Friday, July 6, 2007

Sophia de Lissau

Not sure where to start, but what the heck, let's start at the beginning. One of the first evangelical conversionary novels (where one or more Jews convert to Christianity) was written by Amelia Bristow. Bristow was an interesting lady. She lived from 1783-1850 (one source says "after 1845"), and is described as a "novelist, Christian convert from Judaism, living in and near London." Apparently she is not the same Amelia Bristow who published The Maniac and The Merits of Women.

In any event, Bristow's first novel was Sophia de Lissau: A Portraiture of the Jews, of the Nineteenth Century: Being an Outline of their Religious and Domestic Habits, published in 1829. Given that Bristow was herself a convert, it's possible that this book is quasi autobiographical. But who knows for sure.... Anyway, here is a plot summary:

This book contains many detailed (and, I would say, accurate) observations and descriptions of Jewish life and rituals. It also details many family relationships, and especially focuses on the life of Sophia and her mother, Anna de Lissau. The mother battles depression and alienation from her parents (who both die in the course of the book). Anna becomes too close to a rabbi friend, who also has feelings for her, and the rabbi commits suicide because of his despair over his tragic feelings for Anna. He is replaced by another rabbi, Rabbi Wertheim, who is much kinder and gentler than the first rabbi.

The title character, Sophia de Lissau, was descended from a rabbinic Polish Jewish family who had moved to England. The family boasted that "no branch of their illustrious line had ever swerved from the faith of their fathers, or embraced the detested tenets of the despised and crucified Nazarene! So deep rooted was their bigotry, and so awfully impenetrable the veil which the inscrutable and mysterious will of divine Providence permitted to cover the hearts of these descendants of Israel! " (p. 2).

Big mistake to boast like that, don't you think?

British Jews, who are contrasted with Polish Jews in various ways including the levity with which they approach religious matters, are said to have "cold and heartless synagogue worship." (p. 3). Oh dear.

Sophia's mother, Anna, had a "violent hatred to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his real followers. Nominal Christians excited only contempt, and her penetration easily discerned them; but the true "household of faith" she cordially detested, and often expressed her indignation at the liberality of her husband, towards a race she would gladly have swept at once from the face of the earth." (p. 9).

Wow, Anna seems to be a little bitter about something. But some people are like that...

A rabbi who Anna consulted, Rabbi Colmar, "utterly detested the followers of the Lord Jesus; and was vehement in his abhorrence of such of his own people as had, through sovereign grace, embraced Christianity; he would have thought it meritorious to slay them with his own hands;" (p. 35).

This extreme hatred (to the point of thoughts of murder) is a theme that we find in other conversionary novels of the 19th century, and even later. You would think that rabbis would have more lofty thoughts than this, but hey, just Google "Fred J. Neulander" and you will discover the shocking truth that even rabbis sometimes commit capital offenses.

Anna writes a letter to her daughter, Sophia: "we live in a day of apostasy and declension from the true and only faith, and amidst a land of Nazarene worshippers... Apostacy (sic), that deadly sin, for which there is no atonement, has reached even to the holy camp of Israel." (p. 52).

The character of Anna is sort of "telegraphing" the plot of this story, but Bristow isn't a very subtle writer.

James Sydney, a Gentile (and nominal Christian, really more of a Deist) who is apprenticed to Mr. de Lissau, decides that he wants to marry Sophia and convert to Judaism. One night he receives an anonymous letter that says, in part: "You are studying the Jewish mode of worship in order to embrace it, --alas! Sydney seeks life amidst the dead. .... know you not, are you not aware, that the Mosaic dispensation was but a shadow of things to come, and that the splendid instituted worship, with all its august train of sacrifices... was but a solemn memorial of the great Redeemer." (p. 171). ... "Seek [God's] aid then in sincerity, and under the divine teaching you will perceive that Judaism has passed away, because all that Moses, David, and the prophets teach, has been fulfilled." (p. 172). The writer hopes that Sydney "will cast his carnal observances, his four-cornered garment of fringes, his phylacteries, and all the idols he has collected in ignorance, to the moles and the bats, and worship God alone, Father, Son, and Spirit." (p. 174).

Normally in Jewish tradition potential Gentile converts are discouraged (three times!) from actually converting, but I suppose Bristow thinks this character needs some Christian discouragement as well.

After meeting Sophia's father, a Christian woman named Mrs. Archer, who was Sydney's aunt and had raised Sydney's orphan mother, impressed with his honesty and piety and common sense, thinks to herself: "Is it possible that this man is a Jew!".... "are these the sentiments and actions of one allied to perdition!" [the writer of the book then states that only God can be the judge of men's souls]. James Sydney begins to attend church with Mrs. Archer and continues to receive anonymous letters encouraging him to read the Bible and believe in Christ. Eventually he does become a "true" Christian. He begins to have discussions (friendly debates) with Rabbi Wertheim. But Sophia is cold toward him: ""What friendship can I have with an avowed Nazarene? Or what union of spirit with a follower of _______?" She shuddered as she would have added the name of the Saviour, and left the sentence incomplete." (p. 196).

It turns out that the anonymous letter writer was Emma, Sophia's sister. She has been a secret Christian. In response to Sophia's question, Emma says: "I believe that salvation is in Jesus of Nazareth alone, and all who are not saved by Him, must perish everlastingly!" (p. 204). Later, Sophia responds: "I enter not, I dare not enter into views, so fearful in their consequences, as those you hold, and which, if true, would consign our holy nation, our departed ancestors, our pious living relatives, our wise Rabbins, nay, even our beloved parents, to hopeless misery! No, Emma, my inmost soul rejects such doctrines; we will therefore revive the hated subject no more.... henceforward let the Nazarene never be named in my presence." (p. 206).

"Jewish females of that day, presented to the enlightened observer but a melancholy spectacle, excelling indeed in the dance and song, or versed in the mysteries of the card-table; but ignorant, bigoted, superstitious, or else wholly indifferent to eternal things, and quite taken up by earthly pleasures, without any anxiety for the future, except that of marrying advantageously. This is a delineation of mental and moral degradation, and pitiable carelessness, but, with very few exceptions, the portrait is a faithful one." (p. 210-211).

Emma and Sophia have more conversations about God. "I understand not your nice distinctions, my dear sister," said Sophia, smilingly, "but my mind is at perfect rest; your God may, nay does, differ from him I worship, but as I have often said, I desire not the knowledge of the crucified Nazarene; my hope is fixed on the mercy of the Holy One of Israel, and on that mercy I freely and fearlessly venture my soul, assured of arriving safe into the mansions of eternal blessedness." (p. 253).

Sophia, after an unhappy marriage, delivers a stillborn daughter and dies in childbirth. Her final words are, in response to Emma's attempt to talk about faith in Christ: "Cease my beloved sister, I die in the faith of my ancestors." (p. 257).

Thus ends this tragic tale.

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