What can non-Jews teach us about ourselves?
"Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips." — Proverbs 27:2
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In an essay titled Concerning the Jews written by Mark Twain in 1898, he concluded with the following, now-famous words:
“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.
He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sounds and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”1
This concluding paragraph expresses admiration and disbelief in due turn. Twain recognized the miracle of Jewish continuity, and marveled at a dispersed people who remained a cohesive unit, a scattered nation with no political power who outlived the many seemingly invincible empires that persistently attacked them over two millennia.
It is, to say the least, rare for a Jew to hear this sort of praise from a non-Jew. As Stanford University professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin noted, Twain’s efforts to “challenge anti-Semitism stand out in sharp relief” against a backdrop of ubiquitous virulent antisemitism from his contemporary authors in the last decades of the 19th century.2
And it is the words of another non-Jew, George Eliot, which can perhaps help us, if only partially, address Twain’s giant question: What is the secret of our immortality?
George Eliot is well-known as the prolific realist Victorian novelist of Middlemarch fame. But she (George Eliot was the male pseudonym under which she wrote; her real name was May Ann Evans) is lesser known as a champion of Jews. Her seminal novel, Daniel Deronda from 1876, presented an unusually sensitive and complementary depiction of Jews. It even went so far as to support the idea of Jews returning to Israel and building a homeland there — despite the novel being written two decades before the birth of an organized Zionist movement.
Yet Eliot did not always see Jews in such a favorable light. In an 1848 letter to a friend, Eliot wrote:
‘My Gentile nature kicks most resolutely against any assumption of superiority in the Jews … Everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade.’3
In a startling turnaround, in Daniel Deronda, as Gertrude Himmelfarb — author of The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot — remarked, Judaism is “championed” as a “living, vibrant religion,” a heritage that bestows pride rather than shame. The title character, Daniel Deronda, is brought up as an English gentleman and later discovers his hidden Jewish roots. Unusually, he is actually “pleased to discover that he is Jewish and proud of his ‘race.’”4
In a letter to her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1876, Eliot derided the “empty knowledge” that underlined the insults directed at Jews by English Christians, writing:
“The best that can be said of it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness — in plain English, the stupidity — which is still the average mark of our culture.”5
Eliot may as well be attacking her own earlier “intellectual narrowness” here, in forming judgements about Jews before attempting to understand them. Where she once saw everything specifically Jewish as “of a low grade,” in Daniel Deronda she championed Judaism’s distinctness, and in turn, she was championed by her Jewish readership.
Rabbi Dr. Hermann Adler, who would later, in 1891, become Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, called Daniel Deronda “the first work in English literature in which full justice is done to my race and faith.” He continued:
“It is, indeed, astonishing how the authoress could have gained so deep an insight into our mode of thought and our literature, which her work betokens. Her reading must have been very extensive. But that is not sufficient to account for the fidelity and truthfulness of her descriptions. We should ascribe it to that power of divination which is a distinguishing mark of true genius.”6
So, what changed Eliot’s viewpoints? And what drew her towards writing this “astonishing” work?