Sunday, July 29, 2007

Judith Bensaddi: A Tale

Conversionary fiction was not unknown on the other side of the Atlantic. Henry Ruffner wrote the novel Judith Bensaddi: A Tale in 1839. The author was a progressive (based on early 19th century standards) Presbyterian minister and the president of Washington and Lee University. The novel is set in South Carolina and is supposedly based on a true story that was recounted to Ruffner by another clergyman.

Trivia enthusiasts should note that the "Wandering Jew" in folklore and fiction, Salathiel ben Sadi, seems to have the same last name as the title character of this book.

J. Michael Pemberton, in a 1984 introduction to this work, writes that "The chief purpose of Ruffner's novel, of course, was not the propagation of the Gospel, for he reminds the reader in strong terms that Christ was a Jew, includes some unflattering portraits of "Christians," and has his protagonist decide to marry Judith even before he learns of her conversion" (p. 21). While Judith Bensaddi: A Tale is not as heavy handed in its evangelistic efforts as the 1830s British novels by Amelia Bristow and others, it certainly makes the case for Jews converting to Christianity. Perhaps Pemberton is correct and Ruffner's primary goal was not to convert Jews, but it's difficult to read this novel without thinking that it was at least a secondary (all right, perhaps tertiary) objective.

The protagonist of the novel (a certain Mr. Garame) has the following thoughts about his new crush:

"True, I have never liked the character of the Jews, either ancient or modern, but she has charms enough to put all such prejudices to flight. And why should I object to marry a daughter of Abraham, the friend of God, and the father of all believers? Were not the prophets and the apostles and the son of God himself Israelites? And am I to feel degraded or mismatched when I marry a kinswoman of theirs? But were the Jews never so vile or loathsome as a people, my Judith has sufficient personal merits to redeem her from all objection and to cover all her people's sins.... But, says an objector, she is not a Christian. But in spirit and feeling she is a far better Christian than nine-tenths of those who make the loudest professions. She loves the rules and the spirit of the Christian religion, and I have no doubt that she only needs to be placed in Christian society and under Christian influence to be soon persuaded to believe fully in Jesus of Nazareth" (p. 104).

Ah, but there is more to come from the fertile mind of Mr. Garame:

"Whatever the cause might be, it so happened that on the third day of my travels the word "Jewess" ... began to strike positively disagreeable impressions upon my mind.... More frequently would that detestable word return and trouble the sweet current of my feelings. "Jewess," "Jewess," would I say to myself.... "Am I really in love with the daughter of a Jew? Am I to connect myself with that accursed race?" (p. 124).

Mr. Garame reveals more of the inner workings of his love-sick mind:

"Yes, a Jewess is to be my wife. My children are to be half-blooded Jews.... When we go to church -- we, do I say? Perhaps she will not go to church but be wishing for her rabbi and her synagogue. But suppose that ... she does go to church; then every eye is upon her -- whispers go round, "The Jewess has come to church! Do you know whether she is likely to be converted?" and so on. Then the minister preaches at her and deals out anathemas against the unbelieving Jews...." (p. 125).

Sadly, Mr. Garame receives a letter from Judith near the end of the novel:

"[A new friend] had learned that I was a Jewess, and he labored faithfully and eloquently for my conversion to Christianity. By the blessing of God he succeeded in removing all my remaining doubts and difficulties respecting the Christian faith." ..... "Now my faith in Jesus of Nazareth is my chief consolation, and the eloquent and pious who won me finally to Christ has also gained so much of my esteem and affection that I have, after much hesitation, accepted his offer, and we are betrothed" (pp. 143-144).

This was entirely unexpected, but wait, there's more. In the sequel to Judith Bensaddi, entitled "Seclusaval," Judith breaks off her engagement to the Englishman (the "new friend" that she had mentioned in her letter to the narrator) and ends up marrying Garame. This ending, while perhaps satisfying to the romantics among us, is, well, somewhat anti-climactic compared to the potboilers of Bristow and others where the heroines either die or become missionaries to the Jews.

And one more thing. Whatever Ruffner's motivations were, I realize that it's unfair to judge Judith's conversion to Christianity by 21st (or even 20th) century standards. Henry Ruffner was simply a product of his time, and what he wrote about Jews was probably fairly progressive for the era in which he lived. A 21st century ending might have Garame converting to Judaism instead of Judith's conversion to Christianity. But that ending couldn't have been written in 1839, at least not by a Presbyterian minister.

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