A Snapshot of Daniel Boyarin: Part I

An erudite, freethinking giant in several sub-fields of religious studies, Daniel Boyarin’s scholarship has never been conventional with its idiosyncratic blending of approaches, positions, and interests.[1] Atypical as a Talmud scholar, Boyarin (1946-Present) is also a vocal feminist and anti-Zionist, with an interest in queer theory. In his early 20s, while spending a year abroad at Hebrew University, Boyarin stumbled across what would become his primary passion- the Talmud. Thereafter, he was trained as a Aramaist and finished two M.A. degrees before completing his dissertation, A Critical Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nazir. He went on to receive his Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1975.[2] In 1989, he published his first book in Hebrew, Ha-‘iyan-Sefaradi, a treatment of medieval Talmudic hermeneutics. Since 1990, he has been the professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California, Berkley, also teaching at the Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan, Yale, Harvard, and Yeshiva University.

Despite a notable diversity in interests, much of Boyarin’s research can be connected to his larger, life-long intellectual project of “tracing the dialectical nature of Jewish difference and sameness within Western history and culture.”[3] The first phase of this project occurred between 1990 and 1997 with the publication of Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (1990), Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (1993), A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (1994), and Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (1997). Boyarin paints an almost romantic portrait of Jewish countercultural-ness vis-à-vis the dominant cultural regimes—including reading practices, gender norms, and sexual norms—of first the Greco-Roman and then Western Christian world.[4] In the second major phase of his academic work, Boyarin’s comparative work comes even more strongly to the fore, as he explores the production and maintenance of rabbinic Judaism as something bound up with Christian and Western history. This period’s works include: Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (1999), Border Lines (2004), Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (2009), and The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2012). As will be highlighted in the following loosely chronological biography of Boyarin’s intellectual work, both phases of Boyarin’s academic career, especially in the last two decades, showcases his unique approach, a blending of comparative work in rabbinic texts and contemporary theories.

1990-1998

In the decade that followed the publication of his first English work, Boyarin’s scholarship developed along a trajectory that moved from a focus on literary theory and midrash towards the “creative interaction of nascent Christianities and Judaisms” in Late Antiquity.[5] During the 1990s, Boyarin spearheaded the “corporeal turn” in “new Jewish cultural studies,” essentially an intensified interest in text as a social, corporeal, and material practice.[6] One of the primary advantages of this turn in Jewish studies is the emerging focus on cultural and interdisciplinary studies. Within Boyarin’s work, anthropology and history coalesce into what is known as new historicism or cultural poetics, the focus on microhistory, on a close examination and comparison of everyday practices.[7]

Boyarin’s seminal book, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (1990), has been credited with introducing literary theory into the field of rabbinics. In it, Boyarin proposes a new methodological approach to midrash, one deeply rooted in modern literary criticism. His hermeneutical model of the ways in which midrash reads scripture takes issue with the long dominant view of aggada as a “kind of praiseworthy sophistry or homiletic fiction” or an ideological manipulation of text.[8] According to Boyarin’s approach, midrash is a continuation of the same intertextual, interpretive strategies that engendered Scripture, an attempt to puzzle out the gaps and ambiguities of Scripture for a new audience. Yet, Boyarin’s focus on a theory of rabbinic literature—and apparent oversight of the Sitz im Leben of these texts—has led to both criticism and ongoing tension with those like Jacob Neusner who are more concerned with rabbinic history.[9] Boyarin does not actually dismiss the importance of history and social setting to the midrashic project; rather, he revises the conception of midrash as “a way of reading and living in the text of the Bible, which had profound implications for the life of the reader.”[10] Indeed, Boyarin’s interest in rabbinic culture and his hermeneutical approach of cultural poetics underlies much of his subsequent work in the field of rabbinics and comparative studies.[11]

Specifically, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (1993) was Boyarin’s initial foray into both comparative studies and cultural poetics. Scholars have long struggled to deal with rabbinic literature’s connection to social practice and historical reality, since Rabbinic texts are literature in process and their biographical stories are chiefly fictions that functioned as signifiers of cultural values.[12] Boyarin’s paradigm of new historicism or cultural poetics—itself a type of intertextual reading—seeks to understand rabbinic literature, both halakha and aggada, as social practice, attempting to work out common religious, political, cultural, and ideological problems. It is, Boyarin argues, a reading of culture rather than of texts. In the book’s comparative analysis of Christian and Rabbinic exegetical traditions, Boyarin carefully examines critical terms used for gender and sexual bodies in both corpora of literature. Significantly, as David Chidester notes, Boyarin was one of the first to really pay attention to the import of gendered or sexual embodiment in the study of religion.[13] According to Boyarin’s comparative reading, Rabbinic Judaism insisted on the importance of the corporeal, defining the human being as a body—thus valuing genealogy, sexuality, and ethnic specificity—while Hellenistic Jews and Christians saw the essence of the human being as a soul encased in that body.[14] Because of this, the rabbinic discourse on sexuality was profoundly different from Christian discourse.[15] His methodological contribution in comparing these discordant threads about sexuality and female bodies evidences rabbinic literature as only superficially monolithic.[16]

Picking up on themes from his previous work, in Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (1997), Boyarin explores Talmudic notions of masculine identity, psychoanalysis, and Judaism. In the first half of his book, Boyarin argues that within the rabbinic textual tradition the ideal man is characterized not by hyper-maleness but by passivity, gender-bending, and unmanliness. In his discursive catachresis, Boyarin unearths a “horizon of possibility for a militant, feminist, nonhomophobic, traditionalist—Orthodox—Judaism.” [17] His analysis of historical, Jewish constructions of masculinity ultimately seeks to recover the feminized, diaspora model of the Jewish male, not as a negative cultural and religious caricature, but as a potently useful representation within rabbinic discourse on body, sex, and gender. Emphasizing texts like BT Baba Metsia 83b or 84a, Boyarin demonstrates how the rabbinic self-fashioning of a feminized ideal Jewish masculinity is a product of its culture, one of resistance of hegemonic powers like Imperial Rome.[18] Fascinatingly, Boyarin’s hypothesis about heterosexualizing and the Zionist revolution in the twentieth century traces the reversal of this effeminate man and formation of his modern, strong-man counterpart. He illustrates how Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl each illustrate a self-hatred, and how their projects of psychoanalysis and Zionism were cultural responses to heterosexualization of culture.[19] Read together with Carnal Israel, Unheroic Conduct presents a portrait of the rabbinic Jew as both carnal and as “unmanned but not desexualized.”[20]

Using his lens as a talmudist and postmodern Jewish cultural critic, Boyarin turned to Pauline literature in his 1997 book, A Radical Jew Paul and the Politics of Identity.[21] The book reclaims the importance of Pauline literature for Jewish studies in the Roman period and Paul himself as an important Jewish thinker, a cultural critic of Jewish particularism, whose questions about Judaism can and should be engaged today. Boyarin argues that the key to understanding Paul’s universalizing, spiritualizing strategy is his Hellenistic Jewish allegorical mindset.[22] According to Boyarin, Paul is inspired by “a Hellenistic desire for the One, which among other things produced an ideal of a universal human essence, beyond difference and hierarchy.”[23] Though recognizing the influence Hellenistic culture on Judaism as a whole, Boyarin’s equation of Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism allows him to maintain a maximum contrast when comparing Paul the dualist and the rabbinic Judaism that resisted this dualism.[24] Thus, rabbinic Judaism and Pauline Christianity represent two differing hermeneutic systems that generate “…two diametrically opposed, but mirror-like, forms of racism—and also two dialectical possibilities of antiracism.”[25] Boyarin’s comparison and contrast of the ways Talmudic and Pauline texts dealt with the dilemma of multiculturalism suggests, first, that Paul is criticizing Judaism from within not rejecting from without and, second, that Paul is a valuable resource as we wrestle with the multiethnic and multicultural today.

*Adapted from my Emory University seminar paper, submitted to Dr. William Gilders .


[1] See Alix Wall, “Daniel Boyarin: Talmudist, feminist, anti-Zionist, only-in-Berkeley Orthodox Jew” n.p. [cited 29 April 2017]. Online: http://www.jweekly.com/2015/03/12/daniel-boyarin-the-talmudist-feminist-anti-zionist-only-in-berkeley-orthodo/

[2] Unsurprisingly, considering his M.A. thesis on Babylonian Aramaic, Boyarin has contributed numerous noteworthy articles on the dialects of Middle and Late Aramaic, a topic of continued interest for Boyarin. See “An Inquiry into the Formation of the Middle Aramaic Dialects,” in Bono Homini Donum: Essays in Historical Linguistics in memory of J. Alexander Kerns (eds. Yoël Arbeitman and Allan R. Bomhard; Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science; Series IV; Current Issues in Linguistic Theory; vol. 16, pt. 1-2; Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1981), 613-49; “The low vowel system of Geonic Aramaic: a synchronic analysis of the distribution of miqpas pumma and miftah pumma in Halakhot Pesuqot Codex Sassoon,” in Israel Oriental studies, 8 (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Univ, 1978), 129-141.

[3] Ra’anan S. Boustan, Review, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol 96, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 441-446.

[4] Ibid. 441.

[5] See his collection of essays from this period, Sparks of the Logos: Essays in Rabbinic Hermeneutics (Brill Reference Library of Judaism; v. 11; Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003), vii.

[6] Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “The corporeal turn,” JQR 95, no. 3 (2005): 448.

[7] Ibid., 453.

[8] Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 3.

[9] Boyarin highlights many of these tensions in reading in his review of Neusner’s book The Canonical History of Ideas, see “On the Status of the Tannaitic Midrashim: A critique of Jacob Neusner’s latest contribution to Midrashic studies,” JAOS 112, no. 3 (July 1992): 455-465.

[10] Intertextuality, 128.

[11] Through his hermeneutic of cultural poetics, Boyarin demonstrates how in understanding rabbinic texts as discourse, as integrally connected to social processes, the margins of such a dominant discourse give us a glimpse into its culture. As he later defines it: “cultural poetics, a practice that respects the literariness of literary texts…while attempting at the same tie to understand how they function within a larger socio-cultural system of practices.” See Carnal Israel Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (New Historicism 25; Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1995), 93.

[12] Neusner’s solution is to regard all rabbinic texts simply as the products of their redactors (The Canonical History of Ideas, 1990), but Boyarin’s rightly critiques this approach, since we know very little about these redactors (Carnal Israel, 13).

[13] David Chidester, “Material Terms for the Study of Religion,” JAAR Vol 68., No 2. (June 2000), 367-79.

[14] “…rabbinic Judaism—the cultural formation of most of the Hebrew- and Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine and Babylonia—was substantially differentiated in its representations and discourses of the body and sexuality from Greek-speaking Jewish formations, including much of Christianity” (Carnal Israel Reading, 5).

[15] Boyarin argues that the differing ways in which Christian and Jewish discourse—particularly earlier Palestinian discourse like Ketubbot 48a; Berakhot 21b—understood the myth of the primal androgen, or the origin of the sexes, illustrates the rabbinic cultural struggle against its dominate cultural environment. For the rabbis, humans are marked by corporeality, difference and heterogeneity. Marriage was a return to a condition of completeness, even the imago dei (Carnal Israel, 31-60). As Feminist critic Alicia Ostriker comments, Boyarin “represents Christian and Jewish solutions to the tensions of gender as complementary trade-offs. Where the Christian Fathers theoretically grant females equal spirituality before God (provided they reject their sexuality), the Jewish ones affirm female sexuality on earth (provided it submits to male dominion)” (The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 11, no. 7: 12-13).

[16] Michael L. Satlow, “They abused him lie a woman”: Homoeroticism, Gender Blurring, and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 2 (1994): 297-300.

[17] Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), xxiii.

[18] In Baba Metaia 84a for instance, Rabbi Lakish mistakes Rabbi Yohanan—one of the two most central rabbinic “heroes”—for a woman and pursues him sexually. As Boyarin notes, Rabbi Yohanan’s androgynous beauty evidences the lengths gone in rabbinic literature goes to construct the ideal Jewish man as feminized.

[19] Tracing the heterosexualization of Jewish culture, Boyarin argues that for both Freud and Theodor Herzl the central blemish that resulted in Jewish degradation and degeneration was passivity. Freud’s misogyny and homophobia—and even his Oedipus complex—were likely symptoms of his suppression of his own queer, feminized tendencies. Herzl, in turn, wished to “transform the Jewish man from his state of effeminate degeneracy into the status of proper…mock-‘Aryan male”” (Unheroic Conduct, 189-312, esp. 280). Hannah Decker criticizes Boyarin, however, for psychoanalyzing Freud while claiming to be historicizing him instead. See “Unheroic Conduct,” Journal of Social History Vol. 31, n. 4 (Summer 1998): 1003-1006. While Yaron Peleg questions the self-evidence of the link between weakness, passivity, effeminacy and homosexuality in the nineteenth century, “Heroic Conduct: Homoeroticism and the Creation of Modern, Jewish Masculinities,” JSS, New Series, 13, no. 1 (2006): 33. See also Boyarin, “Homophobia and the Postcoloniality of the “Jewish Science,” in Queer Theory and the Jewish Question. Between Men~ Between Women: Lesbian and Gay Studies (eds. Daniel Boyarin, et al; New York: Columbia University Press, 2004) 166-198.

[20] This portrait of a passive yet fully sexual male is quite different from the Christian one, which contrasts the desexualized, effeminate monk with the virile, active knight (Unheroic Conduct, 2, 25).

[21] Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew Paul and the Politics of Identity (Contraversions 1; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[22] Martha Himmelfarb, “A radical Jew: Paul and the politics of identity,” AJS Review 21, no. 1 (1996): 148-151. See also Carnal Israel,1-34. Boyarin defines Paul’s hermeneutic theory—which he says is neither anti-Judaic nor anti-Semitic—as follows: “the literal Israel, literal history, literal circumcision, and literal genealogy are superseded by their allegorical, spiritual signifieds…” (Sparks of the Logos, 199).

[23] Thus, according to Paul’s inherited the Platonic dualism, in which the body is inferior to the soul, there is physical Israel and true Israel, a literal Torah and its spiritual meaning, and the actual performance of the laws and the “achievement of the spiritual states that these laws point to” (Boyarin, A Radical Jew, 5-7).

[24] Himmelfarb, “A radical Jew,” 148-9.

[25] Boyarin, A Radical Jew, 232.

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