Jonathan Boyarin, The Unconverted Self

People on the outside, or with a polemic bone to pick, tend to view interfaith dialogue as discussions that continue the medieval theological positions. As if people debate about when the Messiah will come or use 13th century definitions An example some of the new activity in interfaith dialogue is a paper first delivered at the Jesuit-Jewish Dialogue Conference held at Fordham University, is the new book by Jonathan Boyarin, The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe University of Chicago Press, 208 page.

The book was reviewed in this week’s Forward. Boyarin comes from the field of anthropology, not theology, and asks how did the concept of the “other” become constructed? What was the role of the Jew as the “other” compared to the native American.

The book rejects “The conventional wisdom is that Europe found its “other,” its supposed opposite against which it could define itself, when it found the indigenous peoples of the New World. Rather, “European Christians had been dealing with “others” — namely, Jews and Muslims — long before that greedy Italian navigator met the Arawaks of the Caribbean.”

The review points out that the book assumes a great deal of prior knowledge about earlier categories. “He assumes, therefore, a familiarity with Spain’s limpieza de sangre (blood purity laws first enacted in the late 15th century) and the ideas of Bartolomé de las Casas (a 16th-century missionary who quaintly suggested not brutalizing Africans and indigenous Americans).”

My question is to ask his observations back at the Jewish categories. How do Jews use blood purity laws to view gentiles? In the famous The Las Casas-Sepúlveda Controversy, which side would Jews take? I am grossly over simplifying since there debate involved detailed knowledge of Aristotelian commentaries and medieval thought, but the basis controversy is that Las Casas thought that there is a concept of humanity and Sepulveda believed in a hierarchy, so that Christians are superior to indigenous people. Do Jews create a hierarchy?

The reviewer reacts to the idea of imposing one’s definitions of rationality onto another.

One of the more interesting (and disturbing) sections of “The Unconverted Self” concerns how Christians defined what it meant to be human. In the 12th century, reason was supposedly the criterion — and if Jews did not demonstrate their capacity for reason by becoming Christian, then they must be something less than human.

Do Jews define reason in specific Jewish ways and then proclaim that the other side has a goyiche kop? Do Jews think that Judaism is more rational than other faiths and still assume that they are using universal criteria for rationality? If an anthropologist were to ask how Jews view the world would there be anthropological categories of the other that have little to do with Rabbinic concepts of chosen people and books of Jewish thought and more to do with self definitions and hierarchical perceptions of the other?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

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