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Les Misérables and the Bible
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Les Misérables and the Bible

Reconciling God’s attribute of Justice with Mercy.


Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862, is widely considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Adapted to the stage as a musical, it became a global sensation in the 1980s, and is now an epic motion picture generating Oscar buzz.

It is a profoundly moving story that deals with some of the most universally relevant tribulations of mankind. But what I find most fascinating is that in his French preface, Philosophie, Commencement d'un livre, Victor Hugo revealed that he originally intended Les Misérables as a religious book.

Of all the themes to be found in this incredible work, there is one that comes to grips with a fundamental question every one of us who aspires to live life honestly and ethically must encounter. It revolves around how best to resolve the conflict between mercy and justice.

Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, the two chief protagonists of Les Misérables, are locked in lifelong battle. By the strict standard of law, Jean Valjean, the hero, is a criminal. He stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. For this crime he is imprisoned for nine years and subsequently forced to carry a yellow badge identifying him as former convict – something that resonates with post-Holocaust Jewry far more than Victor Hugo could ever have imagined.

His nemesis, Inspector Javert, is the ostensible defender of law and order. Remarkably, Javert has no first name. A first name is personal. It defines us as individuals. It grants us our uniqueness. It is the key to our friendship and closeness with others. But Javert is too cold, too formal, too officious to be acknowledged with a first name. He is simply not sufficiently human to deserve it.

Inspector Javert is law without feeling. He seeks only blind justice. He refuses to admit the possibility of repentance. He is obsessed with re-arresting Jean Valjean in spite of his complete rehabilitation. He sees himself as saintly because he dedicates his life to punishing sinners. In his fixation with sin he loses sight of the possibility for salvation.

Victor Hugo conveys a truth that Jewish theologians believe is expressed in the two chief biblical names of God.

The genius of Victor Hugo was to allow us, by way of the novel’s ability to personalize two conflicting ideologies, to grasp a truth that Jewish theologians believe is expressed in the two chief biblical names of God.

The opening verse of the Torah tells us, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Divine name that is used, Elokim (transliterated with the letter “k” instead of “h” so as not to needlessly write His holy name) is synonymous with God as Ruler. It refers to the Heavenly attribute of Justice, midat ha-din. It is the God who created laws of nature – laws unbending and indifferent to specific preferences of people.

Yet, as Rashi’s commentary explains (Genesis 1:1):

It does not say “of the Lord’s creation of” for in the beginning it was His intention to create it with the Divine Standard of Justice, but he perceived that the world would not endure; so He preceded it with the Divine Standard of Mercy, allying it with the Divine Standard of Justice, and that is the reason it is written in chapter 2:4:“on the day the Lord God made earth and heaven.”

God solely as judge is an impossibility. God has another name. To deal with the world, He must also be the Lord – the four letter name of God known as the Tetragrammaton (Ado – nay). That name is the midat ha-rachamim, the attribute of compassion and mercy. God rules with justice; the Lord tempers it with mercy. One without the other betrays the essence of the harmonious heavenly spirit.

This duality of God has tremendous importance for us. We are meant to imitate Him; His attributes are to be ours. The way He acts is the way we must act. We must learn to find the correct balance between law and love, between rigid detachment and empathetic compassion.

Jewish law is a system that mightily strives to merge these two Divine traits. It asks much of us, but it also offers the means to repentance and pardon. It teaches that “in a place where baalei t’shuvah, repentant sinners, stand, even the most righteous are unworthy of standing.”

Sin has consequences, crime has punishment. But penitence is always possible. Forgiveness is to be granted to those who have overcome their failings.

Without a heart, justice is blind – and blind justice is ultimately no less than unjust.

Those like Jean Valjean dare not be pursued and persecuted for crimes committed in a distant past, for sins long since atoned. Inspector Javert is the paradigm of those who would pervert the purpose of law from rehabilitation to simple revenge. Without a heart, justice is blind – and blind justice is ultimately no less than unjust.

Victor Hugo found a powerful way to illustrate this very point. Jean Valjean saves the life of his arch-enemy, Javert, placing him in a profound moral dilemma. In emotional turmoil, Javert’s mind simply cannot reconcile the image he had carried through the years of Valjean as a brutal ex-convict with his acts of kindness on the barricades. His lifelong commitment to strict justice will not allow him to let Valjean go free. Yet he knows that if he were to arrest him he would be acting lawfully but not morally. For the first time in his life, Javert is faced with the situation where he must decide between the two.

Unable to find a solution to this dilemma, and horrified at the sudden realization that Valjean’s past no longer deserved cruel punishment in the present, Javert's entire system of moral values is shattered.

Javert could not make peace with the dissonance between his lifelong commitment to strict law and his newfound understanding of the requirement for compassion. In Jewish terms we might say Javert had only understood the concept of God as Justice but never learned the need to also worship the ideals of the Lord Who embodies Mercy.

Javert found only one solution for his dilemma. Not knowing whether to prioritize justice or mercy, Javert drowned himself in the river Seine.

How remarkable that Les Misérables comes to the same conclusion recorded by Rashi in his comment on the first verse of the Torah. The world cannot exist solely with justice without mercy – and those who attempt it will lose even their will to survive.

December 22, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 29

(19) Sam, March 12, 2013 7:14 PM

some factual notes

Valjean was sentenced 5 years for breaking a window and stealing bread. He made several attempts to escape from Toulon prison and ended up spending 19 years there as a result, not 9. Javert's pursuit of Valjean was primarily because Valjean broke parole and had been previously deemed "dangerous" by the courts, as his yellow ticket indicated, not because of the bread.

This article is interesting and brings up some good points but the author's understanding seems a bit shallow - especially of Javert who is not really a "villain" in the story, as the Thenardiers are, he is merely a counterpoint and adversary to Valjean - Javert & Valjean were both based on a single actual person - a reformed criminal-turned-police inspector named Vidocq.

The two characters are essentially one character, split into two parts.

It is also no accident that Javert leaped from a bridge between Notre Dame and the Palais de Justice - right in the *center* of Mercy & Justice. He had let Valjean go (in the book he hired a fiacre and went with Valjean & Marius for the trip!!) and made the first tentative steps toward the path of mercy, but it destroyed him in the process. There is a final letter he wrote which is in the novel but not the film, where he essentially hands in his resignation both to the police & to God. He knew he could not let Valjean go according to the law, but also knew that Valjean deserved his life & freedom, so he destroyed himself to allow the other to live.

Of course, Valjean's death is no less tragic (in the novel he essentially pines away and allows himself to starve to death after being separated from Cosette because he believes she is better off without him there). Valjean shows a lot of mercy toward others but very little toward himself, it should be noted. In some ways he is as morally rigid as Javert. Both fit the title of "Les Miserables" certainly.

Read the novel! It's long, but very good.

Diane, April 12, 2013 4:55 PM

Thank you, Sam

I appreciate your comments and insights, Sam. I am 33% of my way through this most remarkable piece of exquisite literature and am very much enjoying my journey. I agree with you that people should be encouraged to read this book and not be daunted by its size. It is very readable and written in such a way that even those of us not used to reading literature of this calibre can put down and pick up the story easily. I have never read anything like this before in my life.

(18) William, January 1, 2013 11:04 PM

Les Miserables

The film? A musical version? Great to see and hear, but how many of you had read the book? I had read this tome the first time in my early teens (I am in the my 60's now) and I can recall only a handfull of books that I've read with such interest. "Read the book first, then go to see the picture", was my comment to one of my relatives, recently. We have seen the stage production some years back and we'll see the newest version, the musical, but nothing will replace the words spoken in the BOOK. Along with Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo is my favourite author of the 19th century. And so they should be!

(17) William, December 31, 2012 8:59 PM

Excellant Commentary

Thank you for your outstanding commentary on Le Miserables. Very enligtening...showing the He is both Justice and Mercy. Saw the movie and I have to say it is one of the best movies I have ever seen. The story itself is moving but the portrayal of the characters and the message of the story moved me greatly even though I am quite familiar with the story. Thank you again for your article!

(16) Anonymous, December 28, 2012 5:07 AM

Les Miserables lu en francais il y a 45 ans

As part of my degree in Romance Languages, I had an entire class on "Les Miserables." Your insightful article provided an excellent summary of part of Hugo's raison d'ecrire. There was also a great deal of social commentary on life in France at the time. Here we are 45 years later with a wonderful musical movie of "Les Miserables," something I would have never conceived of 45 years ago. I told my friends its the equivalent of "The Dirty Dozen-the Musical." (OK-I loved the stage version of the musical, and my wife and I are headed out tomorrow to catch the movie.)

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