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Les Misérables and the Jewish problem


I know what you’re thinking. You saw Les Misérables. You loved the play, adored the movie. You don’t remember any Jewish characters and you’re thinking, “Please don’t ruin it for me by saying it’s antisemitic.”

Of course, you’re right. There are no Jewish characters – none of the unsavoury stock figures of European literature, such as Shakespeare’s Shylock or Charles Dickens’ Fagin. But as I left the movie theatre, I turned to my husband and said, “This is about the Jews.”

I immediately thought about the joke recounted by author Hugh Nissenson to explain the title of his collection of short stories, The Elephant and My Jewish Problem. Nissenson wrote:

“The zoology class is assigned a paper on the elephant. The Englishman writes ‘Hunting the Elephant.’ The Frenchman, ‘The Love Life of the Elephant.’ The Jewish student turns in a paper, ‘The Elephant and the Jewish Problem.’” Her husband, Nissenson’s wife noted, was “like the Jewish zoology student.”

With a nod toward Nissenson as a kindred spirit and an apology to those of you who don’t want Les Mis mucked up with discussions of theology, history and literature, I’m going to elaborate on how the Jewish problem for Christiandom shapes this work.

Even without Jewish characters, Les Misérables – both the contemporary musical and the 19th-century novel by Victor Hugo on which it is based – speak to the place of the Jew in European Christian thought.

As most of you know, the story revolves around the struggle between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Valjean, a rough ex-convict, undergoes a conversion experience after he steals silver goods from a kindly bishop who has given him food and shelter. Although he is apprehended, Valjean is set free when the bishop lies on his behalf, claiming the silver was a gift.

Experiencing unmerited mercy, Valjean feels the force of God in the world and commits himself to acts of goodness. Successful in business, he gives alms generously, has compassion for the oppressed and even adopts the orphaned daughter of an unwed mother turned prostitute. But because Valjean has broken parole, he is pursued by Javert, who wants to enforce the law and return Valjean to prison. As the action progresses, Valjean comes to be associated with the principle of “mercy” and Javert with “law.”

At a pivotal moment, Valjean has the opportunity to kill his nemesis. Instead, he helps him escape from the revolutionaries. Confounded by this unexpected act of mercy, Javert later finds himself unable to capture Valjean. His faith in law has been shaken by an act of unexpected kindness, just as Valjean’s had been years earlier. But while Valjean opened his heart to God, Javert is torn between what he views as two incompatible principles: mercy and law. To espouse mercy, he must reject law. To maintain law, he must reject mercy. Deeply shaken, he kills himself.

Although Javert cannot bring them together, in the Jewish tradition, law and mercy coexist – both as attributes of the Jewish concept of God, and as human ideals. But Christian theology claims for itself the governing principle of mercy, assigning to Judaism unbending law. In supplanting Judaism, according to this view, Christianity replaced the harsh rule of law with mercy. In the philosophical underpinnings of Les Misérables, Valjean represents Christianity – spreading goodness through acts of kindness, whether merited or not. This association is heightened, as my husband pointed out to me, by Valjean conforming to the Christian ideal: he remains celibate.

Javert represents a Christian idea of Judaism – a system of principles that, while not evil (as Valjean acknowledges of Javert), is limited and cannot address human suffering. Javert has no way out of his conflict, then, because he cannot be both “Jewish” and “Christian” at the same time. Or, to put it differently, once the “Jew” discovers mercy, he becomes “Christian.”

I’m not suggesting that Victor Hugo was antisemitic. To the contrary, a republican and a deist, he favored religious equality. He saw Jews as unjustly oppressed, and criticized the pogroms in Russia. At the same time, he absorbed the religious teachings of his Catholic childhood, and they form the scaffolding of his worldview.

The Jewish connection struck me because the film’s promise of afterlife joy contradicts its this-worldly revolutionary politics. And because that’s what Jewish Studies professors do.