A Traveling Homeland

The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora

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Daniel Boyarin
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , June
     2015.
     192 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812247244.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Babylonian Talmud (bKtubot 110B and bShabbat 41A) tells of Rabbi Zera who wanted to go to the land of Israel to study. He knew that his master, Rav Yehuda, would not let him go. He still wanted to hear the lessons, so he hid in order to hear the wisdom of his master without being told what not to do. The Talmud narrates a would-be dialogue between the two in which Rav Yehuda rules that leaving Babylonia is forbidden by way of exegesis from the scripture. But his line of argument is quickly abandoned, and he interrogates Rabbi Zera about why mass immigration to the land of Israel is forbidden (bKtubot 111A). Rav Yehuda defends not only the necessity of the diaspora but its destiny as ordained by God. In the text, Rav Yehuda’s arguments in favor of the diaspora are cut short, but he has a modern champion, the brilliant Daniel Boyarin. In his new book, Boyarin competently reexamines the term diaspora, taking it apart and reconstructing  it based on the Babylonian Talmud. 

Βoyarin’s book, A Traveling Homeland, establishes the Babylonian Talmud as the “portable homeland” of the Jewish people. Boyarin recognizes that the idea that the Jews are the “people of the book” is not a new one (5). He illustrates a diaspora without a geographical homeland, thus defining a diaspora that is solely a cultural phenomena. It is important that this literary homeland is not the Hebrew scripture, with its insistence on the importance of geography and tales of conquests and warrior kings. This is a scripture which can be easily co-opted by Zionism, even by total secularists. As David Ben Gurion said in 1937, in front of the Peel commission to justify giving sovereignty to the Jews in mandatory Palestine: “The Bible is our mandate, the Bible written in our Hebrew language, in this land itself, that is our mandate.” In contrast, Boyarin does not look for the textual homeland in the Hebrew Bible; rather he focuses on the clearly diasporic version of the Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, which was compiled in Mesopotamia and written in Aramaic. 

Boyarin compellingly illustrates the mode of discussion in the Talmud that skips borders and generations. This intellectual borderlessness, the notion that ideas cannot be contained by political borders and can survive the eroding passage of time, is a major theme in the Talmud (56-57). Boyarin shows how the Talmud is built in a reality in which rabbis debate both Palestinians and Babylonians, dead and living. He shows that the Talmud is based on an intimate knowledge of both environments and thus creates a new trans-locational “virtual” place. It is this trait of being embedded in two cultural settings, one local and one trans-local, that Boyarin defines as a diasporic state in his first chapter. 

Boyarin seems to play down the many misfortunes of the diaspora. He views the rabbinic idea about the dispersal of the Jewish people as positive since it decreases the chances that all Jews will be wiped out (42). However, one could also see this ideaas a sign of fear and stress in the diaspora and not of the relaxed confidence. He also refers to the 1492 Sephardic expulsion not as a trauma but simply as painful. Indeed, forced conversion or exile is surely painful but is it not clear what the difference is between trauma and extreme pain (113). The trauma seems evident, given that the Jews were so embedded in Spanish culture that they continue to speak a Spanish dialect and to differentiate themselves from other non-Iberian Jews. 

The last chapter of A Traveling Homeland focuses on the Jewish diaspora of the Middle Ages and how the Talmud as diaspora actually travels (116). This chapter is too thin for the long period described and does not have enough examples for my taste. The book could profit from a more detailed and elaborate chapter on how the Talmud has been used in later Jewish diaspora communities. Also, some words on the state of modern Jewish diasporas after the “age of the Talmud” would clarify the way in which these diaspora ideas are applicable as an alternative to other solutions, such as Jewish nationalism, as hinted on the first page. 

Boyarin makes a brief comment in parenthesis that to call the western Talmud Yerushalmi is both an anachronism and an anatopism (46). He is very consistent on this point and always refers to it and the community that gave rise to it as “Palestinian.” This ignores the Talmud text itself and other Hebrew rabbinical sources that refer to that land as the “land of Israel” and do not use the Greek/Latin name “Palestine.” In contrast, he doesn’t call the eastern Talmud Mesopotamian or Asōristāni. 

From Boyarin’s definition of diaspora it is not clear if Esperanto speakers, molecular biologists, or the Lord of the Rings’ fans can also be considered as diaspora since they are embedded in both a trans-locational culture as well as their own local one. This separating line needs to be clearly drawn to make Boyarin’s definition useful. 

Boyarin’s book can be seen as a diasporic creation itself in terms of its embeddedness both in the details of the Talmudic discourse and in sociological theories outside of Jewish studies. Boyarin is engaged in a dialogue with scholars outside of Jewish studies e.g., in the first chapter), and convincingly shows how Jewish studies can influence and be influenced by these “foreign” fields. His scholarship is exemplary in showing how mutually fruitful and important those discussions can be. A Traveling Homeland is very well written and a most worthwhile read for anyone who wants to get a fresh look at the phenomena of diaspora, the Talmud, and the nature of Jewishness itself as a diaspora. It opens up needed debates on these issues as it challenges commonly held views.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yuval Katz-Wilfing is a doctoral candidate and Lecturer in the Jewish Studies Institute at the University of Vienna.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Boyarin is Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley. He is author of many books, including Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity.

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