“Happy the Eye That Saw Our Temple”: Liturgy in Daniel Deronda

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One of the most beautiful descriptions of a liturgy I’ve ever read comes from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. In this moment, the titular character has his first experience of Jewish worship, having opted for the Spanish-Hebrew liturgy rather than the vernacular. The liturgical moment that Deronda experiences is actually Yom Kippur, but I think the way Eliot weaves Jewish and Christian liturgical language works perfectly for days like today when Pesach and Triduum happen simultaneously.

Let’s take a look:

[Deronda] found an open prayer-book pushed towards him and had to bow his thanks. however, the white taliths had mustered, the Reader had mounted to the almemor platform, and the service began. Deronda, having looked enough at the German translation of the Hebrew in the book before him to know that he was chiefly hearing Psalms and Old Testament passages or phrases, gave himself up to that strongest effect of chanted liturgies which is independent of detailed verbal meaning—like the effect of an Allegri’s Miserere or a Palestrina’s Magnificat. The most powerful movement of feeling with a liturgy is the prayer which seeks for nothing special, but is a yearning to escape from the limitations of our own weakness and an invocation of all Good to enter and abide with us; or else a self-oblivious lifting up of Gladness, a Gloria in excelsis that such Good exists; both the yearning and the exaltation gathering their utmost force from the sense of communion in a form which has expressed them both, for long generations of struggling fellow-men. The Hebrew liturgy, like others, has its transitions of litany, lyric, proclamation, dry statement and blessing; but this evening, all were one for Deronda: the chant of the Chazaris or Reader’s grand wide-ranging voice with its passage from monotony to sudden cries, the outburst of sweet boys’ voices from the little choir, the devotional swaying of men’s bodies backward and forward, the very commonness of the building and shabbiness of the scene where a national faith, which had penetrated the thinking of half the world, and moulded the splendid forms of that world’s religion, was finding a remote, obscure echo—all were blent for him as one expression of a binding history, tragic and yet glorious. He wondered at the strength of his own feeling; it seemed beyond the occasion—what one might imagine to be a divine influx in the darkness, before there was any vision to interpret. The whole scene was a coherent strain, its burden a passionate regret, which, if he had known the liturgy for the Day of Reconciliation, he might have clad in its authentic burden; “Happy the eye which saw all these things; but verily to hear only of them afflicts our soul. Happy the eye that saw our temple and the joy of our congregation; but verily to hear only of them afflicts our soul. Happy the eye that saw the fingers when tuning every kind of song; but verily to hear only of them afflicts our soul.”

For Deronda, the “yearning and the exaltation” of the Hebrew liturgy gains its “utmost force from the sense of communion in a form which has expressed them both, for long generations of struggling fellow-men.”  and is expressed most fully by the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.”

That sense of communion is spread to all of humanity by these words from Mordecai:

the Shemah, wherein we briefly confess the divine Unity, is the chief devotional exercise of the Hebrew; and this made our religion the fundamental religion for the whole world; for the divine Unity embraced as its consequence the ultimate unity of mankind.

From divine unity to human unity. What a beautiful idea!

I only wish that the sublime glory of Deronda’s first experience of the Hebrew liturgy hadn’t ended on such a leaden note:

But with the cessation of the devotional sounds and the movement of many indifferent faces and vulgar figures before him there darted into his mind the frigid idea that he had probably been alone in his feeling, and perhaps the only person in the congregation for whom the service was more than a dull routine.

But perhaps that can be an important reminder for all of us who are celebrating the beginning of Passover or Good Friday. When do the glories of the litanies and chants find us cold? When do we lose sight of the yearning for “all Good to enter and abide with us”?

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2 thoughts on ““Happy the Eye That Saw Our Temple”: Liturgy in Daniel Deronda

  1. In my work at one time as an adult educator in the Church of England I once got a group of people from different churches to talk about their experience of the service of Holy Communion. After an initial reserve people began to speak with feeling about it meant to them. After a while one elderly man suddenly spoke, addressing another participant saying, “I have been sitting near you in church for over twenty years and I never knew what it meant to you until now.”

    1. That’s wonderful! When you put it that way, I wonder if we can say the same thing about Deronda. No one but the reader knows what was happening inside him at that moment, and he was only assuming what was going on inside everyone else. And we know he misinterpreted one gentleman that he rebuffed even though he was actually delighted to recognize Deronda.

      I love those moments when teaching that something very real and life-changing is sparked in a participant.

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