A Snapshot of Daniel Boyarin: Part III

Queer Theorist, Feminist, & Anti-Zionist

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Boyarin’s scholarship is how he consistently puts Talmudic ‘culture’ and ideas in conversation with modern ones. Specifically, Boyarin is fascinated with the interrelated areas of feminism, gay identity politics, and modern notions of Jewishness, all of which make claims on essence. Though claims of difference can and have led to racism and other social challenges, for these sorts of subaltern groups the appeal to difference—be it of sexual body, sexual practice, or genealogical identity—is a form of resistance rather than racism. [1] Boyarin’s main contribution to these fields is that he recovers from the past models for the present. For instance, Boyarin has argued that rabbinic focus on difference between Jew and Greek “can be a liberatory force in the world, a force that works for contemporary politics of the value of difference—feminist, gay, multicultural, postcolonial—against coercive sameness.”[2]

The Feminist

Talmudic study, for Boyarin, can serve as a useful cultural critique, especially if one pays attention to dialectics. “Finding only misogyny in the past reproduces misogyny; finding only a lack of female power, autonomy, and creativity reifies female passivity and victimhood.”[3] Over the years, Boyarin has continued to explore the role of gender in new approaches to the study of historiography and rabbinic history, as well as by comparing rabbinic, early Christian, and pre-Talmudic texts like Philo.[4] For instance, in comparing creation myths in early Christian/ Hellenistic Jewish literature and its rabbinic counterparts, Boyarin argues that the former saw sexed-ness as already fallen, while the latter disagreed. For the rabbis, “the primary disobedience, is not sex, but male domination and the apparent essence of maleness and femaleness.” Comparing these historical conceptions with modern feminist theory, Boyarin shows how modern thinkers reproduce this same ancient dilemma over gender: sexual dimorphism vs. transcendence.[5]  Boyarin also spends a great deal of paper reclaiming Talmudic texts for feminist studies and maintaining that the Talmudic texts do not reflect a culture “of men afraid of female power or of female sexuality.”[6] Though Boyarin does not ignore those rabbinic undertones that are misogynistic, he insists that though rabbinic discourse is gender-asymmetric, it rejects the negative valence given to sexuality and women in Hellenistic Judaism and later Christian discourse. His distinction between misogyny and androcentrism is subtle but significant, something Feminist scholars should take seriously.[7] Boyarin’s main contribution to feminist studies is his argument that inquiry into the rudimentary opposition to dominant, androcentric discourse in ancient rabbinic culture can be redemptive, cultural-critical, and useful for modern discourse.[8] As Ishay Rosen-Zvi notes, Boyarin broke the “dichotomy between liberal women’s studies and research of the rabbinic body and gender economy,” a substantive advancement that has not yet been surpassed in the field.[9] Like his nineteenth century feminist heroine, Bertha Pappenheim, Boyarin wishes to model an alternative Orthodox Judaism that is committed to radical social change by recovering from the past a model for the future.

The Queer Theorist

Boyarin points out that there is “….an enormous gap between the earlier condemnation of one who pursues certain forms of pleasure as a sinner, on the same order as one who eats forbidden foods…and the modern placing of that person into a special taxon as an abnormal human being.”[10] According to Boyarin’s reading of biblical and rabbinic texts, early Jewish culture had no system of sexual orientations, and as such, did not categorize human beings as homosexual. Rather, it prohibited only male anal intercourse as transgressing the borders between male and female.[11] Unlike today’s culture, the rabbinic and biblical culture tied tabooed sexual practices to matters of gender, not “sexuality.” Indeed, Boyarin’s cultural poetic approach highlights Talmudic culture preserved homoerotic stories of male intimacy—such as Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish—precisely because it lacked a category of “homosexual.”[12] Of course by the nineteenth century, “homosexual panic” does begin to appear, as Jews like Theodor Herzl and Sigmund Freud wrestled with a Western cultural norms that equated Jews with queers and women.[13] By the early twentieth century, assimilated Jews began to adapt these gender norms. Basically, Boyarin argues that the modern cultural production of a category of sexuality, of “sexual identity determined by object of choice,” is what has allowed same-sex intimacy to become so problematic.[14]

The Anti-Zionist

As a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, Boyarin’s critical stance on Zionism and Israeli policy remains a minority position within his religious tradition and has led to led to sharp criticism.[15]  He has touched on the topic in many of his publications, notably Unheroic Conduct, in which, in Yaron Peleg’s summation, “One of Boyarin’s most suggestive claims is that early Zionism involved a gender revolution that called for European Jews to shed their perceived effeminate characteristics and become more masculine as part of the creation of a renewed Jewish nation in Palestine.”[16] Comparing modern realities with ancient counterparts, Boyarin also sees parallels between his model of the schism of Judaism and Christianity and how modern diaspora Jews respond to the “tragedy of Zionism.” For Boyarin, neither rabbinic Judaism nor the state of Israel can claim (historically speaking) to be the ‘one true’ expression of Jewishness.[17] Boyarin calls for an authentic, better Judaism, one that does not deny the rights of those like the Palestinians. “Just as Christianity may have died at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor,” writes Boyarin, “…so I fear that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Deheishe, Beteen (Beth-El) and El-Khalil.”[18] Unsurprisingly, considering his lifelong textual critical project, Boyarin’s solution—beyond his political support of a trans-state nation—is to reclaim and reconstruct past models of Jewishness, such as the trickster or the effeminate man who triumphs through passivism rather than aggression.[19]

More recently, Boyarin suggests that the key to today’s Jewish cultural existence is the Talmud, not Israel. In A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora (2015), Boyarin examines how understanding the Babylonian Talmud (BT) as the Jewish portable homeland reconfigures our notion of diaspora as a “particular kind of cultural hybridity and as a mode of analysis rather than as an essential thing.”[20] He compares modern notions of the diaspora—like African diasporas—to Talmudic conceptions, showing how the latter is not defined by exile and trauma but rather its essential aspect, Talmud. Germane for today’s Zeitgeist, Boyarin’s book addresses an “intensified need to probe the ethical and intellectual aspects of diasporic existence.”[21] As ‘diaspora’ Jew himself, Boyarin is “attempting to provide solace to all who are left spiritually or concretely homeless by the continuous and deteriorating governance of openly discriminatory and militarily aggressive powers in Israel.”[22]


Boyarin is a man of many ‘academic’ kippahs, a giant in Talmudic studies whose influence has stretched into a number of seemingly disparate fields; yet, his scholarship does not fit neatly in a particular box. He is not quite a historian, nor precisely a literary critic, and certainly is not a traditional Talmudist.[23]  His hermeneutical struggle against negative aspects of Orthodox Judaism and harmful interpretations of Talmudic texts has been his lifelong project. In the movie Footnotes, in a cocktail discussion of Boyarin’s feminization of the ideal Jewish man, he is said to be deriving “anthropology from hermeneutics.”[24] Indeed, his approach of cultural poetics has allowed him to begin reclaiming and redeeming rabbinic texts by highlighting its margins of discourse and providing tools for engaging today’s socio-cultural issues, like feminism, Queer theory, and Zionism.[25] His more recent work helpfully complicates our notions of religion. More importantly, Boyarin’s comparative project not only stakes a place for rabbinic Judaism in scholarship of the Late Ancient world, but also his unique triangulation of contemporary theory with both rabbinic texts and textual corpora external to Talmudic literature challenges long-held methodologies in rabbinics by “shattering its hermetic isolation.”[26]  Indeed, as a self-proclaimed “microhistorian of ideas,” who mines specific texts for insights into human social and political life in antiquity, Boyarin offers a fresh and fruitful way of doing comparative work in Late Antiquity by putting rabbinic texts back into conversation with Christianity and broader Hellenistic culture.[27]

[1] Boyarin, A Radical Jew, 236-260.

[2] Ibid., 228- 236, esp. 236.

[3] Carnal Israel, 227.

[4] Boyarin, “On Women’s bodies and the Rise of the Rabbis: The Case of Sotah,” in Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy (ed. Jonathan Frankel; New York Oxford Press, 2000), 88-100.

[5] As Boyarin summarizes this modern divide: “Insistence on the value of sexual dimorphism, with its recognition of sexual intercourse as pleasure for both male and female, of the value of the female body in reproduction, indeed of reproduction itself, seems fated always to imprison women within a biological role, while transcendence, liberation of the female, seems always to be predicated on a denigration of the body and the achievement of a male-modeled androgyny, a masculine neutral.” See “Gender” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (ed. Mark C. Taylor; The University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[6] Carnal Israel, 245.

[7] Wilda W. Morris, “Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture,” Daughters Of Sarah 22, no. 1 (1996 1996): 51-52.

[8] Carnal Israel, 227-245.

[9] Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “The Rise and Fall of Rabbinic Masculinity,” JSIJ 12 (2003): 7-8.

[10] Boyarin goes on to argue that “homophobia…is the product of the modern culture of heterosexuality, in which male sexual desire for men or any effeminate behavior threatens to reveal and expose that the man is essentially not straight but queer” (Unheroic Conduct, 14-15,16).

[11] “Are There Any Jews in “The History of Sexuality,” JHS vol. 5, no. 3 (Jan. 1995): 337.

[12] In his reading, the BT makes a distinction between anal intercourse, which is forbidden, and intercrural intercourse, which is not. Likewise, texts like Yevamoth 76a and Shabbat 65a-b note and do not forbid female same-sex practices. Boyarin argues that rabbinic texts about male intimacy illustrate a distinct lack of “homosexual panic.”

[13] Boyarin, “Homophobia and the Postcoloniality of the “Jewish Science,” 166-198.

[14] “Are There Any Jews,” 355.

[15] See Alvin H. Rosenfeld, “Progressive Jewish Though and the New Anti-Semitism,” n.p. [Cited 1 April 2017]. Online: http://www.ajc.org/atf/cf/%7B42D75369-D582-4380-8395-D25925B85EAF%7D/Progressive_Jewish_Thought.PDF

[16] Peleg, “Heroic Conduct,” 31.

[17] Boyarin, “Judaism as a free church: footnotes to John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited.” Cross Currents 56, no. 4 (2007 2007): 9; “A Conversation with Daniel Boyarin,” 6.

[18] Border Lines, 202.

[19] In Powers of the Diaspora (2002), which was co-authored with his brother Jonathan Boyarin, Daniel Boyarin identifies the Diaspora Jew as the trickster par-excellent. They hypothesize that, as a deterritorialized cultural entity, Jews developed modes of resistance, of “deceptive, womanish, complicity” used to resist the dominate culture. Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin, Powers of Diaspora: Two Essays on the Relevance of Jewish Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Sparks of the Logos, 272.

[20] Boyarin, A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora (Divinations; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 3-4. Or, as Boyarin also puts it, to define diaspora not as migration, exile or displacement but to describe “transnational bonds of co-responsibility.”

[21] Galit Hasan-Rokem, “A traveling homeland: the Babylonian Talmud as diaspora,” JAAR 84, no. 1 (March 2016): 260.

[22] The main contention leveled against A Traveling Homeland is the notion that the BT solely produced Jewish diaspora as Boyarin defines it. See Hasan-Rokem, “A traveling homeland,” 264-5.

[23] Boyarin himself admits he makes too much of individual texts to be a historian, is too interested in social practices to be a literary critic, and his work does not fit within the formal disciplines of Talmud study (Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, xi).

[24] The Israeli film Footnotes explores some of the gulfs in Talmudic scholarship, between the Wissenschaft stronghold and those scholars like Boyarin who model a more post-modern approach.

[25] See also Boyarin, “Rabbinic resistance to male domination: a case study in Talmudic cultural poetics,” in Interpreting Judaism in a postmodern age (New York: New York Univ Pr, 1996), 118-141.

[26] Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, “The Dialogical Talmud: Daniel Boyarin and Rabbinics,” JQR 101, no. 2 (2011): 246.

[27] Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, xii.


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