Sunday, July 22, 2007

Judah's Lion

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna published Judah's Lion in 1843. It had been earlier serialized in The Christian Lady's Magazine. For Tonna, this work was the culmination of many years of interest in Zionism and the conversion of the Jews. The title is of course a dual reference to the lion of Judah: first and foremost it is a messianic reference from the Hebrew Bible, but secondarily it also refers to the strength and courage of the protagonist of the book.

Although I claim ignorance to any esoteric knowledge of literary criticism, I must confess that despite my qualms about the entire genre of conversionary fiction (a genre to which this blog is apparently being devoted to), I did enjoy reading this book. Tonna is just a better writer than Amelia Bristow. The plot moves along fairly quickly (except for those occasional diversions to theological disputations), and the characters are well-written and three dimensional. The protagonist goes on a long and eventful journey where his physical and spiritual fate is determined. The outcome is a foregone conclusion, but that's the nature of the beast with this type of fiction.

The novel opens with one of the characters (a minor one as it turns out), Esther Cohen, being described as a "most rigid and bigoted Jewess" (p. 6). Her cousin, however, Nathan Alexander Cohen, whom she calls "Alick," is a much more liberal and freethinking Jew. Alick turns out to be the protagonist of the book and quite a sympathetic character. His "chief glory," Tonna writes, was "to be an Englishman" (p. 7). "But in one respect he was found inveterately Israelitish, for the contour of his face, its olive tint, brightened into richness by the glow of health and animation, the jet black of his sparkling eyes and hair, all proclaimed what his manners, his education, his habits declined to confirm, that Alick Cohen was decidedly a Jew" (p. 8).

So it seems that what Tonna is saying is that Alick Cohen "looks" Jewish but doesn't "act" Jewish. I suppose that's a compliment.... Sort of.

Before he leaves home to attend a German university, Alick decides to visit the Middle East on a trip with his father. An "old Christian servant" named Susan, meanwhile, is praying for Alick. "A sermon had been preached for the Jew's Society, and Susan, with awe-struck wonder, heard for the first time of the privileges, the sins, the chastisements, the hopes of Israel. Her whole soul became wrapt up in the one anxious desire to see her master's household converted to Christ" (p. 10).

I think I see where this is going....

Esther says (by analogy) that Jerusalem and the land of Palestine has "belonged to [our] ancestors from time immemorial..." (p. 11). [Cf. the title of Joan Peters' controversial book. One wonders if Peters has read Judah's Lion....]. Esther goes on to say that "Our sins have forfeited the possession, and we shall never, never regain it while remaining thus careless, impenitent, hardened under the Divine rebuke" (p. 12).

Was it common for Jews of the 1840s to have Esther's attitude that the Jews would not regain Palestine untill they repented of their sins? Not sure. Perhaps among the very traditional, but probably not among the educated and somewhat assimilated Jews. (Which sins to be repented of are not specified, regretably, by Esther or the author).

Esther tells Alick that despite his assimilation, people will despise him because he is a Jew. "Jew or Gentile, no living man shall dare to despise me" he responds. "Ah, so you think, but time will undeceive you. Apostasy alone can save you from your share of the national curse -- the scorn of the Gentile; and I don't think, Alick, I don't think ... that you are yet prepared to stamp that open brow with the foul brand of a cowardly apostate" (p. 13).

And thus Tonna prepares us for one of the barriers of conversion to Christianity: being branded a coward and an apostate by one's own people.

Alick observes anti-semitism on the ship bound for the Middle East, although his shipmates apparently do not initially know that he is Jewish. One person (Mr. Cowper) tries to prove the truth of the Bible by demonstrating how ancient prophcies have been fulfilled (one of which is that the Jews shall be dispersed throughout the earth). But he overstates his case and comes very close to anti-semitic utterings: "You find no country under heaven without a Jew, bearing the brand of his crime, the curse of God, and the universal contempt of his fellow-creatures" (p. 18).

Another man on the ship, "the Gunner," also called "Mr. Gordon," stands up for the Jews. He defends a Jewish man who is accused of theft, and he defends Jews in general to his shipmates. Mr. Gordon tells his co-workers that he believes that the Jews will be restored to Palestine. "I know that he [Jews in general] is a standing miracle of judgment, and I know, too, that he will, at least nationally, be a standing miracle of mercy. He is a branch of the olive-tree, broken off through unbelief.... [but he is also] "a race whom God chose, and blessed, and distinguished among all people -- a race that, say what you will, are the aristocracy of the earth" (p. 23).

Alick reveals himself to all to be a Jew, and shares a pleasant conversation with Mr. Gordon, who thinks to himself, "What a blessing that fine boy would become among his people if the Lord were pleased to make him indeed a Jew!" Tonna continues Gordon's thoughts:

"Gordon was not one of those who imagine that a Jew when Christianized must needs be Gentilized also. He had very high, because very scriptural, views of the peculiar privileges secured to the children of Abraham, and which he knew were not annulled but confirmed by their becoming subjects of Messiah's kingdom. He longed to open the matter to Alick in such a way as to engage his attention, with the purpose of leading him to the feet of Him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write..." (p. 26).

A discussion ensues among the shipmates about history and heraldry, specifically about the origin of the third lion on the flag of England, which one of them calls "the Lion of Judah," supposedly added to the flag when Richard the Lionhearted conquered Palestine."You are very fond of our people, Mr. Gordon," said Alick, smiling." "Sir, I owe to your people more than my life: I owe to them this book, the writings of Moses and the prophets, who were all Jews; the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles, who were all likewise Jews: and through them the knowledge of my Lord and Savior, the King of the Jews, God over all, blessed for ever!" (p. 34-35).

Mr. Gordon shares some messianic prophecies with Alick, specifically "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a Lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes" [from the book of Genesis] (p. 36). But these conversations cause a bit of a stir on the ship. Mr. Gordon is told by the Captain not to have any more contact with Alick, and similarly, Alick is forbidden by his father to have contact with Gordon. But Gordon (abiding neither by the spirit not by the letter of the law) lends his Bible to Alick, who begins to read it. Alick starts to think that "Christianity -- such as it appeared in Gordon -- was a refined and elevated species of Judaism, and under this impression he was prepared to read the New Testament with an unprejudiced, inquiring mind" (p. 52).

A missionary (a convert from Judaism) appears in the narrative to talk with Mr. Cohen, his son Alick, and another Jewish man whom they have just met. The missionary speaks to their learned old Jewish companion, who has just quoted from the Talmud: "My worthy Josef Ben-Melchor, you with your Talmud are as far astray from the law of Moses as the poor Papist with his wafer-god is from the gospel of Christ" (p. 54). [Tonna's anti-Catholicism along with her anti-rabbinic bent appear here hand in hand, although it might be argued that the missionary's rant is not exactly Tonna's position. But in many other places in the book Catholicism is criticized for various faults. Protestant evangelical Christianity is seen by the narrator as the highest form of belief].

The missionary then proceeds to quote from the Bible, and then he says: "Ay, Josef Ben-Melchor, it was your Talmud, your oral laws, your vain superstitions received from your fathers, that brought on our people blindness of heart, till they sinned that great sin which caused our city to be destroyed, and the sword to be drawn out after us. And His anger is not turned away, but His hand is streteched forth still!" (p. 55).

Things are getting heated on the ship!

Josef responds: "The curse of the wicked be upon thee, Dog! Thou hast sold thyself to the evil one; thou hast committed the idolatry that this young boy's spirit could not suffer.... Away, Dog!" (p. 55). Mr. Cohen (Alick's dad) is disgusted by the behavior of both of his countrymen, the missionary and the Talmudist.

But then a new character enters the fray. A little six year old boy (Charley) meets Alick, and after learning that Alick is Jewish, tells him that he will "never go to heaven" if he does not believe in Jesus (p. 60). Perhaps the boy's age and innocence allow him to be so blunt. They engage in debate, and the Charley shows Alick from the New Testament various passages to prove his point. Alick is positively affected by the little boy's gentle witness.

Charley tells Alick that he wants to be a missionary to the Jews, and that his father sometimes engages in witnessing to Jews. Charley also continues to "witness" (sort of a casual preaching) to Alick and to tell him about messianic prophecies and quote the Bible to him.

Mrs. Ryan, Charley's mother, also shares the gospel with Alick: "My dear husband ... asserts that a Jew who embraces Christiantiy is three times a Jew. An Israelite according to the flesh, an Israelite according to the faith, and an Israelite according to the territorial promise."

But Alick is determined to keep his Judaism intact. "I am not going to embrace Christianity," he says (p. 80). Mrs. Ryan goes on to tell Alick how she thinks the Jews are so very blessed, and have been given the land of Palestine as their eternal homeland. She continues on for several pages [!] quoting from the Bible and telling him how the Jews are God's chosen people. And she ends thusly:

"and when their Messiah,-- him to whom gave all the prophets witness,-- came exactly at the appointed time, and exactly in the appointed way, as foreshown by Isaiah, David, and other prophets, they knew him not -- they rejected, they crucified him. For this deadly sin they were driven forth from their goodly heritage, scattered among all nations, and exposed to the wrath of God, until they shall turn to him who smites them, and casting from them the vain traditions of men, believe the word of God, as declared by their own inspired prophets, and acknowledge the Savior who once suffered for them, who shall again come to reign over them -- their own Messiah, their King, their God!" (p. 85).

Mrs. Ryan's speech doesn't seem that different from the missionary's rant, but somehow the author gives the Ryan family a little more legitimacy than the Jewish-Christian missionary. At any rate, perhaps Mrs. Ryan is really the voice of Charlotte Elizabeth (or how she would like to sound).

Mrs. Ryan gives Alick a Hebrew Bible, in which are underlined various messianic prophecies. Josef Ben-Melchior (remember him? he's the learned rabbinic scholar) forbids Alick from reading it, but Alick refuses this advice. He begins to study it and compare the messianic prophecies with their "fulfillment" in the New Testament. In conversations with Charley and Mrs. Ryan, Alick learns that Charley knows Hebrew, and concludes that the boy is a genius.

Charley and Josef Ben-Melchior get into an argument, and when Charley tells him he needs to believe in his Messiah, the older Jewish man starts to curse Charley and all Christians, in various languages and with great fervor and invective. Again, Alick's father wishes that his countryman and his fellow Englishmen (including Charley) would be more civil to each other when discussing religion. (Mr. Cohen seems to be the Rodney King of the 19th century). Josef calms down later, and they continue their discussion. Mrs. Ryan asks Mr. Cohen to get a prayer book, and she shows him from the liturgy a messianic prophecy (again ostensibly fulfilled in the New Testament).

Mrs. Ryan and Charley continue to preach the gospel (in a quiet and gentle manner) to Alick, showing him from the Old Testament and the New how Christ is the fulfillment of Judaism. Mrs. Ryan describes Judaism as "empty forms of erring devotion" (p. 112). Alick begins to talk to Captain Ryan, who tries to convince him that salvation comes by faith, not by the works of the law. Here is Alick's response:

"I partly understand that," said Alick, thoughtfully, "for I cannot bring myself to believe that the works which Ben-Melchor thinks so needful and beneficial -- long fasts, exposure to cold, prayers recited by the dozen, and various positions of body to be gone through, will do anything towards obtaining God's favor hereafter" (p. 122).

Captain Ryan presses him: "Now, Cohen, how will you escape hell -- how will you enter into heaven?" ... He had no answer ready.... "Tell me, Cohen, to what cause do you attribute the prolonged dispersion, depression, destruction of your people?" Alick, with some little asperity, answered, "I know you think it is because our fathers crucified Jesus of Nazareth." "I think no such thing. I believe and am sure that the calamities which overtook Jerusalem and her people were the consequences of that fearful deed; but far be it from me to say that "the father have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." "No: the cause of your continued afflication is your still stumbling, from generation to generation, at that "stone of stumbling." Israel is still outcast, because "they, going about to establish their own righteousness, would not submit to the righteousness of God" [again quoting Paul in the book of Romans] (p. 123).

Alick decides that time alone will demonstrate if the Ryans are correct. "Meanwhile, I will go with my people. When they confess him, I'll confess him" (p. 127). But then a tragic death of a sailor occurs on board the ship, and Alick begins to think more seriously about life and death. He reads in the gospel of John about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. "What sins have I committed, to need such a removal? Here was the turning point: Alick closed the book and began to examine his past life." (p. 130). He goes through the ten commandments and realizes that he has broken many of them.

As Alick continues to ponder the gospel, he becomes fearful that Ben-Melchor is "infecting [Mr. Cohen, Alick's father] with his Talmudism" (p. 134). Somehow the Talmud has become for Alick the bugaboo of the debate, preventing honest dialogue from occuring.

Captain Ryan, Mr. Cohen, Alick, and Ben-Melchor engage in further discussion. "You shall not contaminate my garment by the unclean doctrine of the Nazarenes" [says Ben-Melchor to Captain Ryan] (p. 134). "You have spoken words of blasphemy against our holy religion" [says Ben-Melchor to Captain Ryan again] (p. 135). Captain Ryan denies that he speaks against Judaism, the true Judaism found in the Hebrew Bible, but he does "denounce your Rabbinical absurdities" (p. 135). Ryan and his wife (and their son, don't forget little Charley, the boy genius) often compare the Talmudists with the Papists in this book, neither faring very well in their opinion.

The ship finally reaches Palestine. Alick meets a Jew named "Da Costa" who lives in Israel but once knew Alick back in England when Alick was a child. Da Costa likes Captain Ryan and other Irishmen, and says to him: "I like your countrymen, Captain Ryan... they are far more accessible than the English; and besides, there seems to be among you a strong tinge of Jewish blood. Have you heard of that before?" Ryan responds: "Undoubtedly: the opinion is prevalent that we, the native race of Ireland, owe our origin, at least in part, to a tribe of Israelites who, ... found a welcome and a home in the green Isle ... and imparted, in process of time, the privileges of Hebrew descent to a large portion of the Islanders" (p. 164).

After Da Costa hears Charley and Captain Ryan preaching to him and the others, Da Costa says: "I confess I don't like the proselytizing mania: we never seek to convert you, and why you should be so bent on our apostasy I cannot tell" (p. 165). Da Costa and Ryan talk amiably for a bit. While Da Costa is a proud Jew, he is much less "rigid" than Ben-Melchor and willing to hear the other side. Indeed, he confesses to in the past having read the entire New Testament.

Captain Ryan claims to have not been influenced by Christian commentators on the Bible, but to have been solely influenced and convinced by the Bible itself, through the work of the Holy Spirit. This, he claims, differentiates Protestant faith with both Catholic faith and Jewish tradition, which both rely on commentaries and interpretations to prove their points. Both Da Costa and Alick are disturbed that they cannot answer the claims and proofs of Ryan, so they decide to study the prophecies together, to try to prove to themselves and to Ryan that the Jewish view is correct. Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen gets sick, and each day he becomes more and more ill and weak. Little Charley gets sick, too. (Poor little guy!).

As the group travels around Palestine, they each point out various places that are mentioned in the Bible. They meet some Turks and remark how good the Turks have been (relatively speaking) to the Jews, how bad the Crusaders were, influenced as they were by the Roman Catholic Church, and they all continually talk (especially the Ryans) about how the Jews will return some day to Palestine, perhaps at first in unbelief, but eventually they will all turn to their Messiah, Jesus. The group visits a convent where they bring the sick Charley, and Da Costa brings up the fact that many Catholics continue to believe the blood libel, "that we, the seed of Abraham, knead our passover bread with Christian blood; to procure which we inveigle and murder them." Captain Ryan responds: "And never since Satan began his career as the father of lies, did he produce a lie more diabolical than that" (p. 208).

Well, OK, at least Tonna doesn't believe the blood libel. And that settles that!

Throughout the book, Da Costa and Alick and other Jews recite the Shema. Even little Charley recites it in Hebrew at one point. When Alick is struggling with whether or not to believe in Jesus as his Savior, he recites the Shema to himself, and afterward "he seemed to hear Jesus of Nazareth responding, "I and my Father are One" (p. 228). No one can give Alick the answers he desires to the questions that have been brought up by the Ryans. Da Costa cannot satisfactorily answer these questions, and neither can other Jews that they meet in Palestine, even more well versed than Da Costa in Judaism. Da Costa realizes that Alick is slowly being convinced by the Ryans' arguments, and so he decides to take Alick under his care. (Earlier Alick's father had placed Alick under the care of the Ryans, because at Smyrna Mr. Cohen had to stay due to his illness).

Alick reveals his current state of mind to Captain Ryan and Da Costa (who little Charley calls "Mr. Dockster"):

"I wish to be, in the sight of all men, wholly and openly a Jew; and as such I shall carefully compare the law and the prophets with what Christians assert is their fulfillment. I shall ask wisdom from the God of Israel, who alone can give it: then, if I find Christianity to be, as you say it is, the end of our law and the fulfilling of our prophets; if He, whom you assert to be King of the Jews, is really so, and not an imposter, I shall be found in the right path for the acceptation of that which as yet I cannot receive; and as I know Judaism to be of God, so if Christianity be of God also, they cannot clash -- they must combine and form but one" (p. 264-265).

Ryan warns Alick to "beware of the Talmud!" But Da Costa responds: "The Talmud ... is our oral law, and as binding on us as the New Testament is on you." "I never understood," said Alick, "that the Talmud was an inspired book" (p. 265). This leads to a discussion about which parts of the Talmud are binding today. Ryan points out a section of the Talmud that admonishes Jews to kill those of the children of Noah (gentiles) who do not obey the commands of God, and says that this proves that the Talmud is not inspired, because no Jew today would obey this commandment. [Of course, Ryan conveniently forgets about the similar commandments in the "wholly inspired" Hebrew Bible....]

The three men continue the discussion, and talk about the sacrifices of Leviticus, and how sin is "taken away" by God. By the end Da Costa is somewhat discouraged because he has to acknowledge the powerful arguments that Ryan makes.

Ryan says to Alick: "Da Costa is blindly attached to what he believes to be the religion of Moses, but which he has not fairly brought to the test either of your own scriptures or of common sense; and while he receives for doctrines the commandments of men, without examining them, he cannot be a competent guide to others" (p. 284).

The big question remains for Alick of whether or not the Talmud is the revealed word of God. Ryan asserts that it contains bits and pieces of the truth, but it is not inspired or binding. "He who rejects [Talmudism] is on the high road to become a Christian," Ryan states (p. 285). So Alick continues to discuss and study with Ryan and (separately) with Da Costa.

Alick and Da Costa go searching for a Jewish friend who has been kidnapped by Maronites, but on the way they are accosted by Arabs who capture them and wound Da Costa. In their captivity Alick and Da Costa discuss the possibility of their dying in the land of Palestine. Da Costa is not worried, because he believes that as a Jew he will receive his inheritance in the world to come. But Alick is concerned that he has not fulfilled the law of God perfectly.

"There is no man but must plead guilty to some of these things," remarked Da Costa.

"No: therefore all men need to bring with them something wherewith to propitiate the Lord; and what have I to bring?"

"A repentant heart, dear Alick."

"But if penitence alone would suffice, wherefore were the sacrifices instituted? Why was such an immense burden of ceremonial usages laid on our fathers?" (p. 305).

The moment of truth finally arrives, and Alick reaches the tipping point of his faith crisis. He tells Da Costa:

"The Lion of the tribe of Judah is to those who resist him a lion indeed, terrible in his strength, able to destroy, and no man shall stand before him: but to others he is a lamb, a slain lamb, merciful and meek, able to save. I see the twofold character in him united, and I can, yes I can believe!"

"Believe what? asked Da Costa." (p. 310).

"I believe with all my heart, with all my soul, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God."

"This is sheer madness; you had no such belief a day or two since; and not a word have you heard, or read, not a single thing has come in your way, to cause this sudden change."

".... Oh, Da Costa! what I feel now is a foretaste of heaven itself -- such a peace, such a calm, such a joy!"

"To Gehenna!" exclaimed Da Costa, vehemently. "Wretched boy, do you dare to apostatize? do you fling from you the priceless privileges of the holy seed? Recreant, do you cease to be a Jew?"

"No, God forbid! I do but add to the law that Moses gave, the faith that Moses held.... I would not cut myself off from Israel."

"Nevertheless, sir, you do, if there be any meaning in what you now rave. The mere act of which you are now guilty, the going after other gods, whom your fathers have not known, cuts you off; and were we not dispersed, desolate, and unable to fulfill the requirements of our most holy law, you would be put to death as a warning to others" (p. 311). "Dear Cohen, think again: oh, forsake not the faith of your fathers, nor separate from your scorned, oppressed, persecuted, brethren, still the chosen people of the Most High!"

"Da Costa, I never loved them as now I do: my heart cleaves to them" (p. 313) .... "Whatever sin I commit, ... and truly I sin every hour, let it be washed away in the blood shed to redeem my soul! I plead the atoning sacrifice, ever present, ever available to faith; ever well pleasing to God" (p. 314).

Alick talks to the Egyptian soldier Mustapha: "But I am a Jew; no drop of Gentile blood is intermingled with that of my race; and would you have me deny or conceal that fact?" "Well, grant that you felt bound to declare it, surely the other and contradictory assertion of being a Christian, was, at least, ill-judged." "Do you then doubt the reality of my belief in the Messiah of Israel, who here suffered for our sins, and shall here return in great glory for our deliverance and ultimate triumph?" [says Alick] (p. 322).

Alick is rescued from his captors, and he tells his rescuers that he now believes in Jesus. "Then you have renounced Judaism?" said the younger officer, with an aspect of surprise and some pleasure. "Renounced Judaism? Never! Jesus never disowned it, his Apostles never renounced it; why then should I? To be a Hebrew is my privilege, my glory, my joy" (p. 338).

It turns out that Da Costa's German Jewish friend, Wilhelm's son, who Da Costa and Alick had originally gone to rescue, has become a Christian and gone back to England, where he has almost convinced Esther (his true love) to also become a Christian. Wilhelm and his Jewish friends in Jerusalem curse his son with all the curses they know. Wilhelm says, "The subtilty of the Nazarene doctrine is great, and the hold which it takes on the youthful mind is marvelous. It is a whirlpool -- come but within the outermost circle, and thou art presently sucked down" (p. 341).

Later it turns out that Wilhelm himself becomes a Christian, and so does Esther. Da Costa is finally rescued also. He is brought back to the Ryans half starved and in bad shape. As he recuperates, they all decide to visit the Western Wall, and it is there that Charley preaches again to Da Costa: "Our God is the God of salvation. Dear, darling Jew, don't die without believing in the God of salvation. He loves you, oh, he does; He loves dear Israel.... Believe, believe, oh do believe in Jesus!" (p. 354).

Da Costa then (apparently) assents to belief (although this might be argued -- the text is somewhat ambivalent), and then he dies. The book ends with Alick giving his testimony a year later to a group of English naval officers.

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