Tikvat Israel Congregation

A Conservative Synagogue in Rockville, MD

Charles Dickens and Imperfect “Teshuvhah”

Cliff Fishman (Photo by Larry M. Levine prior to Shavuot 2017)

On Saturday, September 23, 2017, Shabbat Shuva, Cliff Fishman gave the d’var torah.  Several congregants asked for a copy of his d’var and we have provided it for your reading pleasure and contemplation. We have published this with Cliff’s permission.

Charles Dickens and Imperfect “Teshuvhah”
Clifford S. Fishman[1]

How many of you have seen the musical, or the movie, Oliver?

How many of you have read Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, on which Oliver is based?

Aside from the presence of music, what is the biggest difference between the musical

and the novel?  –The character Fagin. 

Except only for Oliver himself, Fagin is the most prominent, and perhaps the most vivid, character in both the novel and the musical.  In the show and the movie, Fagin is portrayed as a cross between a den mother and a camp counselor for wayward boys.  Oh, sure, he teaches them to steal – the refrain in one of his songs goes, “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two, boys — you’ve got to pick a pocket or two!”   But he cares for his boys, and he struggles to live a better, straighter, more honorable life.

One word you never hear in the show or movie describing Fagin is the word, “Jew.”

In Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, the portrayal of Fagin is quite different. Here is how Dickens describes Fagin’s first appearance in the novel:

…before the fire…with toasting fork in hand, was a very old shriveled Jew,  whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.

A hideous figure standing in front of a fire, holding a fork –pitchfork?  Who does that bring to mind?  I’ll give you a hint: medieval dramas, Satan – the devil – is often depicted as having red hair.

Throughout most of the book, Dickens uses Fagin’s name and the phrase “the Jew” interchangeably; and Fagin is referred to a number of times as the “merry old gentleman,” a euphemism for the devil. Moreover, Fagin the Jew–Fagin the Devil—specializes in corrupting innocent Christian children.  In describing how Fagin sought to seduce young Oliver to become one of his thieves, Dickens writes:

In short the wily old Jew had the boy in his toils.  Having prepared his mind, by solitude and gloom, he was now slowly instilling in his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it, and change its hue forever.

Does that ring any bells?  Does that remind you of a particular libel that, that, for centuries,  Christians told about us?                 

Unlike the musical or the movie, there is in Dickens’ novel no hint of remorse in Fagin’s character, no longing for a better life, no “reviewing the situation,” no suggestion of redemption. In fact, Fagin, the Jew, attempts to have Oliver killed, and is directly responsible for the murder of Nancy, the young woman who befriends Oliver. Fagin, to put it bluntly, is a far more evil and despicable character than the other most famous Jew in English literature, Shakespeare’s Shylock.  Unlike Shakespeare’s Shylock, Fagin is simply unremittingly evil.

By casting Fagin as a Jew, Dickens used a convenient stereotype, exploiting already existing attitudes and beliefs that made the character more believable to many of Dickens’ readers.

American writers have used similar stereotypes.  A few generations ago, if a character was a drunkard, he was also Irish.  If a character was a gangster, make him an Italian.  Nowadays, if a character is a stupid, brutal person incapable of rational thought, make him a poor Southern white man. Need a character who is a total hypocrite, someone who claims to be pious and good but who is actually an evil, immoral villain? Make him an Evangelical preacher.  Sammy Davis lampooned two stereotypes: he frequently said that “When I get up in the morning I don’t know whether to be shiftless and lazy or smart and stingy.”

So Dickens was using a convenient, popular stereotype. But it also reflected Dickens’ own attitude about Jews, at least his attitude for most of his life. In his private relationships and correspondence, Dickens frequently displayed unequivocal anti-Semitism.

Oliver Twist, like most of Dickens’ novels, first appeared chapter-by-chapter in newspapers in througout the English-speaking world, and it was a literary and social sensation.  Not only did it tell a compelling story; it exposed the cold, uncaring cruelty of Britain’s orphanages and workhouses, and therefore played a significant role in the movement to reform those institutions.

But Oliver Twist also perpetuated anti-Jewish stereotypes, and some readers criticized Dickens for this. One such critic was a Jewish woman named Davis, whose family had purchased Dickens’ former home from him.  She wrote a sharp admonition to him, and when he sent her a dissembling reply, Mrs. Davis wrote back even more sharply.  Dickens then wrote a letter of apology to Mrs. Davis.  And later in his life, he tried to make amends.  In a later edition of Oliver Twist, Dickens reduced the number of times Fagin was referred to as “the Jew”–but only in the final third of the book. Since the first two thirds of that edition had already been set in print, and it would have increased the edition’s cost to revise them, most of the references remained.  And that is the edition you will find in libraries even today.

Well,gee, Mr. Dickens, thanks for—something.

Aware that he still had amends to make, in his final novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens included a Jew named Riah who is as decent and virtuous a character as any that Dickens created. Unfortunately, Oliver Twist proved to be far more popular than Our Mutual  Friend, and Fagin has passed into the popular culture while Riah is essentially unknown.

We can take certain lessons from this story, lessons that are perhaps particularly appropriate this time of year. Mrs. Davis’s behavior reminds us that when we see a wrong, we should confront it, and not be put off by platitudes and dissembling.

 Dickens’ conduct illustrates two equally important lessons. First, and most obvious, it reminds us neither to accept, nor to perpetuate, negative stereotypes. Second, it reminds us:  when we’ve done a wrong, we must try make amends–and not in a half-hearted way.

Should we forgive Charles Dickens for his use of Jewish stereotypes in his character, Fagin?  More generally, are we obligated to forgive, when someone apologizes and asks forgiveness?

First, of course, we look to the quality of the apology.   IF someone says “I’m sorry you were upset by what I did,” that’s an easy one: that’s not an apology at all; because it does not acknowledge any wrongdoing or blame on the offender’s part. Rather, it subtly shifts the blame from the offender to the victim. A person apologizes when he or she says, “I’m sorry I did what I did; it was wrong.”

And an apology should never have the word “but” in it.

Rambam—Maimonides—says that the way to tell if a person has made real teshuvah is if he or she encounters another opportunity to commit the sin again, but this time does not, because he or she has undergone an internal change, so that in a real sense he or she is no longer the same person who committed the sin in the past. In that case, Rambam teaches, we should forgive.

What about Dickens? I’m not sure.  He failed to do complete teshuvah when he had the chance to delete all the Jewish references to Fagin when Oliver Twist was being printed for sale as a novel. He tried later to make up for it; but those efforts were not as successful as he hoped.

On the other hand, we have all encountered people in our lives who have done wrong,

and have tried to undo the damage, but did not succeed, at least not completely. Most of us, I suspect, confront such a person every day, when we look in a mirror.

During this period of repentance and teshuvah, we are instructed to seek out those we have wronged, and to our best to right the wrong, and to apologize and ask forgiveness. May God give us the strength to avoid doing wrong, the wisdom to recognize when we have wronged somebody, and the courage to acknowledge and admit it and apologize for it when we have done wrong to others, and to right those wrongs if we can. 

May God also give us the ability to forgive those who wronged us, even if their apology comes late, even if they cannot completely undo the hurt they have caused.

And may God also grant us the ability to live with ourselves if it should turn out that, despite our best efforts, we are unable to set things completely right again.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Copyright 2017 by Clifford S. Fishman.  All rights reserved