Study Guide

Daniel Deronda Religion

By George Eliot

Religion

Of learned and accomplished Jews [Daniel] took it for granted that they had dropped their religion, and wished to be merged in the people of their native lands. Scorn flung at a Jew as such would have roused all his sympathy in griefs of inheritance; but the indiscriminate scorn of a race will often strike a specimen who has well earned it on his own account, and might fairly be gibbeted as a rascally son of Adam. (19.3)

Before he starts learning about and appreciating Jewish religion and culture, Daniel's understanding of Jewish people is based largely on assumptions. He assumes that more accomplished Jewish people want to become part of a Christian society. It makes you wonder what he actually knew about Jewish culture before meeting Mirah and Mordecai.

"I think my life began with waking up and loving my mother's face: it was so near to me, and her arms were round me, and she sang to me. One hymn she sang so often, so often: and then she taught me to sing it with her: it was the first I ever sang. They were always Hebrew hymns she sang; and because I never knew the meaning of the words they seemed full of nothing but our love and happiness." (20.9)

For Mirah, appreciating Jewish culture is a way for her to connect to her long-lost mother. She doesn't know the meaning of the words of the hymns her mother sang, but they evoke memories of love and contentment.

"But after Signora left us we went to our rooms where our landlady was a Jewess and observed her religion. I asked her to take me with her to the synagogue; and I read in her prayer-books and Bible, and when I had money enough I asked her to buy me books of my own, for these books seemed a closer companionship with my mother: I knew that she must have looked at the very words and said them. In that way I have come to know a little of our religion, and the history of our people, besides piecing together what I read in plays and other books about Jews and Jewesses; because I was sure that my mother obeyed her religion." (20.22)

Again we see Mirah seek out a connection with her mother by deepening her relationship with her religion.

Lady Mallinger was much interested in the poor girl, observing that there was a Society for the Conversion of the Jews, and that it was to be hoped Mirah would embrace Christianity; but perceiving that Sir Hugo looked at her with amusement, she concluded that she had said something foolish. (20.50)

Sometimes it becomes apparent that a number of characters in the novel either disapprove of Judaism or don't take it seriously. Here, we see a moment in which it seems that Lady Mallinger is pushed to reflect on her attitude when Sir Hugo makes it pretty clear that she's said something inappropriate.

"I went to the synagogue at Frankfort before I came home, and the service impressed me just as much as if I had followed the words—perhaps more."

"Oh, was it great to you? Did it go to your heart?" said Mirah, eagerly. "I thought none but our people would feel that. I thought it was all shut away like a river in a deep valley, where only heaven saw—I mean—" she hesitated, feeling that she could not disentangle her thought from its imagery.

"I understand," said Deronda. "But there is not really such a separation—deeper down, as Mrs. Meyrick says. Our religion is chiefly a Hebrew religion; and since Jews are men, their religious feelings must have much in common with those of other men—just as their poetry, though in one sense peculiar, has a great deal in common with the poetry of other nations. Still it is to be expected that a Jew should feel the forms of his people's religion more than one of another race—and yet"—here Daniel hesitated in his turn—"that is perhaps not always so." (32.77-79)

Daniel's emerging interest in and appreciation of Judaism is striking to Mirah because she thinks that only Jewish people can feel that sort of appreciation. If she only knew…

"Well, you know, this evening is the Sabbath, young gentleman," said Cohen, "and I go to the Shool. The shop will be closed. But accommodation is a work of charity; if you can't get here before, and are any ways pressed—why, I'll look at your diamond." (33.58)

Ezra Cohen is someone who observes the customs of the Sabbath, though in this moment we see him sort of bend the rules in order to accommodate Daniel.

"There is a degradation deep down below the memory that has withered into superstition. In the multitudes of the ignorant on three continents who observe our rites and make the confession of the divine Unity, the soul of Judaism is not dead. Revive the organic centre: let the unity of Israel which has made the growth and form of its religion be an outward reality. Looking towards a land and a polity, our dispersed people in all the ends of the earth may share the dignity of a national life which has a voice among the peoples of the East and the West—which will plant the wisdom and skill of our race so that it may be, as of old, a medium of transmission and understanding." (42.79)

Here, Mordecai talks about the movement called Zionism, which argues for a national homeland for the Jews. Jewish people are dispersed across the world, and he argues that they can be strengthened and unified through the formation of a centralized nation.

"And you would have me hold it doubtful whether you were born a Jew! Have we not from the first touched each other with invisible fibres—have we not quivered together like the leaves from a common stem with stirrings from a common root? I know what I am outwardly—I am one among the crowd of poor—I am stricken, I am dying. But our souls know each other. They gazed in silence as those who have long been parted and meet again, but when they found voice they were assured, and all their speech is understanding. The life of Israel is in your veins." (46.38)

From the second that Mordecai sees Daniel in the bookshop, he is convinced that Daniel is Jewish. It is almost as though he has Daniel's entire history figured out before Daniel does.

"If my acts were wrong—if it is God who is exacting from me that I should deliver up what I withheld—who is punishing me because I deceived my father and did not warn him that I should contradict his trust—well, I have told everything. I have done what I could. And your soul consents. That is enough. I have after all been the instrument my father wanted.—'I desire a grandson who shall have a true Jewish heart. Every Jew should rear his family as if he hoped that a Deliverer might spring from it.'" (53.29)

Daniel's mother tried to hide his Jewish identity from him, but he sought it out anyway. Regardless of the fact that she went against her father's wishes – and didn't raise her son as though he might be a potential "deliverer" of the Jewish race – everything turned out as though she had never given Daniel up.

"I cannot say I have any [vocation]."

"Get one, get one. The Jew must be diligent. You will call yourself a Jew and profess the faith of your fathers?" said Kalonymos, putting his hand on Deronda's shoulder and looking sharply in his face.

"I shall call myself a Jew," said Deronda, deliberately, becoming slightly paler under the piercing eyes of his questioner. "But I will not say that I profess to believe exactly as my fathers have believed. Our fathers themselves changed the horizon of their belief and learned of other races. But I think I can maintain my grandfather's notion of separateness with communication. I hold that my first duty is to my own people, and if there is anything to be done towards restoring or perfecting their common life, I shall make that my vocation." (60.22-24)

Joseph Kalonymos (a.k.a., the old guy from the synagogue in Frankfort) wants Daniel to take on the responsibility of professing the Jewish faith as it has traditionally been carried out in the past. Daniel has a more realistic approach: he has only just come to realize that he's Jewish. He will honor his people and his religion, but he can't just switch his beliefs on a dime.