George Eliot & Contemporary Jewish Separatism

Tablet magazine, it should be known, focuses on All Things Jewish. On their website currently, alongside articles like “It’s Time for Intersectionality to Include the Jews”, “Are Jews at Risk for Parkinson’s Disease?”, or another that celebrates how “Jewishly inflected, queer songs brings Weimar Germany back to life with humor and music” is an article by Liel Leibovitz which interprets George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda in a most interesting way (“Daniel Deronda, Conservative Jewish Hero”).

Leibovitz discusses a series of lectures by Harvard professor Ruth Wisse, the latter of whom “illuminates the threads that tie together Eliot’s complex work, in which Zionism was foreseen two decades before its actual arrival”.

Alrighty, then.

Deronda, she explains in her very first lecture, is not, like the aesthetes of his age, blinded by beauty. Instead, he starts off the novel by throwing down the gauntlet. His fight is with the notion of romantic love itself, the age-old idea—think Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde—that infatuation burns brightest when it is fueled by defiance of family, faith, and tradition. Deronda is after rectitude, not rapture, and he comes to believe that love cannot blossom unless it is rooted in common ground: Jew must marry Jew, and like must cleave to like. That’s why his path must lead him away from Gwendolen and toward the righteous Mirah Lapidoth, who shares both his faith and his worldview. “Mirah’s religion” Eliot writes, “was of one fibre with her affections, and had never presented itself to her as a set of propositions.” Like Deronda, she’s a romantic conservative, or a conservative romantic—her passions and her sense of peoplehood are inseparably intertwined.

Which, as Wisse explains, was a problematic proposition in England in the late 19th century. Some enlightened souls, and there are quite a few of them in the novel, have difficulty understanding why, if England is so keen on embracing its Jews as equals, the Jews should insist on maintaining their differences. Why not marry their Christian neighbors and friends? Why insist on blood and kin and tribe?…

Yet again, we can add one more example to the myriad of ways in which Jewish separatism is rationalized.

… Eliot realized that Jews and women faced the same essential dilemma: Will they try and unshackle themselves from their essential nature in a way that is bound to doom them to misery? Or can they achieve a more meaningful emancipation, enjoying equal rights while being permitted to remain true to who they are and wish to continue to be?…

And, yet again, in the line of reasoning displayed by Wisse et al, substitute ‘Whites’ for ‘Jews’ and see how it plays out publicly.

This entry was posted in Jewish, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.