Back when I was in graduate school, I was studying Neoplatonism as a background for mysticism, but at the time postmodern deconstructionism was the rage. My professor trained in classics just shrugged off the new movement saying it was the return of the Sophists who were rejecting our beloved Plato. In the last 15 years, French philosophers- such as Alain Badiou have rejected post-modernist denial of truth by a return to weak knowledge; they return to Plato but argue that he had sympathy for the sophist projects (and mystery cults). Plato, and rationality in general, now has irrationality, obsessions, puzzles, and idiosyncrasies. Boyarin has read many of these works and presents the ideal of Greek philosophy and Talmudism as mediated in the complexity of the real world by satire (and rhetoric).
The setting for Boyarin’s book is a freshman core curriculum course in rhetoric for 600 students, in which the reading list includes among others Plato, Gorgias, Lucian, Thucydides, and Talmud. The book reads like the literary criticism of mid-twentieth century Columbia University- Van Doran, Barzun, Trilling- great ideas, illuminating fragments of other people’s scholarship, awakening the students to the life of the mind, but not worrying about the philologists.
My interest is what it contributes to Jewish thought- I will leave comments on the rest of the book to classicists and Talmudists. Only 3 out of 8 chapters are on Talmud.
What is a Platonic dialogue? Boyarin follows the Platonic scholarship of John Salllis (1996) who accepts the arguments of Plato’s critics’ and those who see him as more rhetoric than dialectic. Boyarin wants to open a humanistic question that is asked of Plato but rather in Jewish studies– what is Talmud? His starting point is David Kraemer work’s on the Bavli as literature, which he sees as asking some of the right questions and Boyarin will give more complex answers.
He situates the entire rabbinic project in the broad Roman cultural world. Somewhat similar to the way that in the current era of globalization the entire world knows coca cola, the Lexus, McDonalds, American TV, and American Pop music. Boyarin has little interest in creating a thick description of the cultural world and he has no analysis of the local knowledge or micro-histories. (Ignore his preface to the book- In the 1990’s when he was claiming to be a post-modern in his introductions, he was still using Dilthy and classic German cultural approaches. Now, he once again makes self-identifying claims based on what he is currently reading but having little bearing on what he is doing.)
He built up a presentation through other classical works about the role of serious vs satire, farce, and child’s play and applies them to the Talmud. Chapter six applies all categories as a sustained playing with Rabbi Meir. He cites an Ohr Sameah web posting to show how a “non scholarly to a fault source” uses the Roman material as a form of piety. Boyarin’s own presentations plays with satire, rhetoric, and the serious; many examples are left as metonymy or emblemic without a full presentation.
One of his best insights of the book for Jewish thought is his reading of Why did they not listen to Rabbi Meir since he can make the pure impure and the impure pure? Answer- like a sophist he was not connected to truth and therefore gets an ambiguous presentation..
Maharal and Rav Zadok answer that he was above the single perspective of ordinary materiality, the former emphasized his lack of materiality and the latter his mystical perspective. And they both have expositions on why the rabbis are fat. As noted before, Boyarin will be useful for the Eastern European interest in wild midrashim- midrash peliah. In my slow production of Maharal articles, Boyarin will come in handy when I deal with emblem and grotesque in Maharal.
Boyarin never discusses the mythos-logos relationship. Plato reformulates the myths to teach logos once property understood. This would have made the book more relevant to later Jewish thinkers since philosophers, kabblaists, and modern rationalists all use this device to state the aggadah has a deeper meaning. In the interim, I recommend the recent French scholar Luc Brisson, Plato the Myth Maker
The book has lots of ideas but would be nicely complimented by someone to write a full volume on Roman satire and the Talmud in order to actually be able to evaluate the thesis properly. In Border Lines, Boyarin introduces rabbinic logos thinking and the idea of rabbinic bitheism and then we have Moshe Idel giving us 700 pages of Ben: Sonship in Jewish Mysticism. This large tome allows us to begin to see where it works and where it does not.
I would like a similar volume here. For example, in TB Berakhot where the market place is seen a place of courtesans- there is much material in Jmaes Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1999)to begin an analysis- but how does this relate to the Hesiod sounding “HKBH’s tears created Orion and the Pleiades and both of them to the Heikhalot material in the tractate.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance turned to Plato to show how rhetoric wins over dialectic, and people should turned to direct experience and the narrative of the daily life. Now that current authors mix all the Platonic category – Boyarin offers a way to look at the mixed bag of the Talmud as part of classics.
I did not think it will make it onto my reading list for this spring on contemporary Jewish thinkers of the last 15 years (I am sitting here with a pile of examination copies of things. Michael Fishbane will be on the list).
As a side point, Boyarin did not seem to know Jacob Bernays, the important Lucian scholar was Hakham Bernay’s son (RSR Hirsch’s teacher) and Freud’s brother-in-law, because if he did the loose editorial hand of the book would have somehow tied it in.