It is a truth universally acknowledged that our sages and their faithful students have been reinterpreting biblical texts in the hopes to discover new insights, to make them more accessible, or even to reveal different conclusions. As I mentioned in the original post of this series, it is in keeping with our traditions to recreate these sacred passages, to personalize the story with our own life experiences or our imaginations. In Judaism, these reworkings are known as midrash.
Jane Austen was the daughter of an Anglican minister. Her upbringing in the church would have given her sufficient exposure to Judaic theology to help me make my point: Austen used her knowledge of sacred text and reimagined the lessons into the workings of her famous novels. Today we’re going to examine Emma for Judaic themes.
TESHUVA ~ Repentance
In most cases, it is the author’s duty—and the reader’s expectation—to allow a story to unfold in such a manner that the protagonist evolves throughout the tribulations of the novel. The transformative journey is, after all, what the audience craves. Setting aside the specifics, it is within this transformation that the reader intimately identifies with the struggle, the lesson, and the resolution.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Interestingly enough, in many ancient cultures, such as within Greek society, it was not an accepted belief that one could change one’s behavior. Rather, it was thought that a person behaved just as his or her destiny foretold. Great Britain’s Rabbi Sacks (baruch dayan ha’emet) spoke of this message in a sermon fittingly prepared for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He even mentioned Jane Austen’s Emma.
A well-to-do, “handsome” young lady, it could be said that Emma Woodhouse has been spoiled the whole of her life. In addition to that, she is a bit of a snob.
She possess the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.
With little else to do, she goes about the county doing—what she believes to be—good works. In fact, Austen’s heroine is a yenta. She imagines that her matchmaking skills will bring about much happiness and shalom bayit to every hearth and home in Highbury. But Emma’s attempts at pairing her acquaintances are not as successful as she would have hoped. This is not surprising in the least! How can a young lady understand the workings of the heart in others, when she doesn’t understand her own? It is through personal struggles that Emma comes to understand her errors. When she is faced with her own heartache, Emma determines to change her ways.
Every year, as we commemorate the High Holy Days, we repeat the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer and consider our missteps, our mistakes, and our failures. But then we hear: “Teshuvah (Repentance), Tefillah (Prayer), and Tzedakah (Charity) avert the evil decree.” During the ten days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are meant to examine our lives and to reflect on bettering ourselves. In Rabbi Sacks’ sermon, he postulates that Judaism was probably the first religion to ponder Free Will for this very reason. We can decide to do better.
Jane Austen presents us a storyline that highlights a young woman’s emotional growth. Three thousand years after the sacred text of the High Holy Days appear in our liturgy, Austen allows her protagonist to confess her sins, to show remorse, and to show a desire to improve herself.
Emma grows before our very eyes when she decides to learn from her mistakes. She becomes more charitable towards the other members of Highbury’s diverse society. She becomes more charitable towards herself when she opens her eyes, and her heart, to Mr. Knightly.
In my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion, I introduce Miss Abigail Isaacs, a young lady whom most believe to be past her last prayers. While she has had an offer of marriage, Abigail’s dreams have been shattered on more than one occasion. Her friends encourage her to marry, for security at the very least. This she cannot accept. Rather than opening her heart to the possibility of love, Abigail retrenches and strives to build a life of seclusion, safe within the confines of an astronomer’s observatory.
I have begun to believe that I am not meant for love.”
According to those familiar with her upbringing, Abigail’s education and access to the world of academia has had secondary effects. She is quick to judge and often times thought to be haughty. Her snobbish ways are not unlike Emma’s—though she is not a woman of means—and her comments are usually kindly meant. She is bookish and awkward in the company of strangers. In truth, she is an innocent; and more often than not, Abigail misjudges perilous situations and societal obligations. It is when she is entrusted into the care of Lieutenant Raphael Gabay that Abigail meets her greatest challenge. The gentleman has little patience with her improper pride.
Might I suggest you set down your astronomer’s paraphernalia to examine what is before you, here on earth, and not in the night’s sky? You have excused me of shielding my truths with incessant jesting, but it is you, madam, who hides behind instruments and tomes.“
Will the young lady repent and change her ways? Can she forgive, and forget, and give love another chance? Join Abigail on her journey to the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata and find out for yourself. But stay tuned! Next time, I’ll discuss Sense and Sensibility.