in no way marred by a full sense of venerable national traditions; that British or American citizenship may be duly cherished, without any sacrifice of loyalty to the religion, law, and moral life that mingle in the blood of the Jewish people.

The quantity and the quality of this army of Zion constitute an argument of which even Gideon and Pash natures acknowledge the weight. To the eloquent pragmatism of the prophet, looking confidently forward to the time when "the wealthy men, the monarchs of commerce, the learned in all knowledge, the skilful in all arts, the political counsellers who carry in their veins the Hebrew blood…lift up a standard," his opponents are ready to concede that "when there are great men on 'change and high-flying professors converted to your doctrine, difficulties will vanish like smoke." That time has come. The list of the chief converts to Zionism in all the countries of earth reads like a roll of fame. No one foolishly fancies that many of these leaders will sever present fast ties—social, commercial, political— and voyage forth to dig and delve in far-off Palestine. Immigration even of those who still merit the name, "tribe of the wandering foot," must be very slow. But a constantly increasing multitude will, at each Passover, chant in all literalness the words, "Next year, Jerusalem!" And wise men among the Jews are everywhere rejoicing with Mordecai that the race shall soon have, as of old, "an organic centre, a heart and brain to watch and guide and execute," and that once more "the law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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