In the annals of English literature, the most prominent bearer of the name “Mordecai” was a Jewish character who played a central role in Daniel Deronda, the last novel published by Ms. Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name George Eliot.
Mordecai Cohen appears there as the mentor who inspires the novel’s eponymous hero to delve into Jewish tradition and ultimately devote himself to gathering the dispersed Jews into a proud independent nation on their native soil. Eliot’s outspoken anticipation of classic Zionism was published in 1876, some two decades before Herzl’s The Jewish State.
Eliot took great care in crafting every detail in her works, so it seems fitting to seek significance in her choice of this particular name for her character. Although she was a rationalist who rejected the dogmatic Christian orthodoxy in which she was raised, the stories and personalities of the Bible strongly influenced her craft. It is therefore not unreasonable to scrutinize Daniel Deronda in search of motifs deriving from scriptural sources.
I can think of several possible associations between Mordecai Cohen and his biblical namesake.
The character referred to throughout most of the novel as Mordecai was really named Ezra (Mordecai is his middle name), a designation that he resumes in the closing chapters. This duality of names is not adequately explained, apart from its helping to postpone the discovery of his true identity until the plot is ready for it.
Recent scholarship has argued that the biblical Mordecai and Ezra exemplified contrasting responses to the realities of Jewish exile. Mordecai strove for full integration into the gentile culture, prompting him to serve in the Persian government and even to encourage Esther’s marriage to the heathen monarch. Ezra, by contrast, participated in the return to Zion, the rebuilding of the Temple and restoration of Jewish sovereignty, while insisting that Jewish men divorce their non-Jewish wives.
Perhaps by means of this double naming Eliot wanted to express two different dimensions of the modern Jewish engagement with the outside world: Though the Mordecai-like goal of integration into the broader society might be a desirable one, ultimately it is only a first step toward fulfilling Ezra’s ideal of an independent polity in which Jews can live according their own laws and values (in contrast to the eternally “wandering Jew” who was named Ahasuerus in Christian legend).
The book of Esther derives the name of the festival Purim from “pur,”referring to the lottery that Haman cast to determine the date of the Jews’ destruction. Indeed, gambling plays an important part in Daniel Deronda. The story opens in a casino as Daniel casts a disapproving gaze at the lovely Gwendolen’s roulette-playing. Towards the book’s end, the Jewish heroine Mirah confronts her unscrupulous gambling-addicted father Lapidoth. This seems to reflect the author’s disapproval of passive reliance on chance rather than the exercising of moral autonomy.
Yet the biblical tale and the Victorian novel share a puzzling ambivalence as regards the respective roles of human initiative and supernatural control over the affairs of mortals. The book of Esther contains no explicit mention of God, but traditional readers discerned the intricate divine operation behind the scenes in the form of what Nahmanides and other Jewish theologians termed “hidden miracles.” Similarly, Mordecai in Daniel Deronda displays an ability to foretell major and minor events with an accuracy that seems prophetic, but might derive from his keen psychological insights. By the book’s conclusion numerous serendipitous coincidences reveal themselves to have been necessary for the realization of Mordecai’s plans and the tidy unfolding of this archetypically Victorian storyline. Given Eliot’s ambivalent and changing attitudes toward religion, rationalism and moral responsibility, it is unclear how we are intended to interpret this theme.
There are additional motifs in Daniel Deronda that echo those of the Megillah. For instance, the central plot concerns a tragic marital conflict between two strong-willed aristocrats that is reminiscent of the story of Vashti and Ahasuerus.
According to a convention in the Hebrew and Yiddish literature of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement, the name Mordecai—usually paired with the European name Marcus—was assigned to virtuous exponents of enlightened modernity, young men whose Hebrew literacy and commitment to Jewish tradition were combined with proficiency in European culture and, ideally, to the corridors of political power; even as the ancient Mordecai the Jew had served faithfully in the court of Ahasuerus, and as subsequent “court Jews” had utilized their influence to defend the interests of their coreligionists. These valiant depictions of enlightened Mordecais may have arisen in reaction to a longstanding convention in Purim parodies (shpiels) of portraying Mordecai as “Mondrish,” a comical buffoon.
Eliot had before her a tangible embodiment of such an enlightened “Mordecai-Marcus” in the person of her friend Dr. Emanuel Oscar Deutsch, scion of an intensely traditional rabbinic family from Silesia, who became a respected academic authority on Semitic languages and held a position at the British Museum. Deutsch achieved celebrity for an appreciation of the Talmud that he published in an influential English intellectual journal, an article that became a best-seller and succeeded in stemming the generally negative assessments of the Talmud that had been prevalent in British society.
Deutsch was the main source for the novelist’s impressively accurate depictions of Jewish texts and practices, her serious study of Hebrew, and her conversance with efforts to revive autonomous Jewish communal life in Palestine. Like Eliot’s Mordecai, Deutsch was afflicted prematurely with a disease that ended his life early in Alexandria, Egypt, while en route to the land of Israel.
One commentator observed that Eliot’s Mordecai resembles his biblical namesake in that they both awaken the Jewish identities of crypto-Jews—the scriptural Esther who “had not shewed her people nor her kindred,” and Eliot’s Deronda who was previously unaware of his Hebrew lineage.
So too, Deutch’s pupil Mary Ann Evans rose to prominence (under an assumed name) as both a reigning dignitary of English literature and as an influential advocate for the Jewish nation.