Tag Archives: Daniel Boyarin

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

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part II

This continues from part I – here.

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.

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part I

I just received my desk copy of Daniel Boyarin’s new book Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (University of Chicago), I have not read it yet. The book is quite dense and intricate at points so I just did a short first reading, skimming it at points and will read it in detail this week.

The major fact used by the book is that the aggadah in the Bavli was influenced by Roman Satire especially Lucian  with his Menippean satire.

1] I wonder about the upcoming reception of the book. There has been a strong visceral reaction against situating the Talmud within Roman satire. A.A. Halevi, Sha’arei ha-Aggadah (1963) gave parallels between aggadah and Roman satires, but almost no one really picked it up. Already the Soncino Talmud had footnotes to the sources of sugyot in Roman satire, but who quotes those footnotes? In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many majored in classics and readily saw the parallels.  Is the reluctance because those who study Talmud, even in liberal seminaries, have a theological need to make the Talmud unique?

2] Boyarin discusses those who distance themselves from the exaggerated aggadah by distinguishing between halakhah and aggadah, and he discusses those who want to show the relationship of the two realms of halkhah and aggadah. He mentions the folklorists who remove the stories from their halakhic realm altogether.But he concludes that there are two types of aggadah, the gentle rational aggadah of the Halakhic realm and the wild aggadah. Boyarin references the distinction to Krokhmal. (I heard  similar distinction from Rav Soloveitchik – that we should use the aggadah of the halakhic realm and not any and all texts of aggadah)

3] But Boyarin’s point is that the Talmudic debates are really monovocal, unlike the dialogues of the Platonic dialogues. (Similar ideas were already stated by Louis Jacobs in his Talmudic Argument.)  Boyarin uses Bakhtin’s theories of dialogue and heteroglossia to claim that the halakhah does not consist of debates but is a single voice. But the halakhah together with the agadah, the narratives, and roman satire Aggadah create a rich sense of dialogue in the Talmud in which the aggadah undercuts and reverses the halakhah yet the halakhah retains its supremacy. (I had similar ideas back in 1988 using Bakhtiin and have notes to myself in a jot pad – my focus was distinguishing between the monovocal sugya compared to heteroglossia created by the commentaries- I must find the jot pad in the basement.).

4] Since anyone who has read classics has seen this parallel to Roman materials – what were the first reactions? R. Shmuel David Luzzato wrote that the Talmud is a conversation and that we can reject parts. Krokhmal said “dor dor vedorshav” this was the way the Jewish idea was expressed in that era. They were ahistoric and had roman satire- now we are rational and study history. For Geiger and most critics of the Talmud, it is another reason to reject the entire Talmudic enterprise. Maharetz Hayetz  offers apologetic that they are didactic and do not conflict our modern sense; there is no historic difference from today. Many of them were simply to awaken and arouse the students.RSH Hirsch said aggadot have no tradition and we have to use reason to pick out the real ones. Even Loius Ginzberg claimed to have an intuitive sense of which aggadot are truly rabbinic.

Boyarin claims these ribald carnival aggadot are essential parts for understanding the Talmudic literary structure. This puts him in the same camp as the Maharal, Vilna Gaon and Rav Nahman of Breslov.