Oona Eisenstadt on Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis

Several months ago, I reviewed Boyarin’s new book Socrates and the Fat Rabbis on the blog part I here and part II here. Here is a new review by Oona Eisenstadt written for the Bryn Mawr Classical Review that compliments mine.

According to Boyarin, only Plato and the Babylonian Talmud have carnivalesqe and still expect the serious, rational side to prevail. The question for everyone is what to do with the Aggadah that seemingly undercuts the halakhah. Boyarin’s answer is that the rabbis bolstered their own authority “(as Plato did for philosophy) by incorporating and domesticating positions that might provide viable dissent.” Oona hints that the answer may lie elsewhere in the religious virtues of shame and other non-rational qualities that the Talmud wants to convey. (See my posts on the 7th-9th centuries for other options. There may be more mussar and moral teachings than we have been seeing in a halakhic age.) She also notes that Boyarin’s satire seems too close to contemporary liberal relativism. Finally, if one is reading Boyarin more as a contemporary thinker and less as a Talmudist, then in Oona’s opinion he comes up short compared to Levinas’ Talmudic readings.

The broadest purpose of this book is to argue that Plato’s dialogues and the Babylonian Talmud are examples of Menippean satire, or spoudogeloion, a genre in which high and low elements are mixed in such a way that the practices of intellectuals “are both mocked and asserted at one and the same time” (26). Almost every society, Boyarin tells us, produces such satire, but Plato and the Talmud are particularly comparable because they share a Hellenistic viewpoint (133) and because they apply the satire similarly.

Ever since Walter Benjamin argued that the aggadic passages in the text subvert the seriousness of its halachah, it has been common to argue for the Talmud as a double-accented text. Boyarin does not, however, locate the divide between the two accents where Benjamin does, suggesting instead that the vast bulk of the Talmud is spoudaios, with the geloios best found in stories about the bodies of the rabbis, most notably about their gluttony and lust, and the sizes of their bellies and phalloi; these stories, we are told, are comparable to the hiccupping scene in the Symposium.

Boyarin is most convincing when explaining how the apparent Talmudic polyvocality, far from conveying a true openness or dialogical quality, is the mode of a univocal discourse whereby the rabbis shore up their own authority and that of the Torah (as Plato did for philosophy) by incorporating and domesticating positions that might provide viable dissent.. What distinguishes them “from most of the rest of the Menippean tradition is the total absence of a desire to obliterate the seriousness of the serious part of the discourse. The rug is not really pulled out from under the reader, but the ground is nevertheless made to shake” (340).

My critical reflections begin… with doubt about how well Boyarin maintains for himself the tension between the two accents… The main thrust of the book asks us to read back from the passages presenting Socrates as authoritarian (and from any buffoonery, connected to any character) to the idea that one might have doubts about the nobility of the philosophical life, and thence to re-value rhetoricians. In this movement, the second accent loses its humor and takes on its own seriousness and decorum; it becomes a new authoritative voice, that of a liberal relativist.

In any application of double-reading, moreover, the way one defines the satirizing thrust has everything to do with the way one reads the ostensible thrust: the joke has to come at the expense of the straight man. Boyarin locates the critical accent in the bawdy because, in his understanding, the first accent in both Plato and the rabbis is that of the absolute rationalist (30).
The argument falls apart if we think of the philosophical method as something less strictly rational, something that might even rest on our ability to be ashamed of ourselves, and shamed by others.

“By insisting that all sides in the debate are correct [the Talmud] completely vitiates the power of genuine debate and dissent” (147); the Talmud eschews a genuine pluralism based on the idea that no one is ever completely right, in favor of an authoritarian insistence that no one is ever completely wrong, “as long as he… is in the right institution” (152). But while Boyarin is probably correct that the rabbis were primarily interested in creating a coherent truth, in bolstering their authority, and in explaining away differences, one can lament the fact that the readings here are so much poorer philosophically than those of, say, Emmanuel Levinas, whom Boyarin has taken on elsewhere. Boyarin’s Talmud operates in a less original mode, one easily recognizable as ideological discourse, in which there is play between authority and demotic mockery, but marvelous layers of polyvocality are denied us. It may be truer, but it is substantially less interesting.
Full Review Here

h/t Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica

4 responses to “Oona Eisenstadt on Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis

  1. The Levinas comparison is interesting, but for other reasons as well. I attended a lecture at Yale where Boyarin explicitly pitted himself against Levinas’ program (though it was a throwaway line), and then I heard him talk about it some more at a post lecture dinner.

  2. I don’t have notes, but it was a general critique of Levinas. Instead of “essentializing,” Boyarin “problematizies,” etc. etc. I guess this is kind of obvious, in retrospect. If I’m not mistaken, the comment was elicited when someone in the audience brought up Levinas. I would add that Boyarin himself has repeatedly “apologized” for engaging in apologetics (one thinks especially of the introduction to Carnal Israel), but at the same time he always wants to get beyond apologetics. I think he may have seen Levinas as a sophisticated, un-apologetic apologist.

  3. I find it absolutely telling that one bit of the critique is that Levinas is more interesting, while my reading of the Talmud may be “truer.” I am not trying to be an interesting philosopher but to best characterize the Talmud. I find Levinas’s readings as often as not nonsense vis-a-vis the text and am also not so impressed at their frequently racist and always sexist philosophical content either.

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