Daniel Boyarin and Orthodoxy: An Interview

Here is a little Chanukah fun- a freylekhn Khannike.

Daniel Boyarin is currently one of the most renowned academic Talmudists and sits in the Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley.

Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, (1990) opens with a contextualization as an Orthodox Jew and his Sparks of the Logos: Essays in Midrashic Hermeneutics, (2003) has on the back cover a claim of correcting modern Orthodox culture. I had not been able to figure out what he meant since then. I did not want to be in suspense any longer, so, I decided to ask him a few questions.

Boyarin’s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) has changed the discourse in the scholarship of the first centuries of Jewish Christian divide and his forthcoming The Jewish Gospels (2012) will create waves of discussion. These works are part of a vast discussion in America, Europe, and Israel. I find myself discussion this aspect of his work wherever I go. The scholarship informs religious discourse.

Boyarin’s work in Border Lines has served the role of shaking up habitual ways of working and thinking in the Jewish-Christian default line. But his views on Orthodoxy and especially the role of gender and politics do not have the same effect. The end of his answer in question 2 reflects my hesitations about his influence from the periphery of Berkeley on the dominant Orthodox hegemonic discourse of NY and Jerusalem.

1) You wrote in Intertextuality “I believe in and am comfortable … with the discourse of Orthodox Judaism” Can you explain some of your belief? Is Orthodoxy just a discourse without rabbinic power?

For me, discourse means precisely speech with power, so the discourse of Orthodox Judaism means precisely rabbinic power. In matters of halakha, whenever a question arises, I consult our mara deatra.. I have never been attracted to notions of deliberate halakhic change but have always thought that the slow evolutionary processes by which certain social changes take place within the structure of halakha has maintained a richness, groundedness, and sense of deep connection between what we do and what we have been commanded to do. In this sense, I am most comfortable, as I have said, with the discourse of orthodoxy.

But, for us, discourse also means speech per se, language, the text and thus Talmud Torah I’m not sure I would have survived in a culture/religion for which study was not central. For me, study is the most significant aspect of my liturgical life, as well. Perhaps the most important thing I would want to say about myself in this context to express again my deep love for the Talmud (all of classical rabbinic literature, to be sure, but especially the Bavli). One of the things that moves me most about study of the past is speaking with the dead, as Stephen Greenblatt once put it. The Talmud affords such a rich opportunity to speak with the dead owing precisely to its jumble of halakha, aggada, and even more than that that it’s like stepping into an ancient bazaar and being present with the folks living then, but these are our folks, our fathers and mothers, with whom we are speaking.

2) In Sparks of the Logos you seek “a rabbinic Judaism that would not manifest some of the deleterious social ideologies and practices that modern Orthodox Judaism generally does” What are those ideologies and practices?

I’m trying (or rather I was; I’ve given up a bit) to imagine an orthodoxy that would be free of the ethnocentrism and even racism that characterizes so much of contemporary orthodox language and political practice and one that would be as radically committed to economic justice for all as the Rabbis themselves. I don’t want to get into a political discussion here but, for me, as hinted below, Zionism does not seem like a traditional or historically orthodox solution to the problems of the Jews (although I will grant that it may have been necessary in some sense as well). The vulgarization and chauvinism that are so characteristic of so much of orthodox speech and practice today are hardly “Torah true” לפי עניות דעתי, and I think most orthodox leaders before the war saw it that way too.

I don’t want to be critical of others so much as to represent what I would have hoped for in my life (much more than I achieved), namely to demonstrate a practice of Torah and of Mitsvos that would authentically enable my own radical political commitments to social, economic, and ethnic solidarity and equality without making me marginalize myself within the orthodox community to which I felt so committed at the time. I feel that I have failed in several ways to live out this, perhaps naïve, original commitment, that I am neither as radical, nor as orthodox, in the end, as I had hoped to be. On the other hand, I am less certain than you are that Carnal Israel, at least, has had as little effect on understandings of gender within the traditional Orthodox community as you think and, perhaps, Unheroic Conduct, as well.

3) In several places you have offered a radical orthodoxy by going back the roots. Could there be a yeshiva or seminary of your radical orthodoxy?

A yeshiva or rabbinical seminary would look just like any other one but, on my lights, we would be looking to redirect some of the conversations that take place between us and our Torah about justice, not picking and choosing (otherwise it wouldn’t be orthodox in any sense) but emphasizing perhaps elements that are less emphasized today and soft-pedaling others; this would be more in line, I feel, with the ethical practices of Hazal themselves. While I find that Hazal not infrequently reflect, naturally, their own times and political conditions, there is always a striving for the highest of ethical standards, not only the bounds of the halakha, to fairness to other people, that sometimes seems to get lost among some modern orthodox interpreters of Yiddishkayt. To me, the radicality, the rootedness would be in the constant attention to the question: What does G-d want from me, from us, right now?

4) You offer Bertha Pappenheim the committed Orthodox feminist as a model for an alternative Orthodoxy, but her writings and actions produced a vehement reaction from Orthodoxy. Isn’t she by definition the opposite side of the border since the rabbis rejected her? (Most historians treat her as Anna O. who became an outspoken feminist but treat her Orthodoxy as beside the point or despite her work.)

Rabbi Shlomo Nobel and the Alexanderer Rebbe both supported her enthusiastically. I rest my case. I have written explicitly on the ways that I find that her orthodoxy was neither beside the point or despite her work. Some rabbis of the time, most of them were (with good reason) terrified at the negative attention that her work might bring to “The Jews,” through her exposure of the practices of some Jews who were capturing Jewish girls for foreign brothels. These two great rabbis from very different walks of life understood that the elimination of this horrific practice and other gross injustices perpetrated in Jewish life of the time against girls and women was obligatory and could not wait for “permission” from the anti-Semites, ימח שמם.

Pappenheim’s “orthodoxy” was, in large part, defined—and this is against the views of most other scholars who were hostile to it—by her understanding that these practices were absolutely against the Torah and not in cahoots with it חס ושלום. This insight on her part and the fact that it was supported by such eminences—and, of course, I am closer to Rabbi Nobel זצ”ל in my own style of life than to the Rebbe זצ”ל—provided me with a model of a commitment to radical social change while hewing closely, as close as my own יצר would let me, to learning and practicing the Torah. It gets harder and harder over the decades.

5) Do you have any favorite Orthodox thinker of the last 150 years?

The Satmerer Rebbe, זצ”ל. I am deeply resonant with the view of the Satmar Rav that the oath “not to arise as a wall” לא לעלות בחומה meant that Jews were not to seek temporal sovereignty until the Messiah comes.

6) You tell the story that in 1985 when you taught a summer course at YU’s BRGS you opened the first class announcing that “here you can mention that Torah is from Sinai.” What did this mean?

Without going into theology, I meant that we read the text both as a unity (which does not mean that it does not incorporate much tension) and also as written not only for its time but for all time in some profound and challenging sense. Some of the other teachers were so invested in being critical and scholarly that they were somehow (from my humble perspective) missing the point somewhat which is to learn Torah in a scholarly way and not to dismantle it for historicistic purposes. My teacher, Prof. Lieberman ז”ל said once that study in the university and study in the Yeshiva were the same thing.

7) Do you incorporate any Christian practice into your Judaism?

I don’t incorporate any Christian practice into my Judaism although I do study early Christian texts with a great deal of enthusiasm and pleasure at one direction that some Jews went in. And I don’t think the Gospels in themselves represent any departure from traditional Judaism, at any rate, no more than that of some Lubavitcher Hasidim. They represent one more historical grasp by some Jews at a Messiah. According to my interpretation of the Gospels, Jesus is never portrayed as abrogating the Torah, kashrut or the Sabbath at all.

19 responses to “Daniel Boyarin and Orthodoxy: An Interview

  1. Raise your hand if you are less confused now. Anyone?

  2. Thank you very much for this. I am not less confused but still more enlightened.

  3. Boyarin: “Zionism does not seem like a traditional or historically orthodox solution to the problems of the Jews (although I will grant that it may have been necessary in some sense as well)”

    Boyarin adds he is also “deeply resonant with the view of the Satmar Rav… that Jews were not to seek temporal sovereignty until the Messiah comes”. That seems to put him in the camp of those J Streeters who deem Israel’s creation understandable but unfortunate, though they come to that position from a different direction. Satmar, of course, inspired the even more radically anti-Zionist Neturei Karta.

    • Raymond:

      I believe you’ve mischaracterized J Street when you say that their supporters “deem Israel’s creation understandable but unfortunate”. i am a J Street supporter, and have heard and read their director/founder Jeremy Ben Ami, and I think the J Street camp is squarely pro-Zionist, with no ambivalence, although they do oppose some of Israel’s current policies, including, obviously, the occupation–or “occupation”, if you prefer it that way.

  4. Rabbi Jonathan H. Gerard

    Regarding question #2 about an acceptable liturgy–that doesn’t incorporate “socially deleterious ideologies” and a practice “free of the ethnocentrism and even racism that characterizes so much of contrmporary orthodox language…”–Prof. Boyarin ought to look at Mishkan Tefillah and Reform Judaism. In its willingness to innovate liturgically, and to find a proper integration of ritual and ethical mitzvot, Reform reflects the most traditional approach to Judaism of its four American denominations.

    Isn’t it “intellectual Talmudic culture” that leaves ethics a poor second in priority and leads to Boyarin’s problem in the first place?

    Further, once the Napoleanic Sanhedrin separated “religious” halachot from the rest of Judaism–offering Jews a chance to participate as citizens in modern nation-states, didn’t the whole context in which Talmudic law made sense disappear? If context is crucial to meaning, then the meaning of Talmudic discourse changes with the haskalah. Of course that’s what you’re saying–that Boyarin wants an intellectual Talmudic culture, not a practicing one. Either way, I don’t see how you get ethnocentrism and racism out and still maintain a pre-enlightenment understanding of the Talmud. Unless mip’nei darkei shalom becomes a first principle. Does it mean “Do the minimum for the sake of peace with our neighbors”? Or “Do as much as you can for the sake of peace with our neighbors”? Well, neither peace nor ethics is a first principle–“covenant” is. If the Talmud recognizes this then it recognizes the legitimacy of Reform. And I do believe that the Talmud embraces a covenental (that is, a two-sided) view in that it reflects both divine and human perspectives of correct behavior. (God is rofeh cholim. Yet it is forbidden to live in a city without a doctor. Or, pursue justice. Yet be merciful.) So the question is which approach to the Talmud strengthens the Covenant–“preserving” its culture or applying its (dialectical) approach to our post-enlightenment culture? It seems to me that Boyarin’s frustration is rooted in the dilemma that he can’t’ have it both ways.

    • In question #2, Boyarin is not referring to liturgy, but rather social discourse and disposition within the contemporary Orthodox society.

  5. “I’m trying (or rather I was; I’ve given up a bit) to imagine an orthodoxy that would be free of the ethnocentrism and even racism that characterizes so much of contemporary orthodox language”

    Do you have any favorite Orthodox thinker of the last 150 years?:

    DB: The Satmerer Rebbe, זצ”ל.

    [AB- I believe the comemnt is noticing the irony in admiring the most ethnocentric Jewish leader.]

  6. Thank you for this enjoyable, interesting interview. It feels so good to see Prof. Boyarin praising Rabbi Noble of Frankfort, the rabbi from 1910-22 of all the ostjuden non-austritt Orthodox, who were not admitted or did not wish to join the Breuer kehila. (These days such praise is like being a Cubs fan, the Hirschians eat us for breakfast, but so what..)

    I have been a fan of Prof. Boyarin for many years. Of all his books, the one that influenced me the most was Unheroic Conduct. I have always felt “eidel” trumps “stark”, but he taught me how to connect this value with feminism and much else. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the radical left and the extreme religious right have similar positions on Israel. But from the time I read Vayoel Moshe in my late teens until I read Boyarin’s essay in Critical Inquiry laying out the Satmar position with a photo of the rebbe, I had never come across an article making that connection. I remember being overwhelmed with a feeling of joy and admiration.

    As I’ve grown older I began having doubts about the Jewish anti Israel –pro Palestinian position. I see damage to Jews, and I fail so far to see the obvious benefits. Blaming Israel today for refusing to accept a one state solution, because they never should have created a state in the first place, is far removed from where the Jewish world is today. Because I think criticism should have at least a chance of creating positive effects, I now think criticism of Israel should be formulated in pragmatic terms, the occupation is bad for Israel etc.; and not Israel is a colonial power worthy of a boycott and endless condemnation. Be that as it may, I continue to admire Prof. Boyarin. His love of Torah and the Jewish people are clear, and his contributions to Jewish Studies are enormous.

    • Not to come out sounding too cynical, but being anti-zionist in the Berkley Rhetoric department is about as hard as being (to continue your baseball metaphor) a Yankee fan in the Bronx.

  7. The Berkeley rhetoric department is, believe it or not, not my primary locus of identity or identification; Beth Israel in Berkeley was for many years, and that has been about as hard as being a Yankee fan in Boston.
    Gut Shabbos all

  8. Pingback: “the old documentary hypothesis has given way to new theories” « BLT

  9. I don’t understand what Boyarin means by Jesus not abrogating the law.

    I thought Matthew 12 was very clear.


    “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”

    • First, have you read the book?
      Second, since he historically remained a shomer shabbat, there are new readings that explain the passage differently. The passage is as far from as clear as you make it.
      See the work of Vermes, Saunders, Meier, Dunn and many others of the last few decades.

  10. Where can the above mentioned article by Boyarin on the Satmar rebbe be found?

  11. There is historical evidence that Jesus kept shabbat? My understanding was that historical evidence that Jesus was a historical figure is tenuous and highly contested; a lot hangs on a little reference to Jesus in Josephus, which everyone agrees was at least partly redacted– if not completely interpolated– by the Church. What makes you so confident of this, Prof Brill– esp with regard to his keeping the shabbos? (Hmm.. there is a certain irony in my questioning you on the historicity of Jesus given our previous discussion regarding the historicity of the Torah. And more generally, I have always found it fascinating that in academic/liberal circles, it is gauche to question the historicity of Jesus [who lived in historical times and should presumably have left clearer traces had he lived and influenced people] on the one hand; but on the other hand, it is gauche to suggest that the Torah’s account of the Exodus might be true. Seems like a more even-handed approach is warranted…)

    • We dont question Shakespeare’s existence anymore either. That was a skeptical trend from the early 20th century.
      Read one of the recent books – try Amy Jill Levine for a Jewish intro to the topic or Meier for a Catholic one..

      • Hmm… surely it has got to be worrisome to someone who believes in the historicity of Jesus that the best someone who is as knowledgeable as you are can do is to say that this is no longer an acceptable question (and like I said, it is interesting that by contrast, it is not acceptable to believe in the historicity of the Torah).

      • No one denied the historicity of the Torah. Just that your pornography argument since it is viewing an item in front of one – even with your use of the word ontology- is very different than a claim of mesorah, tradition, or a-priori. The subjunctive epistemology of a past event was not implicit in your the logic of the American legal pornography argument. (I will be back tonight)

      • Gut moed.

        And fair enough. I’m sorry if I implied anything to that effect. I just took your line of argument as at least attacking the premise that belief in the historicity of the Torah was important to Judaism since (you averred) such a belief could never have been rendered in coherent terms.

        Actually, I have been thinking of a refinement of the Potter Stewart argument as follows: you are undoubtedly correct that the members of the dor hamidbar would have had different subjective experiences of the same physical event, which then would have been reported in language in a different way. And then this leads to your problem that we are relying on a multitude of potentially conflicting testimonials about an event, which becomes somewhat fuzzy.
        I still think that one can summon Potter Stewart in the way I did–i.e., that the fuzziness would have been limited because the experience would have been so qualitatively different from the usual run of human experience as to be unmistakable. But I think we can make the point stronger. In particular, key to our mesorah is that there is both Torah she b’aal peh as well as Torah she’bechtav. Put differently, the issue of conflicting reports is irrelevant because the dor hamidbar collectively endorsed (to their children) a written report on the event they had experienced.

        The mesorah involves the intergenerational transmission of the mass experience of theophany accompanied by a text that was collectively endorsed as an authoritative documentation of the event. It is as if Holocaust survivors collectively ratified a particular description of the event at the time of its happening as an authentic representation of their experience. (Of course, this all leads to the question of whether the mesorah really was passed down through an unbroken chain, and e.g., to the debates about Yoshiahu and Hilkiah what it means that they found a Sefer Torah, what about it was unknown, etc.
        As I said, I was less focused on whether there is sufficient warrant to believe in the historicity of the Torah than whether it is a coherent belief)

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