- Jewish Feeling: Difference and Affect in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Women's Writingby Richa Dwor
Although a new wave of interest in nineteenth-century systems of belief seems to have arisen, few current scholars have directly linked literary texts to theology. By connecting midrash, the rabbinic mode of interpretation, to the works of Grace Aguilar, George Eliot, and Amy Levy, Richa Dwor provides a superb addition to affect theory and Jewish Studies in Jewish Feeling: Difference and Affect in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Women's Writing. Midrash, she argues, allows us to assess the deep "Jewish feeling" these three writers embedded in their prose. Drawing upon history, religion, and gender studies, Dwor's close textual readings use Eliot as an important counterpoint to the two Anglo-Jewish writers who tried to transmit Jewish ways of thinking and feeling into English literature. She augments work on Eliot's Jewish learning by scholars such as William Baker and builds upon the invaluable scholarship of Linda Hunt Beckman, Brian Cheyette, Michael Galchinskey, Cynthia Scheinberg, and Nadia Valman.
Dwor's book also reminds us of earlier studies of midrashand literary theory by Jewish Studies scholars David Stern and Daniel Boyarin, while being admirably informed by numerous historical and theoretical contexts. To illustrate "personalized, local engagements with affect," for instance, Dwor primarily contextualizes midrashin terms of affect theory, while she relies on Raymond Williams's "structures of feeling" to explain that affect is not strictly subjective but social, as well as historically and culturally contingent (11). Taking up the challenge laid down by Eve Sedgwick that there is no single history or unitary politics of affect, Dwor convincingly argues that identifying midrashas an affective process has validity and generates a finer understanding of the texture and effects of Jewish-centered literary works in the nineteenth century.
Although Dwor does not overtly engage with recent interpretive controversies, she enters a debate about surface and depth reading. Midrash, as a form of Biblical exegesis, is not peshat, the literal surface meaning or derash, the deep, symbolic meaning, or sod, the mystical meaning. Rather, midrashestablishes a comparative, metaphorical meaning. Thus, Dwor is right to focus on questions such as: What is it that draws us to a particular text? What is the affective nature of our engagement? Midrashis a mode of spirituality, a hermeneutics, and a communal literary tradition of storytelling that asks questions of the Tanakh(Hebrew Bible), attempting to offer interpretive solutions to gaps in meaning and other kinds of problems posed by the text.
Yet midrashicpolysemy and textual indeterminacy are not the same thing. For instance, when in "The Spirit of Night" (1852) Aguilar draws on Genesis 1:16—"And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night"—she creates a modern midrashwhen she genders the bodies as masculine sun and feminine moon in order to comment upon power imbalances within the Jewish community. At the same time, she does not alter the Biblical text; it remains intact for others to reinterpret in their own time. Thus, as Dwor shows, Aguilar reclaims the substance of the Bible and imports something of the history and mystery of Jewish identity via communal memory, while she engages different groups of readers in her own historical moment through a specific reading practice. Dwor's reading of Levy significantly [End Page 365]defends the author's criticism of Jews, explaining that while it is self-critical, it is hardly to be read as a rejection. While defending women's rights as strongly as Aguilar did, Levy creates a corrective in works such as Reuben Sachs(1888) and yearns for the perpetuation of a strongly Jewish community.
Thus when Dwor convincingly shows that Aguilar and Levy incorporate theology into their work, their emphasis on community, bonding, and ethics is linked to their reinterpreting of scripture. For them, midrashicre-interpretation serves to...