Daniel Deronda and Fate and Destiny: Reflections on Zionism and Feminism

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Zionism as a roadmap for feminism? A covenant-based philosophy that leads to women’s autonomy? These become possible when we read George Eliot’s (née Mary Anne or Marian Evans) 1876 prophetic Zionist novel Daniel Deronda in light of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s concepts in his 1956 Fate and Destiny (Kol Dodi Dofek). Since both argue that Jews must act to build (DD) and sustain (F&D) a Jewish homeland, the texts have some inherent affinities. But there is more. The Rav defines ‘fate’ as living a passive life that accepts the status quo, and ‘destiny’ as actively creating something meaningful from that fate. If we accept these terms, extending the argument to women leads to the conclusion that the Rav’s prescription for Jewish activism might also be valid for women’s activism. I propose that the novel invites us to reorient Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophies concerning Jews toward women. This is where the works’ mutual significance lies.

The purpose of this study therefore is to explore the ways in which Daniel Deronda and Fate and Destiny mirror each other. Across eighty years, the Rav’s writing reflects images of Eliot’s Zionism, and the novel reflects Fate and Destiny‘s applicability not only to Eliot’s Jewish characters, but to the equivalent of women’s ‘Zionism’ — personal, social, and political autonomy.

Synopsis of Daniel Deronda

The eight books and seventy chapters of Daniel Deronda describe the collision and comparison of two worlds – one decaying and one developing. In the first, the Gwendolyn Harleth storyline, Eliot exposes the immorality and unsustainability of Victorian aristocracy. In the second, the Mordecai storyline, she demonstrates the morality of and arguments for Jewish nationhood. Daniel Deronda inhabits both worlds, linking them narratively, culturally, and politically — an expression of Eliot’s wish for the “ultimate unity of mankind” (chapter 61).[1]

Spoiled, selfish, and beautiful, Gwendolyn Harleth is from a formerly well-off family that was supported for a time by a benefactor, but is now impoverished. She turns up her nose at a governess position and marries the aristocratic but cruel Henleigh Grandcourt, whom, she learns, has been supporting his mistress, Mrs. Glasher, and their four children, in a coal-mining district. Although Mrs. Glasher implores Gwendolyn not to marry Grandcourt, she does so, fearing homelessness. Meanwhile, after months of subjecting his wife to severe psychological abuse, Grandcourt drowns at sea, his spouse watching from the yacht.

In the second storyline, the Harleths’ benefactor, Sir Hugo Mallinger, has raised Daniel Deronda as an English gentleman. Along with her late husband’s fortune, Daniel’s mother, the Princess Leonora Halm-Eberstein, nee Charisi, had entrusted her young son to Sir Hugo with the promise that he never inform Daniel of his Jewish heritage. The novel opens with Deronda at a gambling house in Germany, noticing the striking Gwendolyn losing a necklace at the roulette table. Taken with her, he anonymously redeems and returns the jewelry. She and Deronda are attracted to each other, yet he does not pursue her. Instead, upon returning to London, he saves his future wife, the bedraggled eighteen-year-old Mirah Cohen, from committing suicide in the Thames. He places her with his friends, the Meyricks, who care for the accomplished singer. In helping Mirah locate her long-lost brother, Daniel meets the lower-class Cohens, who are pawn-shop owners.

Jews’ roles as pawnbrokers in Victorian England ironically captures the diminished value Britain assigned to them: When something is pawned, it commands only a small fraction of its worth. Of course, this symbol of diminished value applies equally to England’s treatment of women. It is also symbolic that Mirah’s thirty-year-old brother, the consumptive Mordecai, works for the Cohens repairing watches. Doing so is bound up with his prophetic mission: to mend historical time. Mordecai voices Eliot’s prophecy of a Jewish nation, foreseeing a “new Judea, poised between East and West – a covenant of reconciliation” (chapter 42). Upon his death, Mirah and Daniel marry and move to Palestine to fulfill Mordecai’s vision.

Jewish Responses to Daniel Deronda

In 1878, two years after Daniel Deronda’s publication, Professor David Kaufmann of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Budapest published George Eliot and Judaism, An Attempt to Appreciate Daniel Deronda.[2] Kaufmann discusses not only Eliot’s advocacy of Jewish nationalism, but also how Judaism animates her Jewish characters: “[Eliot] does not introduce us to a creed, but its professors-not a faith, but those who have been nurtured by it” (Kaufmann 26). Kaufmann also notes the author’s ironic observation that the divine unity in the Shema results in “the ultimate unity of mankind” (chapter 61). He continues, “What a loving insight into the spirit of Judaism is expressed [in the words:] ‘The nation which has been scoffed at for its separateness, has given a binding theory to the human race’” (84). Indeed, Eliot’s wish that monotheism’s unity be transferred to humanity pervades the novel. Perhaps her extensive study of Judaism, particularly her education in Talmud and Hebrew, led to this wish.

Her teacher was Talmud scholar Emanuel Deutsch,[3] whose article on the Talmud, written for a Christian audience, was published in the Quarterly Review, where Eliot first learned of him. It is widely believed that the character of Mordecai is a tribute to Deutsch, who died from cancer in 1873 at age forty-four. This point is recounted in the late historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s sweeping 2009 work, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot,[4] which exhaustively traces Eliot’s interest, education, and thinking on Jews and Judaism, as well as the subsequent negative critical responses to the novel.[5]

More recently, there has been burgeoning interest in Daniel Deronda stemming in part from Professor Ruth Wisse’s eight-part course on Daniel Deronda and Jewish nationalism. The course, initially taught to undergraduates in 2016, was made publicly accessible in 2017 by the Tikvah Fund. While the lecture series speaks to a resurgence of interest in Zionism, particularly among conservatives, it is also a tour de force of literary analysis, braiding together ribbons of literature, history, and Judaism.

Others soon noted the novel’s linkage between Zionism and feminism. On the heels of the course’s release, in March 2017, Liel Leibovitz published “Daniel Deronda, Conservative Jewish Hero,” noting that “Eliot realized that Jews and women faced the same essential dilemma.”[6] Just weeks later, Sarah Rindner drew the explicit comparison between the novel’s feminist and Zionist subjects, asking, “What is the connection between [the novel’s] feminist and Zionist strands?” She proceeds to analyze each major female character, asserting that “Wisse explores how, at the deepest levels, the novel demonstrates that questions about the status of women and the Jews may inform one another.” Rindner concludes: “Eliot suggests that the sort of ideals fundamental to the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty may actually serve as a better guide for the women’s rights movement than the secular humanism with which it is more commonly associated.”[7] These ideals –- belief in the power to improve one’s lot, courage to act on it, and strength in unity — inform the Rav’s work as well.

Soloveitchik’s and Eliot’s Images of Fate

The Rav’s Four Aspects of Jewish Consciousness in the Covenant of Fate

“So long as a person’s nose testifies to his origins, so long as a drop of Jewish blood courses through his veins, so long as physically he is still a Jew, he serves the God of the Hebrews against his will” (F&D 45). This is the Rav’s description of living under the Covenant of Fate, the one-way contract imposed by God in Egypt: “And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Exodus 6:7, quoted in F&D, 42). Remarkably, Eliot’s three main Jewish characters, Mordecai, Deronda, and Mirah, evince the four aspects of consciousness the Rav identifies as Jews’ shared fate.

Rav Soloveitchik explains: “First, the consciousness of a shared fate manifests itself as a consciousness of shared circumstances. . . [we are all] caught in the same web of historical circumstances” (46). Mirah feels this when Mrs. Meyrick questions the girl’s loyalty to her parents’ ‘creed.’ The woman argues, “Still one may honor one’s parents, without following their notions exactly, any more than the exact cut of their clothing. . . I am neither quite [a] Scotch [Calvinist], nor quite [a] French [Calvinist], nor two Calvinists rolled into one, yet I honor my parents’ memory.” Mirah responds, “But I could not make myself not a Jewess . . . even if I changed my belief” (chapter 32).

Mordecai expresses the girl’s feeling in more philosophical terms continuing the textile metaphor, telling Deronda, “The life of a people grows, it is knit together and yet expanded . . .The heritage of Israel is beating in the pulses of millions; it lives in their veins as a power without understanding, . . . it is the inborn half of memory” (chapter 42). For the Rav, this inborn memory that binds Jews together leads to the second aspect of shared consciousness: “The consciousness of shared historical circumstances results in the experience of shared suffering” (F&D, 47). One Jew’s suffering affects all Jews. Mirah articulates this when she says of her disreputable father: “I was forced to fly from my father, but if he came back . . . If he had shame, I must share it . . . And so it is with my people” (chapter 32). Here is a prime example of Rabbi Kaufmann’s observation that Eliot has created ‘Jewish characters’ because they speak, feel, and act like they are part of kol Yisrael, and kol Yisrael shares in one another’s fortunes.

Thus, Eliot’s characters also experience the Rav’s third and fourth aspects of consciousness: “Shared suffering finds its expression in the awareness of shared responsibility and liability” (F&D, 49) and “shared historical circumstances give rise to shared activity. The obligation to give charity and perform deeds of lovingkindness derives its force from the all-penetrating and all-encompassing experience of brotherhood” (F&D, 52). Mordecai asserts these principles repeatedly, and Deronda acts on them when he not only saves Mirah from suicide, but ensures her well-being afterward. However, one example will illustrate both. When Deronda asks whether Mordecai is related to the unschooled Cohens who support him, he says: “Only the kinship of Israel. My soul clings to these people, who have sheltered me and given me succor out of the affection that abides in Jewish hearts” (chapter 46). Here is a loving expression of hesed and gratitude for it, for the Cohens seem to represent those who wish to enter Maimonides’s Palace of Wisdom but have not seen it; they are “the multitude that observe the divine commandments but are ignorant” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:51). Nevertheless, Mordecai feels bound to the Cohens, who, while lacking wisdom, possess Jewish hearts.

Soloveitchik’s and Eliot’s Images of Destiny: Zionism and Feminism

For Rav Soloveitchik, the Covenant of Destiny was drawn up at Sinai and agreed to by both parties. When Moses transmitted the people’s response, “We will do and obey” (Exodus 24:7), they accepted the divine Law transforming their imposed fate into a creative destiny, and for the Rav: “A life of destiny is a life with direction; it is the fruit of cognitive readiness and free choice” (F&D 54). These concepts inform Mordecai’s (and the narrator’s) plea for a Jewish nation equal to every other nation, eloquently expressed in chapter 42.

In the oft-cited scene[8] of the Philosophers Club, believed to be inspired by a working-class club Eliot’s partner George Lewes frequented, she lays out the Zionist vision in language that prefigures the Rav’s notions of fate and destiny. Mordecai proclaims:

I say that the strongest principle of growth lies in human choice. The sons of Judah have to choose that God may again choose them. The Messianic time is the time when Israel shall will the planting of the national ensign. The Nile overflowed and rushed onward: the Egyptian could not choose the overflow, but he chose to work and make channels for the fructifying waters, and Egypt became the land of corn. Shall man, whose soul is set in the royalty of discernment and resolve, deny his rank and say, I am an onlooker, ask no choice or purpose of me? That is the blasphemy of this time. The divine principle of our race is action, choice, resolved memory. Let us . . . but choose our full heritage, claim the brotherhood of our nation, and carry into it a new brotherhood with the nations of the Gentiles. The vision is there; it will be fulfilled. (DD, chapter 42)

The sons of Judah’s choosing God so He will choose them again seems to be a restatement of the Covenant at Sinai. It is as if the contract must be reactivated by human praxis. Note Mordecai’s emphasis on Jewish action. Jews must choose, will, claim, and carry ‘the brotherhood of our nation.’ This exemplifies the Rav’s notion of living a life of action, of transforming fate into destiny, of answering the knock of history. Just as the Egyptians could not control the Nile’s overflow, but could direct its waters to irrigate crops, so too, Jews should not passively accept their lot in history, but choose to act to change it. At the end of Mordecai’s speech, “It was as if [the club members] had come together to hear the blowing of the shophar “ (chapter 42). Traditionally a call to prayer, the shofar blast was also a call to battle, as it is here.

Fate and Destiny’s Feminist Reflections in Daniel Deronda

A Feminist Reading of Fate and Destiny

In Fate and Destiny Rabbi Soloveitchik locates the roots of choice and action in God’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). For the Rav this means:

Subdue the environment and subject it to your control. If you do not rule over it, it will subjugate you. Destiny bestows upon man a new rank in God’s world, it presents him with a royal crown and becomes transformed into a partner with the Almighty in the act of creation… Man’s task in the world . . .is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring, and imagination (F&D, 6).

Mordecai declares as much in his speech above.

Yet, if we were to substitute ‘woman’ for ‘man’ in the Rav’s lines, they would proclaim: “Destiny bestows upon woman a new rank in God’s world, it presents her with a royal crown and she becomes transformed into a partner with the Almighty in the act of creation,” and “Woman’s task in the world is to transform fate into destiny, a passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring, and imagination” (emphasis added). Read in this way, the Rav’s rational Judeo-centric philosophy would become rationally feminine-centric and describe how women too can achieve the destiny God intended.[9]

We begin to see that the Rav’s concepts of fate and destiny may be applied to Eliot’s recognition that Jews and women suffer under the same “yoke of oppression” (chapter 42), and that the path to self-determination for both is the same: “transforming a passive existence (fate) into an active existence (destiny)” (F&D, 6). But paradoxically, Eliot perhaps most directly presages the Rav’s thinking as it applies to women in Deronda’s chapter 51. There, Daniel’s mother, the Princess (that is how Eliot refers to her), explains how and why she acted to free herself from Judaism’s restrictions on women’s choices.

Daniel Deronda’s Mother – Destiny Delayed

Unable to transform her fate into destiny, the Princess Leonora Halm-Eberstein had no choice but to reject her fate (what we would now consider observant Judaism) and claim her destiny by abandoning motherhood and Judaism’s prohibitions against her will and imagination for a life on the stage. Yet fate, the covenant of fate in the form of her father’s wishes, held its grip and she gave his chest of manuscripts, whose description recalls the ark of the covenant, to Daniel. Her “inborn half of memory” was indelible.

For the Princess, her religion offered women only servitude and captivity. She unpacks her heart to Daniel:

You are not a woman. You may try—but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out— ‘this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be;’ . . .He wished I had been a son; he cared for me as a make-shift link. His heart was set on his Judaism. He hated that Jewish women should be thought of by the Christian world as a sort of ware to make public singers and actresses of. As if we were not the more enviable for that! That is a chance of escaping from bondage. (chapter 51)

Note the language of oppression: slavery, bondage, force, escape. These words evoke slavery in Egypt, slavery to what Christians think of Jews, and to what traditional Judaism thinks of women. Indeed, Jews’ bondage to Christian prejudice informs Leonora’s outcry to her son: “You are glad to have been born a Jew. You say so. That is because you have not been brought up as a Jew. That separateness seems sweet to you because I saved you from it” (chapter 51). He responds by asking her whether her father was learned. She replies, yes, and strong willed; “But such men turn their wives and daughters into slaves. They would rule the world if they could; [so instead], they throw all the weight of their will on the necks and souls of women.[10] But nature sometimes thwarts them. My father had no other child than his daughter, and she was like himself” (chapter 51).

In these lines we detect notes of the Rav’s consciousness of shared suffering as it applies to women and Jews. Deronda’s mother was trying to shield him from Christian persecution that has plagued Jews for centuries. But she can no longer do so. She confesses: “I have been forced to obey my dead father. I have been forced to tell you that you are a Jew, and deliver to you what he commanded me to deliver” (chapter 51). Her speech echoes the language of a prophet conveying what God has commanded her to do.

The Princess then admits that she further asserted her independence by being baptized before her second marriage, explaining, “I made myself like the people I lived among. I had a right to do it; I was not like a brute, obliged to go with my own herd” (chapter 51). Here is Eliot’s statement of feminism in the context of Judaism. Deronda’s mother insists on her right to autonomy. However, she tells her son that his grandfather insisted “that the strength and wealth of mankind depended on the balance of separateness and communication, and he was bitterly against our people losing themselves among the Gentiles” (chapter 40). Perhaps this is why, despite claiming not to have repented, the woman cannot escape her heritage; now ailing, she feels compelled to give her father the ‘son’ he desired. Ultimately, despite her heresy and even her baptism, Leonora cannot, as Mirah told Mrs. Meyrick, “make [her]self not a Jew. . . even if [she] changed [her] belief” (chapter 32). The Covenant of Fate prevails again.

Gwendolyn Harleth – Fate Accompli

A counterpoint to Mordecai, the Princess, Mirah, and Deronda, gentile Gwendolyn Harleth is a case study in the failure to transform fate into destiny. The Rav’s description of “the ‘I’ of fate [having] the image of an object . . . [whose] being is empty, lacking any independence, any self-hood” (F&D, 2) diagnoses Gwendolyn’s condition, and suggests why the question of her beauty begins the novel: “Was she beautiful or not beautiful?” (chapter 1). Her value depends on others’ opinions. Indeed, it is Deronda who asks the opening question. And because beauty seems to be Gwendolyn’s only asset, she is often surrounded by mirrors.

Unfortunately, her pride prevents her from taking a respectable but subservient job as a governess, and with no other means of support, she engages in the evil that the Rav claims follows from this ‘I’ of fate. He warns: “It is against this background that the experience of evil arises in all its terror” (F&D, 3). Tragically, Gwendolyn marries the sadistic Grandcourt.

However, Gwendolyn feels herself evil and sees in Deronda her savior. She begs him, “Tell me what better I can do” (chapter 36), to which he replies, “Look on other lives besides your own… Try to care for something in this vast world besides the gratification of small selfish desires” (chapter 36). Their exchange reminds us of God’s speech to Job, which the Rav cites as the archetypal solution to suffering, explaining that God chastises Job for two reasons: “(1) [He] never assumed [his] proper share of the burdens of communal responsibility and never joined in the community’s pain and anguish; (2) nor did [he] ever properly empathize with the agonies of the individual sufferer. . . Hesed means to merge with the other person, to identify with his pain, to feel responsible for his fate” (F&D, 13). Thus, the mirror imagery that accompanies Gwendolyn. Of course, mirrors also reflect her egocentrism; she cares only for herself and ends up alone. Suffering does not ennoble her because, unlike Job is eventually able to do, she never transcends her own needs.

While the Princess and Mirah exercise free choice and create their own destinies, Gwendolyn does not. She is Eliot’s morality tale. Shackled by pride and her upbringing, she cannot feel connected to other people, and although she looks to Daniel to ‘improve’ her, she can, like the suffering Job, pray only for herself. Daniel, Mordecai, and Mirah, by telling contrast, pray for others.

When Deronda finally chooses Mirah over Gwendolyn, the latter tells him, “It should be better with me for having known you” (chapter 69). We are left with Gwendolyn’s glimmer of awareness that she is not the center of the universe: “She was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world” (chapter 69). Yet we are never told that she acts on her new awareness. What can ‘better with me’ imply, focused as it is, still, on herself? Interestingly, in describing Gwendolyn’s state of mind at this point, Eliot proposes that religion might offer its remedy: “Then it is that the submission of the soul to the Highest is tested . . . and a religion shows itself which is something else than a private consolation” (chapter 69). Gwendolyn had no such religion; her fate was her destiny.


Eliot’s Zionist vision and the need for Jewish action to achieve it not only prefigure the Rav’s six ‘knocks’ described in Fate and Destiny, but are themselves a ‘knock.’ Indeed, while Daniel awaits word that his mother will see him, “there was a new kind of knock at the door” (chapter 50). He answers this knock by learning of his heritage, receiving his grandfather’s chest of documents, sharing them with Mordecai, and carrying them to Palestine to create a Jewish nation.

In short, the four Aspects of Jewish Consciousness that the Rav associates with the Covenant of Fate also apply to women, who, like Jews without a country, must transform lives of limited opportunity into lives of free choice. Accordingly, Zionism is something of a roadmap for feminism, or, if you will, Zionism for women– seizing autonomy with both hands, transforming a circumscribed fate into a destiny of possibilities. In the end, Daniel Deronda reveals not only how Zionism and feminism are connected, but how Fate and Destiny can provide the links.

1 George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, ed. Barbara Hardy (New York: Penguin, 1979).

2 Translated from the German by J. W. Ferrier (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1868).

3 Based on Eliot’s comment that everything in the novel is connected to everything else – it was “all of a whole” (Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (New York: Encounter Books, 2009), 73), and her formidable Jewish education, the fact that the novel is composed of 8 Books and 70 chapters does not seem accidental. The number 8 suggests the 8 days of Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukkah, the 8 days to circumcision, and the 8 people saved on Noah’s ark. The number 70 elicits the 70 elders who shared Moses’s spirit (Numbers 11:16), the 70 members of Jacob’s family who entered Egypt, and the year of the Second Temple’s destruction, 70 CE.

4 New York: Encounter Books, 2009.

5 The openly anti-Semitic critical response to her novel reminds us of Balaam’s donkey. Eliot sees the Angel not in the road to Moab, but in the road of history. And like the donkey, she was ‘beaten’ by critics who derided the book’s “Jewish elements.”

6 Liel Leibovitz, “Daniel Deronda, Conservative Jewish Hero,” (March 17, 2017).

7 Sarah Rindner, “’George Eliot Also Grappled With Feminism and Zionism,” (March 30, 2017).

One can see Daniel’s redemption and restoration of Gwendolyn’s necklace as evidence of Ruth Wisse’s belief that Eliot saw in Britain’s acceptance of the Jews its return to morality. (“Ruth Wisse Teaches Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s Novel of Jewish Nationalism,”

8 Introduced by a passage from Leopold Zunz’s Die Synagogale Poesie des Mittelalters (Synagogue Poetry of the Middle Ages), chapter 42 immediately evokes two strains of 19th century German Jewish thought: “The Science of Judaism”, the “Wissenschaft des Judentums,” which Zunz founded, and his fear of the Reform movement’s assimilationist leanings. “His evaluations and classifications of Jewish history, culture and religion are made in the interests of national definition and unity” (Barbara Hardy’s note in Daniel Deronda, Penguin, 897).

9 For an earlier discussion of the Rav’s work’s relevance to feminism, see Shira Wolosky’s “The Lonely Woman of Faith,” Judaism, Vol 52. Nos. 1-2 (2004): 3-18,

10 The reference to men’s throwing the weight of their will on women’s necks echoes to modern readers Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s request to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. But she was quoting American abolitionist Sarah Grimke’s (1792-1873) plea: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” As historian Louise Knight has reported, “In 1837, Grimke wrote a series of public letters on the equality of the sexes. In the second letter she wrote: ‘I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright.’ The letters, published that fall in a reform newspaper and the following year as a book, ‘Letters on the Equality of the Sexes,’ set forth landmark arguments for women’s equal rights in the United States.” See Louise W. Knight, “The 19th-century powerhouse who inspired RBG,” (September 1, 2018),

Eileen H. Watts chairs the English Department at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, where she co-teaches the integrated Jewish humanities course on American Literature, Philosophy and Jewish Thought. She served as bibliographer for The Bernard Malamud Society from 1994 to 2009. Dr. Watts has written widely on Malamud, as well as on Allegra Goodman and Chaim Potok.