Jewish Zionism in the novel
Daniel Deronda is composed of two interwoven stories and presents two worlds which are never completely reconciled. Indeed, the separation of the two and the eventual parting of one from the other is one of the novel's major themes. There is the fashionable and familiar upper-class English world of Gwendolen Harleth and the less familiar society-within-a-society inhabited by the Jews, most importantly Mordecai (or Ezra) Cohen and his sister Mirah. Living between these two worlds is Daniel, who gradually identifies more and more with the Jewish side as he comes to understand the mystery of his birth and develops his relationships with Mordecai and Mirah. In the novel, the Jewish characters' spirituality, moral coherence and sense of community are contrasted favourably with the materialist, philistine, and largely corrupt society of England. The implication seems to be that the Jews' moral values are lacking in the wider British society that surrounds them.
Daniel is ideological, helpful, and wise. To give substance to his character, Eliot had to give him a worthy purpose. Eliot had become interested in Jewish culture through her acquaintance with Jewish mystic, lecturer and proto-Zionist Immanuel Oscar Menahem Deutsch, and part of the inspiration for the novel was her desire to correct English ignorance and prejudice against Jews. Mordecai's story, so easily forgotten beside the glitter and passions of Gwendolen's, nonetheless finishes the novel. Partly based on Deutsch, Mordecai's political and spiritual ideas are among the core messages of the book, just as Felix Holt's politics are the core intellectual element of his novel. In a key scene in Daniel Deronda, Deronda follows Mordecai to a tavern where the latter meets with other penniless philosophers to exchange ideas. There follows a lengthy speech in which Mordecai outlines his vision of a homeland for the Jews where, he hopes, they will be able to take their place among the nations of the world for the general good.
Influence on Jewish Zionism
On its publication, Daniel Deronda was immediately translated into German and Dutch and was given an enthusiastic extended review by the Austrian Zionist rabbi and scholar David Kaufmann. Further translations soon followed into French (1882), Italian (1883), Hebrew (1893), Yiddish (1900s) and Russian (1902).
Written during a time when Restorationism (similar to 20th century Christian Zionism) had a strong following, Eliot's novel had a positive influence on later Jewish Zionism. It has been cited by Henrietta Szold, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and Emma Lazarus as having been influential in their decision to become Zionists.
The depiction of Jews contrasted strongly with those in other novels such as Dickens' Oliver Twist and Trollope's The Way We Live Now. In spite of there having been a Jewish-born Prime Minister for many years (Benjamin Disraeli was baptised as a boy), the view of the Jews among the British at the time was often prejudiced, sometimes to the point of derision or revulsion, which is reflected in opinions expressed by several of the British characters in one scene in the book.
In 1948, F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition gave the opinion that the Jewish sections of the book were its weakest, and that a truncated version called Gwendolen Harleth should be printed on its own. Conversely, some Zionist commentators have advocated the opposite truncation, keeping the Jewish section, with Gwendolen's story omitted.
Some modern critics, notably Edward Said, point to the novel as a propaganda tool to encourage British patriation of Palestine to Jews. The novel is explicit in sending the non-Christians to a non-Christian land, and also in maintaining that "like may only marry like", i.e., Deronda can only marry his beloved if they are the same race/religion/ethnicity. Hostile critics have suggested that the book promotes a fundamentally racist view of marriage. However, in the novel the German-Jewish pianist Klesmer marries the Christian Englishwoman Catherine Arrowpoint, suggesting that Eliot's views on this are subtler than these critics suggest.
Kabbalah in the novel
A major influence on the novel is the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, which is directly referred to in the text. Mordecai describes himself as the reincarnation of Jewish mystics of Spain and Europe and believes his vision to be the fulfilment of an ancient yearning of the Jewish people. Many of the encounters between Mordecai and Deronda are described in quasi-mystical terms (for example, Mordecai's meeting with Deronda on the River Thames). The inclusion of this overt mysticism is extraordinary in the work of a writer who, for many, embodies the ideals of the liberal, secular humanism of the Victorian age.
Daniel Deronda is full of references to spiritual, archetypal, and mythological imagery, from the Kabbalism of Mordecai to the encounter of Lydia Glasher with Gwendolen among a group of standing stones and Gwendolen's reaction to the image of a dying man. Of all of Eliot's novels, this is the most mystical with an analysis of religious belief as a progressive force in human nature, albeit a non-Christian one.