Perhaps the most Jewish work of fantasy was written by Charles Dickens in 1843. It’s called A Christmas Carol. It’s so Jewish it should be taught in yeshiva. I’ve been saying this to rabbis for years mostly, I confess, to get a rise out of them. But I also think it’s true, even though Dickens wasn’t Jewish, didn’t draw on any Jewish text or tradition, and wrote a story that has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism (nor with Jesus, for that matter).
Here’s why: Dickens’ world-famous tale, still in print and continually presented on stage and screen, is all about what Jews call teshuvah. That’s typically translated as “repentance” but it’s better understood as “return” – a return to a moral life. The difference? Repentance is a feeling: “remorse or contrition for past conduct or sin” according to the American Heritage dictionary. Return, on the other hand, is something different: it’s an action.
The guy who literally wrote the book on teshuvah was Maimonides (1135-1204), the preeminent Jewish philosopher. That book was Hilchos Teshuvah (“The Laws of Teshuvah”), and it continues to guide how traditional Jews regard and practice the concept. The story of A Christmas Carol—of miser Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve who convince him of the error of his ways—hews so closely to Maimonides’ teachings on teshuvah that it could be used as a case study of the concept.
Maimonides delineated several key steps or components of teshuvah. When Ebenezer Scrooge awakens from his night of nightmares and ghosts, he doesn’t just feel remorse or contrition. He goes the full Maimonides:
- Remorse, true shame over sin—Maimonides: “Some of the modes of manifesting repentance are that the penitent cries continuously before the Lord with tears and supplications… [and] changes his name, as much as to say: ‘I am another individual and not the one who committed those deeds.’” (All Maimonides quotations as translated in The Teachings of Maimonides by Jacob S. Minkin, Jason Aronson Inc.)
A Christmas Carol: “Spirit!” [Scrooge] cried, tight clutching at his robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I just have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”
- Vow to change behavior—Maimonides: “What is Repentance? It consists in this, that the sinner abandon his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his heart never to repeat it.”
A Christmas Carol: “I will honour Christmas in my heart [says Scrooge], and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
- Act to change behavior—Maimonides: “What is perfect repentance? It is so when an opportunity presents itself for repenting an offense once committed, and the offender, while able to commit the offense, nevertheless refrains from doing so, because he is penitent.”
A Christmas Carol: Upon finding that the Spirits have done all their work in a single night, Scrooge acts with similar alacrity, setting a land-speed record for changing his behavior. Immediately he buys the Poulterer’s prize turkey (“not the little prize turkey; the big one”). “I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. “He sha’n’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim.”
- Seek forgiveness and make amends—Maimonides: “Transgressions against one’s fellowmen, as for instance, if one wounds, curses or robs his neighbor or commits similar wrongs, are never pardoned till the injured party has received the compensation due to him and has also been appeased.
A Christmas Carol: Scrooge apologizes to the charity collectors and makes the donation that he’d refused to make the previous day, apologizes to his niece and nephew and accepts the invitation to Christmas dinner he’d previously refused. And most movingly, he apologizes to poor Bob Cratchit, raises Cratchit’s salary, and promises to help him raise his struggling family.
The unfunny joke about secular New Year’s resolutions is that they often fade before the month is out. But Scrooge’s resolutions do not. He promises to change and delivers that change in spades. He becomes what the rabbis call a Baal Teshuvah, a master of return.
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world…. And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”
If Dickens’ fantasy can be seen to express Jewish themes, it’s likely the case that it can be seen to express themes that are Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu as well. The clothes of Dickens’ story may be Christian, but its flesh and bones are universal. So after the year we’ve had, whatever one believes in, whatever one holds dear, Dickens’ parting wish seems as appropriate now as it was in 1843:
“As Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”