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.